NBA Finals predictions: SI's picks and potential X-factors, battles and more
Revenge is a dish best served cold. After falling to the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers find themselves back in the championship series against a familiar foe. James is chasing his third NBA title and first for the city of Cleveland, but to do so, he'll have to knock off a historic Warriors team that won 73 games during the regular season and just overcame a 3–1 deficit against the Thunder in the Western Conference finals.
Can LeBron and Co. seize revenge? Will Stephen Curry torch the Cavaliers once again? Will Draymond Green and Matthew Dellavedova get into a fight to end all fights? And, most importantly, how will the Finals unfold?
SI.com's NBA experts answer eight critical questions previewing the NBA Finals and give their series predictions below.
Storyline that will dominate...
Even when LeBron James is not the dominant player, he is the dominant storyline. Will he snap Cleveland’s championship drought, half-a-century and counting, or will his Finals record fall to 2–5? And what, of course, will that mean for his legacy? A drinking game, involving all televised references to LeBron and legacy, could wipe out an entire frat house by Game 2. Even if Steph Curry and Klay Thompson splash 10 off-balance threes a game, even if Kyrie Irving dribbles the ball until it deflates and Kevin Love stands motionless in the right corner, LeBron will bear the weight of the outcome. Much has changed in the NBA over the past seven years. That hasn’t. — Lee Jenkins
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The beauty of J.R. Smith is that he can—and often does—play a critical role in both your team's wins and losses. He's the guy who can catch fire and scorch a team one night, then turn around and burn his own house down the next. With a matchup against the Warriors, Smith will be exposed to fire either way. On defense, he'll be burdened with the undesirable task of guarding Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry at various points in the series. And on offense, he'll be looking to redeem himself for a miserable 2015 Finals performance while also trying to keep pace with the Splash Brothers.
When Smith is engaged, he can actually be a pretty respectable on-the-ball defender, which the Cavaliers are stunningly short on. With how much the Warriors force opponents to switch on pick-and-rolls, Smith will get a pu pu platter of potential opponents in this series. If he can help contain Thompson—possibly his No. 1 mission in the Finals—the Cavaliers have a shot (albeit a long one) at slowing down Golden State's offensive fervor.
What the Cavaliers can't afford is for J.R. Smith to get into a self-declared shooting contest with Steph and Klay. Cleveland has a host of offensive options, but "J.R. Smith From 30 Feet" is not on the top of Tyronn Lue's list. If Smith can play within himself on offense, and rise to the occasion on defense, he could be the Cavaliers' most influential player outside of their Big Three. If his shooting struggles (and selection) resurface, and he starts skating on defense, he could also be one of the Cavaliers' most influential players—but not in a good way. — Matt Dollinger
Two players most likely to drive each other insane...
My first instinct was to take Matthew Dellavedova and Steph Curry. Delly turns perimeter defense into an MMA fight, and as we saw at the beginning of last year's Finals, that can bother Steph. On the other hand, Curry is also evil enough to make all that effort and all those late-night trips to the hospital more or less worthless. It should be fun. It'll be a good battle.
But there's a war on the horizon.
LeBron and Draymond. Let's do this. They're perfect foils for each other.
LeBron's been a superstar since he was 16, while Draymond started this season still wearing LeBron's shoes. Draymond probably resents LeBron's past success; LeBron probably resents Draymond's current success. LeBron has way more talent, but he's human, and often self-conscious to a fault. Draymond makes up for the talent gap with endless trash talk seizing on any signs of weakness, and possibly some well-timed flailing limbs (although between technicals and flagrant points, Draymond is literally on triple secret probation right now).
LeBron's got the size and speed to frustrate Draymond better than almost anyone in the NBA, and he'll need it in this series. What happens when the Warriors go to the death lineup? The best Cavs answer may be going small, putting Kevin Love or Channing Frye on Harrison Barnes, and throwing LeBron on Draymond. On the other end of the court, Steve Kerr will probably use Iguodala on LeBron for a majority of this series, but Draymond will be waiting at the rim, rebounding, helping on drives, blocking shots, starting fast breaks, and generally doing his best to make LeBron miserable.
We got some of this last year, but the Cavs were so undermanned that LeBron was essentially playing one-on-five, obscuring any individual matchups. Now we get to see what happens when both teams go small, and everyone's at full strength. There's a lot to be excited for, but the first thing I'll watch is the two power forwards trying to ruin each other. — Andrew Sharp
Matchup that will define the Finals...
Cross-matches will be abound in these NBA Finals, meaning that in relatively few cases will a pair of similarly positioned players actually end up guarding one another. Love is a great example; while Draymond Green will likely pick up Love to start games, Cleveland may well task him with guarding the likes of Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes, or Andre Iguodala. The goal in any case would be to shield Love from the near-constant strain of handling the Curry-Green pick-and-roll—a puzzle unsolvable to any player who isn’t seven feet tall and quick as a guard.
The Warriors, then, will undoubtedly try a variety of alternative strategies to get Love involved in as many actions as possible. His defense will be tested on off-ball screens, auxiliary pick-and-rolls involving whichever man he guards, and coordinated cuts that stretch the defense in two directions at once. How he handles himself—and whether he can really find refuge away from Green—could determine Cleveland’s playing rotation and, in turn, the way it measures up in this series. The Cavs need Love on the floor to score at their best. Keeping him there, however, is somewhat contingent on finding ways to protect Love in coverage from the most spatially extreme offense in the league. — Rob Mahoney
Who will be the best quote?
Let's break this down into categories...
Sarcasm department: Steve Kerr. He's a master of the light-hearted quip that, once examined, is often actually cutting. He parries stupid questions as well as anyone in sports and uses jokes to highlight fallacies. A great example from after Game 7 was when, in the wake of a thrilling win, a reporter asked why people—the great, amorphous "they"—still questioned Curry's toughness. Kerr's response was one sentence, without elaboration: "Because he looks like he's 12 years old." Funny, pointed, and true.
Vaguely (or Fully) Passive-Aggressive department: LeBron. The comment may be aimed at the Warriors (see Steph Curry's "valuable"-ness as MVP). It might be aimed at his teammates (see his comments about Kevin Love last season). It may be aimed at the coaching (see essentially everything he ever said about David Blatt). Bonus: Just as likely to come via social media as in person.
Writes Your Story for You department: Draymond Green. One of the alltime best quotes in sports, with enormous range and stamina. A multi-tool interviewee, Green is equally adept at the newsmaking quip ("Cool story, Glenn"), the narrative anecdote (example: telling reporters about a players' meeting on the plane after Game 4 in OKC), honest introspection (questioning his own play last series), and providing observed dialogue ("I AM NOT A ROBOT!"). He can boast, rant, dismiss, drill down, and isn't afraid to show weakness. Easily the podium MVP. — Chris Ballard
Who will have the most success guarding Steph?
There’s a lot that goes into defending Curry. You need discipline to stick with him as he shows off his handle. You need quickness to stay with him off the dribble and in pick-and-roll situations. You need length to close out on his pull-up jumpers. You need physicality to bump him before he gets the ball. You need a big motor to run with him through pick after pick off the ball. You need exceptional awareness not to lose him in transition or early-clock situations. Is there a single player in the Cavaliers’ backcourt that ticks all those boxes? Not really.
I think Curry will enjoy great success against both Kyrie Irving and Matthew Dellavedova, which may turn a shooting guard like Iman Shumpert into coach Tyronn Lue’s best defensive option against Curry. Although Shumpert hasn’t played huge minutes in the postseason, he’s got the right size/strength/length/quickness combination for this task, at least on paper, and he’s big enough to handle switching onto the likes of Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes. I think the Cavaliers’ best shot in this series is to max out on their interchangeable lineups and hope that guys like Shumpert and J.R. Smith can hang on defense while also knocking down enough three-pointers on offense to make life easier for LeBron James. — Ben Golliver
Who has the most to prove this series?
For the second straight year, James finds himself at his second home, the Finals. This will be James's sixth straight trip to the NBA's biggest stage, and while there is certainly some consolation in completing such a feat, the goal is to deliver a title to Cleveland.
James missed out on the league's most coveted prize in his first stint in Cleveland, so he ventured South and found the perfect situation in Miami. He teamed up with good friends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, lived near the sunny beaches of Miami, and picked up two titles. He left all of that for a chance at delivering the Cavaliers their first NBA championship, and he has to prove it wasn't for naught.
The light always shines brightest on LeBron, as was the case when he needed to put up obscene numbers for Cleveland to even compete in last year's Finals. That shouldn't be the case this season, but the onus is still on James to lead a roster of relative playoff novices past one of the best team's in history. If the Cavaliers are to have any shot at exacting revenge, they'll need to hop on the huge 'Chosen' tattoo that covers James's back. — DeAntae Prince
Who will Drake root for?
The body of evidence: We know Drake and Steph Curry are friends. We know Drake is a Raptors fan. We know LeBron just broke the Raptors’ hearts, and that Drake tweeted mean memes at the Cavs as a half-baked show of bravado. He jawed with LBJ, who has also been his friend in the past, and Cleveland eventually blew Toronto off the court. Hey, Tristan Thompson is from Toronto. Drake once said that he’d go to Cavs games and hang out in Cleveland because he’s a fan of LeBron, and was also a fan of Johnny Manziel at the time, and because the Cavs had Canadian players (miss you, Andrew Wiggins). Lastly, there are no Kentucky alumni playing in this series. Did I miss anything?
“I’m not team jumping,” Drake once told Complex, “I’m a supportive friend.” Where does that leave us?
Steph Curry once played basketball at Drake’s house. The Warriors are probably going to win the Finals in...six games (get it???)
VERDICT: Drake is riding for the Dubs. — Jeremy Woo
Lee Jenkins: Warriors in 6. LeBron James will be far more efficient than he was in last year’s Finals and Kyrie Irving will continue his star turn. The Cavaliers will shoot better than the Thunder from three-point range and rebound almost as well. But they’re facing a team that hits every shot they need to make, no matter how many hands are in their face. The Warriors haven’t missed not when it counts, anyway for a solid year. No reason to think they’ll stop now.
Ben Golliver: Warriors in 6. Golden State got the test that it desperately needed from Oklahoma City, playing through carelessness, complacency, overconfidence and a 3-1 deficit to deliver a memorable comeback that sharpened their focus and saw the return of Stephen Curry to full form. The Cavaliers also enter the Finals with momentum, to be sure, but they didn’t face an opponent like the Warriors in the East, not even close. On paper, the Warriors look equipped to slow down the Cavaliers’ outside shooting, they can rely on Andre Iguodala to make LeBron James work, and they have not one, not two, but three nightmare match-ups for the Cavaliers in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. A strong home-court advantage won’t hurt, either.
Andrew Sharp: Cavaliers in 6. Don't care how crazy it feels after watching the Warriors survive in OKC, don't care how bad the matchups look for Cleveland's defense, don't care that everyone else is picking Golden State. This is a gut feeling. BELIEVELAND.
Chris Ballard: Warriors in 6. The Warriors emerged a smarter, tougher team after the WCF, and match up better against Cleveland than they did against the Thunder. Expect Draymond Green to return to his old self, Curry and Klay to light it up and Kevin Love to be run off the floor for stretches.
Rob Mahoney: Warriors in 5. Golden State is wide awake after its brush with elimination in the Western Conference finals, and there is simply nothing more dangerous in the league than the Warriors jarred into full commitment. I see Cleveland dropping some competitive games due to its defense, which isn’t especially well positioned to counter much of what the defending champs do well.
Matt Dollinger: Cavaliers in 7. Some experts think the Thunder gave the Warriors the test they needed, but I think they proved Golden State's vulnerability. LeBron James, the player and the coach, won't allow Cleveland to lose two straight years in the Finals. With his squad at full health, James will claim his third NBA title and first for the city of Cleveland.
DeAntae Prince: Warriors in 5. The Cavaliers have been riding high to this point, beating up on a down Eastern Conference and waiting on the winner of Warriors-Thunder. The joy ride can't last forever, though, and it won't against a Warriors bunch that have regained their swagger and have their eyes set on completing one of the single greatest seasons in NBA history.
Jeremy Woo: Warriors in 6. The Thunder woke the champs all the way up, and the Cavs, despite being healthy, can’t stick together quite the same way defensively. They’ll probably have to out-shoot Golden State a couple of times at minimum to pull this off. That doesn’t tend to go well for people.