The Cavaliers had a full complement of NBA players once. There were three stars at the team's core instead of just one—a dynamic lead guard who could spell LeBron James from his creative duties and a floor-spacing forward capable of facilitating explosive offense. Even after losing Anderson Varejao (the team's starting center for the first quarter of the season), Cleveland had grown and remade itself into something playoff viable. So viable, in fact, that Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving's season-ending injuries couldn't budge the Cavs from their course to the NBA Finals.
It was there, and not until mid-series, that Cleveland's lack of depth became a potentially fatal issue. It has been charitably noted that the Cavs have run a seven-man rotation in these Finals. Among those seven are Matthew Dellavedova, whose spot success in defending Stephen Curry has since been rendered moot by fatigue and adjustment; Iman Shumpert, whose key contributions on offense have been missed layups and hesitant jumpers; J.R. Smith, for better and mostly worse; and James Jones, who moves laterally as if he were on tank treads. If not for James and the alternating success of Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov, the Cavs would not have lasted long in this series.
Game 5, however, turned the series in such a way as to irritate the Cavaliers' rotational deficits. The Warriors again committed to running smaller lineups—this time by nipping usual starting center Andrew Bogut from the rotation and assigning his typical backup, Festus Ezeli, just three minutes of playing time. Where their game plan changed was in the treatment of Mozgov, who had powered his way to 28 points on just 16 shots the game prior. Cleveland followed up by posting Mozgov on the first possession of Game 5 and saw a full double team in response:
Even on that first attempt to post Mozgov, the problems in doing so were clear. Andre Iguodala had rotated down perfectly to cover for the doubling Harrison Barnes while Curry and Klay Thompson zoned up the top of the floor. To get any kind of momentum out of the double team, Mozgov would have to trigger a pass well beyond his demonstrated skill set. The fifth-year center doesn't have much experience in working his way out of double-coverage, much less the natural feel for playmaking that would allow him to exploit this kind of defense more creatively.
Here's what happened when Mozgov tried to set up the open man in scoring position after feeling the double:
Worse yet, the Warriors' defense seemed to finally strike the ideal balance in zoning up the middle of the floor as to take away the offense of Mozgov and Thompson despite undersize defense of both players. This kind of spacing just isn't tenable:
And so Cavs coach David Blatt pulled Mozgov from the game early and reinserted him only when Thompson needed a moment's rest. He played nine minutes in total. The Warriors can afford to do this; there are enough useful, usable players on Golden State's bench as to make dropping Bogut from the rotation a workable strategy. Cleveland, however, can't do the equivalent without running headlong into the same limitations that have been a problem throughout the series. Shorting Mozgov's minutes forces some other player to sop them up.
They were ultimately dispersed among wing players as the Cavs matched small for small. Kendrick Perkins and Brendan Haywood would be of no use against an opponent like the Warriors. Instead, Cleveland relied on Thompson at center as much as possible and force-fed playing time to Smith, Shumpert, Jones, and surprise entrant Mike Miller.
Jones and Miller logged a combined 32 minutes. They worked hard, played to their strengths, and made smart plays. They were also in way over their heads in contributing real rotation minutes to a desperate team. If Blatt had any alternative, he likely would have taken it. But of those veterans on Cleveland's bench, Jones and Miller are easily the most applicable to this particular matchup.
Smith actually began the game with his best half of the series: A 14-point flare up in which the career gunner hit four three-pointers. He would go scoreless in the second half as the Warriors played their close-outs even more attentively and switched on those occasions when Smith was given a pin-down screen like so:
On a deeper team, the quelled Smith might be replaced by a more capable all-around contributor. For the handicapped Cavs, he played 19 of a possible 24 minutes in the second half. There is no way forward but to rely on Smith.
This is why the Cavs' predicament is much more severe than mere exhaustion. Their rotation is short and the workload of the starters significant. The same is true for the Warriors, who played Curry, Iguodala, and Thompson for 40+ minutes in Game 5. What separates the rotations of those two teams is the power of choice. Warriors coach Steve Kerr has at least some freedom to mold his lineups to circumstance while still maintaining his team's strengths and identity. Blatt has only extreme options—like benching Mozgov—when he wants to trigger a change.
So Smith outstays his usefulness, Dellavedova (whose decision-making can be as spotty as Smith's at times) works to exhaustion, and James maxes out his production and playing time. The Cavs have found their bounds in the woe of a contracted roster. Now, facing elimination without the structural means to improve, they find their brink.
Sports Illustrated's 100 best NBA Finals photos
100 Best NBA Finals Photos
LeBron James holds up the shiny gold trophy in what might be his sweetest championship yet, the one he is so proudly bringing home to his native northeast Ohio just as he promised to do when he returned to the Cavaliers two summers earlier.
LeBron James loses the ball as he tries to fend off Andre Iguodala in Game 1 between the Warriors and Cavaliers. Golden State won the game and the series 4-2. Iguodala became the first player to win the Finals MVP award without having started every game in the series. He was tasked with guarding LeBron, who made only 38.1 percent of his shots when Iguodala was in the game.
Steph Curry goes to the left hand against J.R. Smith to score two of his 25 points in Game 6. The Warriors defeated the Cavs 105-97 to clinch the franchise's first NBA title since 1975.
A year after an excruciating loss to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, Tim Duncan and the Spurs got their revenge, winning the title in five games.
Ray Allen lets loose a series-changing three over Tony Parker in Game 6. With Miami down 3-2 in the series, it was the veteran Allen who sent the game to overtime and an eventual Heat victory. With a huge momentum boost, Miami went on to win the series.
LeBron James led Miami to the finals for a third straight year and to a second consecutive title, duking it out with the Spurs for seven games. James won his second Finals MVP award with another series of stellar showings.
LeBron James soars over Kevin Durant in Game 3. James got the championship monkey off his back in a big way, averaging 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists in the series.
LeBron James battled cramps in Game 4 and was unable to finish out a 104-98 Heat victory. He still had 26 points, nine rebounds and 12 assists.
Dirk Nowitzki avoids traffic to drop in the game-winner for Dallas in Game 2. Nowitzki's clutch shot capped a furious 15-point fourth-quarter Mavs comeback. Dallas would knock off favored Miami and the "Big Three" of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in six games in a rematch of the 2006 Finals.
Kobe Bryant looks to shoot over Rajon Rondo in Game 6 between the Lakers and Celtics. Kobe averaged 29 points per game in the series, en route to his second consecutive Finals MVP award.
Kevin Garnett bodies a driving Kobe Bryant in a tight Game 7. The Celtics-Lakers rivalry was renewed in a back-and-forth series that saw Los Angeles come out on top for a second straight title.
Pau Gasol owned the paint in Game 7 with 19 points and 18 rebounds to push the Lakers to an 83-79 win.
Pau Gasol hugs Kobe Bryant near the end of a series-clinching Game 5. The duo was crucial to L.A.'s five-game victory over Orlando, with Bryant named Finals MVP and winning his first title out of Shaquille O'Neal's shadow.
Averaging nearly 22 points per game, Finals MVP Paul Pierce paired with offseason acquisitions Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to return the Celtics to their championship ways against the rival Lakers. The win marked the first title for each of the three stars.
San Antonio's Tony Parker was named Most Valuable Player of the series, averaging 24.5 points per game in the sweep.
Tim Duncan and the Spurs spoiled LeBron James' first Finals, limiting him to 35.6% shooting and efficiently sweeping the series.
Dwyane Wade, at just 24 years old, catalyzed the Heat past Dallas in six, memorably scoring 42 points and leading a comeback from a 13-point deficit with six minutes left in Game 3. The series marked Wade's arrival as a superstar, as he averaged nearly 35 points and eight rebounds per game to lead Miami to its first title.
Ben Wallace and Manu Ginobili battle for a loose ball in Game 5 between the Pistons and Spurs. The past two NBA champs traded blows in a tough series that went seven games, with San Antonio coming out on top.
Robert Horry, better known as "Big Shot Rob," buries the three to win Game 5 for San Antonio.
Tim Duncan drives to basket against Rasheed Wallace in Game 7 between the Spurs and Pistons. Duncan scored a game-high 25 points and 11 rebounds as he led San Antonio to their third title and won his third Finals MVP award.
Shaquille O'Neal of the Lakers and Rasheed Wallace of the Pistons grapple for a rebound. Detroit impressively dispatched L.A.'s O'Neal-Kobe Bryant tandem in five games.
Chauncey Billups hoists the trophy as the Pistons celebrate their championship. With a penchant for making shots in critical moments, Billups was named Finals MVP.
David Robinson of the Spurs dunks on Jason Collins of the Nets in Game 5. San Antonio took the series in six games, with Robinson teaming up with the core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili winning their first title together.
Finals MVP Tim Duncan came up huge for San Antonio in the Game 6 series-clincher with 21 points, 20 boards, 10 assists and eight blocks.
Shaquille O'Neal and the Lakers blew away the Jason Kidd-led Nets in a four-game sweep. O'Neal averaged more than 36 points per game as L.A. took home a third straight title.
Shaquille O'Neal was simply too much for Philadelphia to handle in the series, winning his second straight Finals MVP honors and contributing a near quadruple-double in Game 2 with 28 points, 20 rebounds, nine assists and eight blocks.
Kobe Bryant of the Lakers avoids 76ers center Dikembe Mutombo in Game 4. Though still overshadowed by Shaquille O'Neal, the 22-year-old Bryant continued to shine in his own right, averaging nearly 25 points for the series.
Sixers guard Allen Iverson dribbles the ball against Tyronn Lue of the Lakers during Game 1. Bolstered by the dynamic Iverson's 48 points, Philadelphia pulled off an upset, 107-101.
Ron Harper of the Lakers shoots over Pacers center Rik Smits in Game 4.
Reggie Miller averaged more than 24 points per game, but couldn't shoot Indiana past Shaq and the Lakers in what would be the only Finals appearance of his career.
Kobe Bryant drives to the basket against Dale Davis and Reggie Miller in Game 6 between the Lakers and Pacers.
Shaq and Kobe celebrate after winning Game 6 against the Pacers for the championship.
Spurs center David Robinson blocks Marcus Camby of the Knicks in Game 4. San Antonio, led by Robinson and a young Tim Duncan, took up the mantle post-Jordan and defeated the Knicks in five games for its first title.
Marcus Camby of the Knicks blocks Spurs guard Avery Johnson in Game 3. Johnson would have the last laugh, hitting a last-minute shot to close out New York in Game 5.
Michael Jordan drains the game-winning jumper over Bryon Russell of the Utah Jazz in Game 6. It would be MJ's last shot as a Bull, but not his last in the NBA — he unretired, of course, in 2001.
Karl Malone of the Jazz dunks over Dennis Rodman and Ron Harper of the Bulls in Game 1. Malone and point guard John Stockton posed a challenge to the Bulls with their efficiency, but Michael Jordan and company found ways to win yet again.
Game 5, which came to be known as "The Flu Game," saw Michael Jordan compete through severe illness to come up big for Chicago. Jordan brought the Bulls back from a 16-point deficit, improbably scoring 38 points in a 90-88 win after spending much of the past 24 hours confined to his hotel bed. At the end of the game, Jordan collapsed into Scottie Pippen's arms in what became an iconic moment.
In Game 6, it wasn't Jordan or Pippen (though they combined for 62 points) but rather Bulls guard Steve Kerr who sealed Chicago's fifth title, with a 17-footer.
Dennis Rodman grabs a rebound against the Sonics in Game 1. Rodman averaged nearly 14 boards per game in the playoffs for the Bulls, who acquired the power forward from San Antonio before the season.
Scottie Pippen of the Bulls and Sam Perkins of the Sonics battle for a rebound. Pippen led Chicago in assists on the series, and the Bulls took their fourth championship, emboldened by Jordan's return from a two-year retirement.
Hakeem Olajuwon averaged nearly 33 points on the series to bolster the Rockets to a second straight title in a four-game sweep.
Clyde Drexler scored 25 points in a Game 3 win that all but sealed the series.
Hakeem Olajuwon was named Finals MVP, averaging nearly 33 points for the series to bolster the Rockets to their first title, in a four-game sweep.
Star centers Hakeem Olajuwon of the Rockets and Patrick Ewing of the Knicks duked it out in 1994 in a series that went seven games.
In Game 6, Olajuwon blocked a potential game-winning three by Knicks guard John Starks to secure the win and send the series to a final game.
Michael Jordan battles Suns guard Kevin Johnson beneath the hoop.
Suns star Charles Barkley celebrates Phoenix's Game 5 win. Though "Sir Charles" averaged 27.3 points and 13 rebounds, it wasn't enough to lift the Suns past Chicago. Years later, he would admit the series made him realize Jordan was the superior player.
Scottie Pippen of the Bulls drives to the basket against the Suns. Pippen averaged 21.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 7.7 assists in the series.
Michael Jordan and the Bulls appeared in their second Finals to face Clyde Drexler and the Portland Trail Blazers. The debate about who was better between MJ and Clyde was effectively silenced as Jordan hit six first-half threes in Game 1, famously shrugging at the broadcast table after hitting the sixth one. Jordan's dominance set the tone for the series.
Michael Jordan skies for a dunk over Lakers center Vlade Divac in Game 2, a 107-86 Chicago win. Jordan scored 33 points on 15-of-18 shooting, including his famous hand-switching layup to lead the Bulls.