- Enough with the 3-1 jokes, it's time to get serious. After trading championships the last two years, the Warriors and Cavs meet again in the Finals. Who will prevail? Our experts weigh in.
After months of (pointless?) basketball, NBA fans have finally arrived at the last stop of the season: the Finals.
The buildup to the Warriors-Cavaliers trilogy has crescendoed for the last three years, leading to one of the most-anticipated championship clashes in sports history. On one side, you have the superteam Warriors, led by Stephen Curry and his newly-minted teammate Kevin Durant. On the other side, the reigning champion Cavaliers and LeBron James, who is making his seventh consecutive appearance in the NBA Finals. Golden State became the first NBA team in history to start the playoffs 12-0 this year after sweeping the first three rounds, while Cleveland suffered just one loss on its path back to the NBA's biggest stage.
So who has the edge going into this year's showdown? We paneled our NBA experts to ask that very question.
Without further ado, scroll down for our 2017 NBA Finals predictions.
The Spurs were the best defensive team in the NBA this season and the Warriors treated them like orange cones scattered on the practice court for mid-summer shooting drills. Granted, Kawhi Leonard missed the last three-and-a-half games, and the Cavaliers’ defensive effort often rises and falls with the stakes. But if San Antonio couldn't contain this version of Dubs, it’s hard to imagine the Cavs will. Perhaps Cleveland can win shootouts. The Cavaliers are almost as prolific as the Warriors, with all those stretchy snipers spaced around LeBron James, and they will need to be as comfortable at Oracle Arena as they were at TD Garden. If the Cavs can somehow swipe Game 1, Kevin Durant will come under a kind of pressure he’s never faced before. The only person who could relate is James, whose struggles in his first Finals with Miami snowballed so furiously that Dallas took the title. But Durant is operating with a much larger margin for error. He doesn’t need to be sensational. Neither does Steph Curry nor Klay Thompson nor Draymond Green. If they simply play well, Golden State wins. The dynamic is different for James, just as it was in ’11. He has to be superhuman.
LeBron James’s upset bid requires a number of factors to break his way: Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love must both be sensational, a bench unit with many question marks must deliver consistently, and a much-maligned defense must flip the switch to an even higher level. Is it reasonable to expect so many things to fall perfectly into place for a second straight Finals?
The 2017 Warriors are better, wiser and healthier than the 2016 Warriors. Kevin Durant’s arrival helps offset James’s brilliance, it takes Golden State’s offense to another level, and it decreases the Warriors’ reliance on questionable role players. Draymond Green’s strong postseason run, which has taken place largely without distractions and incidents, sets him up nicely to make amends for his Finals-altering suspension. And Stephen Curry’s quality of play should not be overlooked: He’s averaging a postseason career-high 28.6 PPG and shooting a postseason career-best 43.1% on threes while moving much better than he did in 2016 after missing six postseason games due to injury.
The Warriors lack the best player in this series, but they possess more overall talent, better two-way balance, more useful depth, greater lineup versatility, and more individual match-ups to exploit. That, plus home-court advantage and a renewed focus following last year’s catastrophe, should be enough to complete the redemption mission.
LeBron is great. Kyrie is rolling. Kevin Love is playing the best basketball of his Cavs career. Tristan Thompson has always given the Warriors trouble. Kyle Korver will hit a few big shots. JR Smith is poised to reprise his role as shirtless Finals superhero who shocks the world with five or six games of above average defense. And, again, LeBron.
He's at the peak of his powers. "He's better than when I got into the league," Brad Stevens said of James two weeks ago. "A lot better. Just as you get older, you gain more experiences, you see more things. I didn't think he could get any better after that, but he is."
This is the sweet spot for LeBron: his basketball intelligence has always been in its own category, but this year he also has the supreme confidence that comes with having nothing left to prove, all coupled with skills and athleticism that haven't declined yet. It's wild.
So, LeBron is why I'm giving the Cavs a game here. But the Warriors are probably too good to make this any closer. Golden State has a better chance at sweeping this series than the Cavs do at winning it. They are too explosive on offense, and too relentless on defense, and too good at creating fatal mismatches.
All of that was true even last year, and that was before the third-best player in basketball joined the second-best player in basketball on the best team in the league. I won't overthink it from there. This seems like it may be a more interesting matchup on paper than it will be on the court. It's great that both teams are healthy and rolling, yes, but when this year's Warriors are rolling, nothing else matters. Not even LeBron.
Imagine if Draymond Green hadn’t been suspended last year, and the Warriors won. Maybe then they don’t get Kevin Durant. Even so, chances are they’d still be here now, looking for a three–peat. And in that scenario, yes, it’s possible to see the Cavs beating a Golden State team that might have become a bit fat and happy with success, and wasn’t bolstered by one of the most dominant scorers in league history. Instead, we have the bizarre situation of a historically dominant team coming in to this series with—in their minds—everything to prove. Durant wants to prove he’s a winner. Curry wants to prove last year’s subpar performance was an injury-related fluke. And there is likely no higher setting on the Want-It Meter than wherever Draymond is right now. This is relevant because, barring injury, the only way to see the Warriors losing this series is if they self-sabotage, and that appears unlikely. LeBron is amazing. He’ll go down as the best ever and it may not be all that close by the time he’s done. But he cannot overcome this level of talent, cohesion, and depth. Last year, Golden State intentionally chased history in the regular season. This year they’ll make it, becoming the first team to go undefeated in the playoffs.
Last year marked a sea change in my prediction-giving career: I'm done picking against LeBron James. I'm done! I picked the Cavaliers to win the Finals (in seven games!) last year and, despite a mountain of evidence more glaring than The King's hairline, I'm picking them again this year.
The Warriors boast a historic combination of talent and chemistry, but LeBron James is the one truly transcendent player of our time. In an era of ring-chasers and superteams, LeBron has made seven straight Finals. Think about that. Seven. straight. Finals. The NBA has had seven years to muster a response to LeBron and it hasn't been able to keep him out of the championship series. And as Rob Mahoney pointed out in this brilliant feature, while James's competition has dwindled in the East, it has only increased in the Finals, where he's coming off arguably the most miraculous championship in NBA history.
Sure, the Warriors have Kevin Durant this time around, but the Cavaliers have the confidence they can do anything to the Dubs. They also have their whole arsenal firing. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are both healthy and engaged, Cleveland's bevy of role players have looked sharp in the playoffs, and LeBron messed around in the first three rounds like a cat toying with its prey.
How is everyone not picking the Cavs!? Did your memory expire after 11 months? Do you need a few 3–1 memes to remind you of last year's destruction?
More important than any talent or matchup advantage: The Cavaliers have the mental edge. This shouldn't be underestimated. LeBron is in the Warriors' heads. They genuinely fear him after being pushed to the brink of seppuku in last year's Finals. And as for the newcomer who wasn't around last June, why do you think he left Oklahoma City? He's done underestimating LeBron, too.
LeBron has earned our full faith in making this as competitive of a series as possible, but I imagine a competitive environment in which he consistently bumps up against his limits. An offense built around Stephen Curry can be attacked through particular points of concentration. One built around Curry and Durant stresses opponents too thin in too many crucial areas, demanding nearly independent strategies for containing two of the most dangerous scorers in the game. That the same team also happens to be arguably the top defense in the league saddles the Cavs with a constant pressure. Every empty possession will feel like an opportunity slipping away. Any live-ball turnover will quickly be made painful. These Warriors aren’t unbeatable, but to beat them four times in seven games would require some dramatic turn of events beyond what we could reasonably expect. These should be competitive games, all in all. I just don’t expect there to be all that many of them, given that Golden State is better prepared to handle just the kind of counters that wore them down over the course of last year’s Finals.
Let me be clear: I would love to be wrong about this. I don’t care what Kevin Durant says, by joining the Golden State Warriors, he objectively made the NBA less fun this season and for the foreseeable future. LeBron James (in my estimation the best basketball player ever) defeating these Warriors for the second year in a row would be equal parts brilliant and hilarious. Unfortunately, there’s no sane reasoning for picking the Cavaliers.
For the second straight Finals, the Warriors are the better team. (And despite what happened last June, Golden State was still the best team in the world last season.) The Dubs enter the Finals with an unblemished postseason record and best point differential through three rounds in NBA history. Golden State’s defense is significantly better than Cleveland’s, and its offensive potential is also higher. The Warriors are the more talented group, and they are playing with a feverish motivation after the embarrassment of last year’s Finals. Frankly, I wouldn’t be shocked if this series was a sweep. But I’ll also happily accept my comeuppance if LeBron makes me eat these words.
Every rational thought in my head points to this conclusion, including the addition of Kevin Durant, the postseason assault from Stephen Curry and the clean rap sheet from Draymond Green. LeBron James has made history during these NBA playoffs, and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have both had their moments, but in the end they just don't have enough to overwhelm a motivated Warriors team with a hungry Durant leading the charge.
I never feel completely comfortable betting against LeBron, but this is the one team with the talent to overwhelm his Cavaliers.
Let’s not waste any time here—Big Ballers in six.
Just kidding. We waited and waited and here we are staring down a Finals that feels extremely familiar. As with most trilogies, the middle segment’s twists will ultimately determine the endgame. Yep, there’s Kevin Durant. And yep, there’s the specter of that 3–1 lead. The presumed absence of Steve Kerr means a different coaching matchup for the third straight year. All the on-court developments would seem to favor Golden State, where the slightly less impressive win total did little to disguise the fact that this is the best edition of the Warriors so far. Kevin Love’s playing well, but he hasn’t become ball-screen proof.
Still, if there’s anything last year’s Finals served to communicate, it’s that jumping to sensible conclusions with these teams isn’t always worth the energy. The best version to date of an all-time talented team that hasn’t even lost once in the playoffs should win, right? After all, the only rational basketball argument here is LeBron James, still at the peak of his remarkable powers, with an ascendant sidekick, Jordan’s records in his rearview mirror and all the motivation to repeat he could ever need. And you know what? Somehow… it all sounds kinda reasonable. Screw it—Cavs in seven.