As a writer, I don’t like doing too much leg work before I know that work is actually going to be useful. I don’t like writing Final Four previews until the final buzzer goes in the Elite Eight. I don’t like calculating off-season NBA title odds in the middle of free-agency. And I don’t like setting futures for next year’s Super Bowl until this year’s has been settled, or one team has at least a 25-point lead. (Lol Falcons.)
I broke my cardinal rule for this year’s NBA Finals, though. I laid a bunch of groundwork for this back in February and, at no point in the 2017 playoffs, was I at all worried that I wouldn’t get to use it. The Cavaliers and Warriors have combined to go 24-1 in the first three rounds. Outside of one half bad half against San Antonio in the West finals, it was never a question that the teams would complete their Thrill-ogy (trademark) this year.
Golden State has opened as a big favorite in Vegas; the Warriors are roughly 2/5 or -255, while the Cavaliers are around 11/5 or +220. If you’re looking to make a wager but need to find the best online sportsbook for you, feel free to consult our experts’ reviews of the top betting sites. But maybe wait until you’ve read the rest of this, ’cause I’m about to find you some value.
Unless you don’t follow basketball whatsoever, you already know that Golden State and Cleveland met in the last two NBA Finals with the Warriors winning in six in 2015, and the Cavaliers coming from 3-1 down to stun Golden State last year. Almost all of the key pieces from both of those teams are still intact unless you considered Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut “key pieces” of last year’s Warriors. (I don’t.)
The most important addition is debatable. Some argue it’s Cleveland’s acquisition of 32-year-old point guard Deron Williams (7.5 PPG, -0.3 value-over-replacement). Others contest that Golden State’s addition of eight-time All-Star and former MVP Kevin Durant (25.1 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 5.2 value-over-replacement) was the biggest move. I tend to side with the latter.
That’s my stupidly sarcastic way of saying that only the Warriors have significantly changed the makeup of their team. While they didn’t better their NBA-record 73 wins this year, they’ve looked even more dominant at times, i.e. once they learned how to incorporate (a healthy) KD into the offense.
If you break the series down into four parts — two offenses and two defenses — three of those parts are eminently worthy of being in the NBA Finals. Both teams have sensational offenses. The Warriors led the league in scoring (115.9 PPG) and in offensive rating (113.2 PPG). The Cavs didn’t score at quite the same clip (110.3 PPG; 110.9 offensive rating), but were top-five in both categories, and they’ve taken it to another level in the playoffs: 116.7 PPG; 120.7 offensive rating.
The Warriors are also one of the best in the league on defense. Their PPG numbers don’t jump off the page (104.3 PPG), but that’s because their relentless pace gives opponent’s more possessions and, thus, more chances to score. Their defensive rating of 101.1, which was second in the NBA to San Antonio, tells a much different story.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise given their personnel. Draymond Green is arguably the best defender in the league; Klay Thompson is an elite perimeter defender; and Kevin Durant more than holds his own on the interior, especially on the glass. Throw in strong reserves like Andre Iguodala and Shawn Livingston, and the Warrior D is almost as stacked as the offense. Frighteningly, they’ve been even better in the postseason, leading the playoff teams with a 99.1 defensive rating.
The Cavaliers’ defense is the only one of our four parts that lags behind. It struggled mightily in the regular season allowing 107.2 PPG and a 108.0 defensive rating (22nd in the league), which is why the team ended up the no. 2-seed in the East. Again, looking at the personnel, Cleveland’s defensive struggles are understandable. While LeBron is a plus defender when he wants to be, it’s hard to find many others. Yes, Kevin Love can rebound, but he’s not going to do much damage on the block. On the perimeter, which is where the Warriors can really annihilate you, Kyrie Irving might as well be a mannequin. JR Smith holds his own, but one decent guy wasn’t enough, and it sure won’t be if Steph Curry and Klay Thompson play to their potential.
The good news for the Cavs is that the defense has shown some improvement in the post-season (104.6 defensive rating). Still, of the four parts that will make up this series, Cleveland’s D is by far the weakest.
A lot of novice bettors will look at the history and the opening lines and think, “Gee, those are decent odds on LeBron!” They’ll think that this series is a toss-up because the teams have split the last two championships.
It’s not. The Warriors are a big favorite for good reason. They’re deeper on offense, less reliant on the three (seriously; look at how many triples the Cavs jack), and way better on D. LeBron has the potential to carry Cleveland to another championship — just like he did last year — but asking him to be as good as he was in the 2016 finals is a massive order. Like, pancakes-and-waffles-and-toast-and-bacon massive. Sometimes LeBron’s stomach can stretch to finish that meal, but not always. And the Cleveland offense doesn’t work — at least not to the level required to match the Warriors — unless he has a voracious appetite (see Game 3 against Boston).
In order to confidently take the Cavs, you have to think there’s at least a 32-percent chance LeBron takes them to another title. The way this Warriors team is built, that’s a little too high for me. The payout isn’t great, but I’m taking the Warriors at -255.