IN the lead up to the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers meeting in the NBA Finals for the third straight season I’ve decided to do a daily feature piece leading up to the epic seven game series. Legacies will be defined, reputations are on the line and the winner will claim bragging rights as the better team in this bitter, historic rivalry.
Day 1 – Steph Curry’s ‘Off Year’
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THE depth of a team is usually a good indicator of their championship credentials. Without depth and great role players it’s tough for one or even two stars to carry their team to success (see: LeBron 2007 & 2015, Kobe in 2009/10, Iverson in 2001 Finals or Westbrook/Harden this year). The story of the ‘bench guys’ for each franchise is of extremely different contrast with multiple former All-Stars and plenty of players who have been apart of the past two Finals. Let’s dig into the guys riding the pine a little bit more.
Image from wkyc.com
The History Of The Cavaliers Bench
CLEVELAND’s bench generated plenty of buzz throughout the entire regular season. Trades, injuries and roster moves throughout the 82 game slate saw the makeup of their team change week in, week out. The likes of Andrew Bogut, Larry Sanders, Chris Andersen, Jordan McRae and Mike Dunleavy all served time as a Cavalier with none of them on this Finals bound team anymore. Those players have paved the way for Deron Williams, Kyle Korver and Derrick Williams to join the squad, all of whom have played much bigger roles for other franchises in the past. The first two on the list bring a combined four All-Star appearances with them with Deron Williams currently inside the top 20 for career assists and Korver tied for 5th most three pointers in league history. The third member of the new trio, Derrick Williams is a former #2 pick who, despite bouncing around the league, still has the potential to impact the contest with his elite athleticism. Along with rookie guard Kay Felder these new comers are looking to taste championship glory in their first season with the team.
WHILE the three inclusions to this team’s playoff run are making their debut in the NBA Finals there are five returning role players who all posses interesting pasts. A teammate of LeBron’s for seven years now James Jones (affectionately known as ‘Champ’) gives the team veteran leadership and whenever called upon is lights out from downtown. James Jones’ role for the Cavs is vastly different to that of Dahntay Jones, a player who the team signed just days before the regular season ended in 2015-16. From that point on he won a title with the team, was waived on July ’16, then re-signed on September ’16, was waived AGAIN on October ’16 and the re-signed AGAIN in April this year. Best buds and the infamous ‘Road Trippin’ podcast duo Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson enter their 2nd Finals as Cavaliers. Both were lottery picks when drafted out of the University of Arizona, with Jefferson starring for the Nets and playing crucial roles for teams like the Spurs and (ironically) the Warriors in the playoffs. Channing Frye on the other hand had just 20 games of playoff experience before a mid-season trade brought him to Ohio 10 years into his career. Frye wasn’t the only one who found himself in Cleveland after a mid-season trade with Iman Shumpert joining the squad from the Knicks halfway through the 2014-15 season alongside the gunslinging J.R. Smith.
Image from foxnews.com
The History Of The Warriors Bench
SIGNING Kevin Durant in the off-season drastically changed the structure of the Warriors team and mainly their bench. Their depth was a feature in their playoff runs of years past, but for financial reasons they had to move on from certain players to allow Durant to join the team. Brandon Rush, Maurice Speights, Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa and Anderson Varejao all departed along with starters Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut. In their place, Golden State acquired JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia, David West and Matt Barnes while banking on the rest of their role players to pick up any slack that the acquisition of Durant didn’t provide.
Image from basket-infos.com
ZAZA Pachulia and JaVale McGee are popular names in NBA circles, with both establishing a cult type following over their careers. A former Shaqtin A Fool MVP, JaVale McGee is used to featuring in bloopers more so than highlights, looking somewhat like a young giraffe struggling to understand how his limbs work. He has given the Warriors a spark off the bench this season though, rebounding and affecting shots at an impressive rate. Speaking of impressive a year ago the Turkish born center Zaza Pachulia was just 14,227 votes short of gaining an All-Star starting spot, finishing ahead of the likes of Blake Griffin and new teammate Draymond Green. His double-double averages were impressive, but not THAT impressive. This season in the absence of Andrew Bogut, Zaza has been the primary big man for the Dubs and his versatility to affect shots and be one of the better passing big men (5th most assists per 48 minutes from the center position) He has been backed up in the big man department by David West. A two time All-Star West also possesses the versatility to help Golden State run a number of different sets and his ability to score is no secret. He is the New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans leading franchise scorer totalling 8690 points in his eight years there. Another boost they received was signing Matt Barnes once Kevin Durant went down for a period of time in March/April. Barnes already has a stint with Golden State on his resume, and while he isn’t the player he once was he was able to bring his physicality and trash talking to the Warriors wing depth over a 20-30 game period KD missed.
PERHAPS the biggest story from Golden State’s bench though has been the elevated play from their backcourt reserves. While Patrick McCaw (4.0 PPG) and Ian Clark’s (6.8 PPG) averages don’t scream elite they have been able to give Curry/Thompson the spell’s they needed to stay fresh for the playoffs. In their 71 and 77 games respectively McCaw and Clark they played over 10 minutes 48 (66.7%) and 62 (80.5%) times with McCaw starting 20 games with Kevin Durant sidelined. Their ability to play a variety of roles from big minute guys to missing entire games and everywhere in between meant that a league best 67 wins was achievable. Another reason those 67 wins were possible was the play of key reserves Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. The pair have revived their careers as bench warmers for the Warriors with Iggy famously winning the 2015 Finals MVP after his stellar defense on LeBron and per games averages of 16.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists. Livingston’s career was plagued by injury before joining Golden State, but he has managed to play more than 76 games in each of the last three seasons, something he only did once in his nine years prior. With health on his side he has provided veteran leadership and scoring for the Dubs with his 20 off the bench proving to be the difference in a Game 1 win of last years Finals. Young players Kevon Looney, Damian Jones and James Michael McAdoo give the Warriors some front court size and youth which they have called upon sporadically in the lead up to ‘The Trilogy’.
Who Reigns Supreme?
WHILE both benches combine for numerous All-Star appearances a Finals MVP and a variety of backgrounds in the lead up to their NBA Finals appearance, they have been largely forgotten in the rematch between some of the games biggest names. The Cavaliers bench strength lies in their three point shooting, while the Warriors possess the defenders and ball movers that so perfectly suit their style of play. If Cleveland are to go toe to toe with Golden State the shooters they bring off the bench will need to be at their deadeye best. In the playoffs so far they are shooting over 46% from deep as a unit and that has seen them can a league high 14.6 such shots on average. As addressed in the Warriors article last week their ability to make the extra pass and move the rock has them putting up the most assists per game since the 1993-94 Warriors averaged over 30 in their three game first round series. So give the Dubs the advantage for flexibility and playmaking and the Cavs the advantage for shooting, especially from three. Those strengths will be called upon by both teams if they are to help provide the cushion for their starting core to reel off a second title in three years. It’s tough to argue which one is more important, but if either fail to show up it could go a long way to deciding the final ledger.