Here is a fun stat, courtesy of ESPN’s Marc Stein: In March the Warriors are 28th in the NBA offensive efficiency, and the Cavaliers are 29th in defensive efficiency.
I know, March isn’t even half over. But so far this month the Warriors are 2-4 and the Cavs are 2-5, their once seemingly unassailable grips on the top playoff seeds slipping. With their win over the Hawks last night, the Spurs caught the Warriors (and own the tiebreaker), and the Celtics and Wizards are each within two-and-a-half games of the Cavs. FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model gives the Warriors just a 53 percent chance of winning the top seed in the West, and the Cavaliers just a 44 percent chance in the East.
This isn’t how this season was supposed to go, and until recently, it isn’t how it was going. With a third straight Warriors-Cavs Finals match-up expected—and the Warriors not chasing down the regular season record for wins—the season has been bereft of any structure besides a long slog towards the inevitable.
It is pretty easy to pinpoint the primary cause of the Warriors’ struggles: Kevin Durant injured his knee on the last day of February, and won’t be back for awhile. Throw in a brutal schedule that saw them play eight games in 13 nights, seven of them on the road, and numerous flights criss-crossing the country, and it is easy to believe—assuming Durant comes back relatively healthy for the playoffs—that their problems are temporary. But it might not be quite so simple.
During this stretch the Warriors have shot an ugly 71 for 238 from three, 29.8 percent. On the season they’re shooting just 37.9 percent, good for third best in the league, but a far cry from the past two seasons. Much of this can be attributed to Stephen Curry, who is having his worst season shooting in awhile.
Durant’s absence has also highlighted the depth lost when the Warriors (essentially) traded away Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut for him, and lost Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa, and Marreese Speights to free agency. Those players played the 4th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th most minutes for the Warriors in last year’s playoffs. They’ve been replaced by Zaza Pachulia, Patrick McCaw, David West, and Kevon Looney, who just aren’t as good.
For the first time there are small grumblings about Steve Kerr among some Warriors fans and writers, who agree with Curry that he should be running the pick-and-roll more frequently, and have questioned some of his rotations lately.
Of course, this is just picking around the edges. The Warriors still have the league’s best offense, and second best defense. According to Basketball-Reference’s expected wins and losses, they’ve been a bit unlucky and the Spurs a bit lucky, and Golden State “should” still have a lead of a few games. Assuming Durant comes back, their lack of depth—which matters much, much less in the playoffs—shouldn’t really matter. They’re still the overwhelming favorites to win the title.
The Cavaliers’ problems run much deeper. They have just the 22nd (!) ranked defense in the NBA this season, which is obviously really fucking bad. These were the defensive ratings of NBA champions, as far back as NBA.com’s advanced stat database goes: 10th, 1st, 4th, 7th, 4th, 7th, 6th, 5th, 1st, 2nd, 1oth, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 7th, 19th, 1st, 1st, 3rd, 4th. So unless you’re the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers, it is paramount to have, at least, a top-third defense to win an NBA championship.
In January, the Cavs went on a 2-6 skid, leading to LeBron calling out the front office and yelling about Charles Barkley and other ex-players. But the ship was seemingly righted, and they picked up Andrew Bogut and Deron Williams on the buyout market, supposedly to solidify the home stretch run. But Bogut immediately fractured his tibia, and Williams has been the same okay non-savior he’s been for three seasons.
Injuries are one cause of their defensive issues. Chris “Birdman” Andersen tore his ACL in December, J.R. Smith just returned after sitting out almost three months because of an injured thumb, and Kevin Love has missed four weeks and will miss a couple more because of knee surgery. But, with the possible exception of Birdman, injuries—even to key players—don’t account for a season-long defensive malaise.
The basic, easy explanation is that the Cavs lack good individual defenders, especially in the interior. They have Tristan Thompson, who is good against specific kinds of bigs, and they have LeBron. After that, sure Iman Shumpert and DeAndre Liggins are solid defenders, but that’s about it. They have big problems in transition defense, and maybe three-point and pick-and-roll defense too, which all combined account for the majority of defensive possessions!
Smith and Love will presumably have mostly recovered by the playoffs, and as usual LeBron is going to morph into Death, the Destroyer of Worlds. The Celtics, Wizards, and Raptors aren’t exactly a murderers’ row. But they do all possess top-10 offenses, and have better defenses than the Cavs. After the Cavaliers breeze through the first round, it shouldn’t be unexpected if they struggle.
For the Warriors, dropping to the second seed would have very real consequences. It would mean having to go through (as things stand) the Grizzlies and Rockets, instead of the much easier path through Denver and Utah. Waiting at the end would be the Spurs, and a possible Game 7 in San Antonio.
What had been a slow NBA season has been injected with some intrigue. Things may still end up as everyone predicted, with Cavs-Warriors III, but it certainly won’t be boring getting there.