In the modern NBA landscape, one near-absolute truth exists: It’s the Golden State Warriors’ world, and every other team is merely trying to compete in it.
The Bay Area franchise outscored opponents by 13.6 points per 100 possessions last postseason – dropping merely one game en route to hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Oh, and that was after winning 67 regular-season games (20 of which Kevin Durant sat out with injury), boasting the league’s second-stingiest defense and posting the second-best offensive rating in NBA history, per Basketball Reference.
Utter dominance personified.
Nevertheless, much like Jon Snow, other organizations deserve credit for not simply bending the knee at their new purported overlords.
The Houston Rockets traded almost half their roster for Chris Paul. The San Antonio Spurs added Rudy Gay to a team that held a 25-point lead over Golden State in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. And the Oklahoma City Thunder acquired Paul George and Carmelo Anthony via a couple of trades that can’t be considered anything else but total fleecings.
Above all others, however, one challenger to the throne still looms largest.
The Cleveland Cavaliers may not be the sexy pick to knock off the Warriors (the three prior teams we mentioned have received far more pub after busy summers), but LeBron James and Co. still pose the biggest threat to their West-Coast rivals.
In fact, this rendition of the Cavs may be the best equipped the franchise has been to face Golden State since the King returned to northwest Ohio.
For starters, the fact head coach Tyronn Lue is throwing defensive caution to the wind by moving Tristan Thompson to the bench and making Kevin Love his opening-unit center bodes well.
Sure, that lineup will likely bleed points; Love isn’t known for his point-stopping capabilities (though he is underrated on that end), and he can’t protect the rim like his predecessor. But playing the stretch-four one spot up on the positional scale gives Lue his deadliest scoring unit.
In 2016-17, with Love in the game and Thompson sitting, Cleveland boasted a blistering 118.0 offensive rating over 669 minutes, according to NBAWowy. That mark would have been the league’s best if prorated for the year – with the second-place team producing nearly five fewer points per 100 possessions.
Meanwhile, taking Love’s place at starting power forward for the Cavs will be one of their newest acquisitions: Jae Crowder.
The former Celtic is clearly more of a wing, yet he provides exactly what Cleveland needs at the position. His toughness and grit made him a fan favorite in Boston but even more importantly, he can knock down the open three. Crowder converted 39.8 percent of his shots from beyond the arc last season.
Some opponents will try to play him tightly so he can’t get open looks from deep. That’s fine; he’ll respond by using his sturdiness and athleticism to dart toward the rim when he spots an opportune situation.
Crowder finished 2016-17 in the 98th percentile as a cutter, according to Synergy. Among players with at least 50 such opportunities, only the bouncy Aaron Gordon had a higher point-per-possession mark than Cleveland’s new starting power forward.
And at the other end, Crowder is a switchy defender who can aptly guard positions two through four. Though his defense took a slight step back from his excellent 2015-16 campaign, per NBA Math, he still “saved” 4.71 points last season. (Anything above a zero in the defensive points saved metric signifies above-average value.)
Against Golden State specifically, Crowder can defend Durant for stretches while Cleveland hides LeBron on a less threatening individual scorer like Draymond Green.
If hit with an off-ball screen, which the Warriors employ more than anyone else in the league, he can switch onto Klay Thompson, who will almost certainly be flashing towards the three-point line.
And though he gambles far less than he used to (a good thing), Crowder still has the anticipation necessary to jump passing lanes and end possessions with steals. Over the past two campaigns, the 6-foot-6 wing has averaged 1.4 takeaways per night.
Also aiding Cleveland’s efforts in a potential rematch with the champs is another one of their new pieces: Isaiah Thomas.
Though Kyrie Irving‘s abilities as a one-on-one scorer are unparalleled (via NBA Math, no one added more value in that facet last season), Thomas was one of the game’s most versatile point-creators in 2016-17.
According to Synergy, the diminutive floor general ranked as an excellent scorer in spot-up situations, as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, in isolation and coming off screens.
Not only can you hand him the ball and ask him to efficiently get you a bucket, Thomas can also complement the team’s other high-usage options by biding his time on the perimeter, ready to knock down open shots at an elite clip.
When James sits, the Cavs can pick-and-roll teams to death – with Thomas using the services of screen-setting beast Thompson to spring free.
When the 5-foot-9 lead guard gets a sliver of space with a head of steam, the result is usually two points, neatly scored in the painted area – even with behemoths like Rudy Gobert chasing him.
Though his health remains a major concern (he’s not expected back until January at the earliest – and when he does return, how will a player so dependent on subtle athleticism respond to an ailing hip?), Cleveland did a great job of replacing their former magician at point guard.
And if we’re looking at it solely through a point-scoring prism, they may have even upgraded.
At the end of the day, it also doesn’t hurt that the best player in the world still wears wine and gold.
After a summer of slights, mostly coming from his former running partner’s camp, you can rest assured we’re going to see a hyper-focused LeBron in 2017-18. Whether that results in one last run at the MVP trophy, or if he wisely saves his energy for more important matters in May and June, remains undetermined.
But that, plus Cleveland’s newest weapons courtesy of Boston, and the additions of Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose (the latter of whom has received rave reviews from teammates thus far) will give Lue’s men a renewed energy.
Cavaliers aside, Golden State’s biggest foe may ultimately be complacency.
Years of deep postseason runs, mixed with taking an opponent’s best shot night-in and night-out, eventually takes its toll. We only have to look as far back as the 2014 Finals to see happens when a team – no matter how great – runs out of gas.
Either way, if we’re destined for Cavaliers-Warriors Pt. IV, at the very least, we may see a more hotly contested affair than the last one.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.