Whether the “best in the West” ends up being the Golden State Warriors or the Oklahoma City Thunder, it’s bad news for the Cleveland Cavaliers. While the Cavs are in the process of getting love and praise heaped all over them for their strong start to the 2016 NBA Playoffs, let’s not forget how ridiculously good the Western Conference is compared to the Eastern Conference.
While the East has seen quite a few teams improve, the way the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks were swept isn’t unbelievably amazing — although some people think it is. While the Cavaliers will surely take down the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals, the buck will stop there for Cleveland. Another appearance in the NBA Finals for LeBron James, and another second-place finish. Sorry, Cleveland.
While it seems like we’re picking on the Cavaliers here, saying that they aren’t good enough to compete with the West is definitely not the case. Instead, it’s simply the fact that both the Warriors and Thunder are too ridiculously talented and well-rounded to be defeated. Yes, even more talented than the Cavaliers’ Big Three in James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love.
While the Cavaliers have their superstars, let’s not overlook what both the Warriors and Thunder bring to the table. Sure, the Warriors are aiming to make history, but it’s more than that. As for the Thunder, this title push may save their team, literally, for the coming years. If the Thunder win the 2016 NBA title, can you imagine Kevin Durant (or Russell Westbrook in 2017) leaving town? Unlikely. But let’s look at why the Cavaliers won’t beat either of these teams.
The players we don’t talk about
Let’s start with the Thunder, who bolster a group of players who no one actually has much interest in talking about, but they should. It begins with Steven Adams, who has truly updated his game in these playoffs, averaging 10.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 32.8 minutes per game. He’s been a difference maker, massively disrupting on the defensive end for the Thunder.
We have defensive specialist Andre Roberson, who may not score much, but his ability to rebound and wreak havoc on opponents is pretty special. Last up, Enes Kanter and Serge Ibaka. While these two both average just around 11 points per game, both have been strong rebounders, and Ibaka has averaged 1.23 blocks per game throughout the postseason. As you can tell, the Thunder have positioned themselves to be much more than just Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
Obviously, the “players we don’t talk about” for Golden State are probably talked about quite a bit more than the Thunder. This includes options like Harrison Barnes, Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, and even Marreese Speights and Leandro Barbosa. These players won’t take over games, but with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green being the major game-changers, each of these players can step in and contribute in much-needed ways.
So, this leads to a question for Cleveland. Do they have the depth to run with either of these teams? Better yet, can they slow down the superstars on Oklahoma City or Golden State? It’s unlikely, and while Irving and Love are both talented players who strongly impact games, we aren’t sure if anyone can slow down Westbrook, Durant, or Curry.
While James, Irving, and Love are the keys to success, the Big Three are being relied upon more than ever from a statistical standpoint. After those players, it’s hit-or-miss J.R. Smith averaging 11.4 points per game, and no one else in double-digits. Let’s not forget about the fact that sending James, Irving, and Love up against defensive players like Westbrook, Durant, and Ibaka, or Iguodala, Curry, and Green, is quite different than what they’ve seen through the first three rounds of these playoffs.
The Cavaliers are the best team in the Eastern Conference, but are they the best team in the NBA? No, they aren’t. Unfortunately, the way the NBA playoffs are set up with the seven-game series format, it’s tough for the underdog to pull off the upset, which is exactly what we believe stops the Cavaliers’ tear through the postseason.
Cleveland is talented enough to do it, but out of their first three opponents in the playoffs, no team has been even remotely close to the talent of the Thunder and Warriors, which poses a simple question of whether or not they’ll be prepared for the intensity those two teams will bring to the table in the finals.