Warriors guard Stephen Curry, left, is guarded by Cavaliers forward LeBron James during the second half in Game 5 of the NBA Finals in Oakland, Calif., on June 14, 2015.
The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will meet in the NBA Finals. This is not a recording. But maybe it should be. Because we’ll almost certainly play it again next year.
After the Warriors added Kevin Durant last summer, many believed another meeting between the Warriors and Cavs was predestined before the season even began. And unless something crazy happens to sap the strength of either team before next season, it seems likely the cycle will repeat until their respective core players either fall off or break apart. Even with some potential blockbuster offseason moves, it’s unlikely any NBA team can assemble the necessary talent to rival either the Warriors or Cavaliers. The NBA, until further notice, is a league of two teams.
In terms of win shares, the Warriors’ roster has produced .194 win shares per 48 minutes in the 2017 NBA playoffs, the most this postseason. The Cavaliers are a close second (.190) before a huge drop off to the other teams making it past the first round, such as the Houston Rockets (.116), San Antonio Spurs (.109) and Washington Wizards (.106). That’s roughly the same as having a roster full of First-Team All-NBA center Anthony Davis (.196 win shares per 48 minutes) playing against a team made up of Seth (not Steph) Curry clones (.109). Postseason performance is preferred here due to how lackadaisical the Cavaliers were during the regular season – their net rating of 2.9 has since exploded to plus-16.1 in the postseason, despite concerns about their depth and defense before the playoffs began. It seems reasonable to conclude that the Cavaliers’ performance we’re witnessing now is closer to the "true" Cavs.
Any title contender has a tough task – and there simply aren’t enough players available via free agency or trade that can push a team into contention in one off season while also adhering to the salary cap.
It is even uncertain if the San Antonio Spurs – largely considered to be the closest team to joining the NBA’s top two – are able to take the next step with a healthy Kawhi Leonard and some additional all-star help.
Leonard was producing a league-high .316 win shares per 48 minutes in the playoffs before getting injured, and the Spurs were still far behind the talent level of the Cavaliers and Warriors. Even adding pending unrestricted free agent point guard Chris Paul, rumored to be interested in joining the Spurs next season, might not be enough to bridge the gap.
Let’s say the Spurs are able to add Paul, who would be an upgrade at the point over the injured and aging Tony Parker and Patty Mills. The team would likely have to say goodbye to Pau Gasol, who produced the second-most win shares per 48 minutes on the team last season, in an effort to create cap space.
The Celtics, who rank seventh in postseason win shares per 48 minutes (.080), are expected to make a big leap this summer, thanks in large part to owning the rights to the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming draft plus enough flexibility to create cap space to sign one of the prominent free agents on the market, like Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward or Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin. They could also use future draft assets, such as next year’s unprotected Nets pick, which is likely to be another high lottery selection, to acquire someone like Indiana Pacers forward Paul George or Chicago Bulls forward Jimmy Butler.
Let’s assume the Celtics take University of Washington guard Markelle Fultz with the top pick overall in the 2017 draft. In the lottery era, four guards have been selected No. 1 overall: Allen Iverson, John Wall, Kyrie Irving and Derrick Rose. That group produced .072 win shares per 48 minutes during their rookie season and .111 during their first year of postseason play. Let’s also look at the best-case scenario for Boston this offseason, which would include it acquiring both Hayward and Butler for next year’s playoff run. And finally, let’s assume point guard Isaiah Thomas is completely healthy and available for the entire second round of these past playoffs, increasing the baseline of their win shares per 48 before adding the new players. Even with all that, the Celtics’ postseason roster would produce .088 wins shares per 48 minutes, leaving them seventh overall, just by a smaller margin.
One caveat, because adding those players would make the Celtics undeniably better: Their win shares this postseason could be skewed because they suffered some completely lopsided losses when they dropped games. Much as we used postseason win shares per 48 because it better identifies the Cavaliers’ true ability, using the regular season win shares per 48 for the Celtics gives them a starting point of .117, which would be boosted to .131 by the additions of Butler, Hayward and Fultz. That would certainly push the Celtics closer to competitive territory with the Cavs and Warriors in the win shares category, but they’re still a distant third.
Maybe advanced stats like win shares aren’t your thing, but we can see the same trend in terms of shooting talent. The Warriors are producing an effective field goal percentage of 57.3 percent, while holding their opponents to a below-average rate of 46.7 percent, giving them the highest net eFG% differential since 1983, the first year data is available. The Cavaliers have the second-highest differential in that span (59.8 and 50.8 percent, respectively). This postseason, no other team comes close with only three others, Houston, Boston and the Milwaukee Bucks, shooting better than their opponents.
It’s quite possible it takes a miracle (or significant injury) for a team to dethrone one of the two NBA powerhouses. Or at least a player (or two) that decides winning a title is more important than money, offering a discount to a contender for a chance at winning an elusive NBA championship. Until that scenario materializes however, the NBA can probably get a jump on printing up some Cavaliers-Warriors 2018 NBA Finals gear.