As we head into Game 3 of the NBA Finals, the talk has shifted from the series to LeBron’s offseason, because so few people think the Cavs can come back and win the title.
One thing everyone seems to be missing about where LeBron could end up is this: Only one team has challenged the Warriors in the playoffs since they acquired Kevin Durant. Golden State is 4-3 vs Houston in the playoffs with Durant; 26-3 in the playoffs vs everyone else.
Why did Houston give Golden State so many problems? James Harden and Chris Paul were enormous factors, but in the back-to-back games the Rockets won to snag a 3-2 lead, Houston won because of defense. They held the Warriors to 92 and 94 points, throwing a major scare into the defending champs.
The reason for the Rockets defense? Their switchability. Physically, they look like the Warriors when they go to their switch-everything defense of PJ Tucker (6-foot-6) at center, Trevor Ariza (6-foot-8), Eric Gordon (6-foot-4), Harden (6-foot-5), and Paul (6-foot). Playing five two-way players is the only way to beat and hang with the current Warriors.
Clint Capela had a strong series (10.3 ppg, 10.7 rpg) but he played far fewer minutes than the aforementioned unit. The Rockets built a team to hang with the Warriors, and they did a helluva job. It’s going to be difficult to improve on that roster – though one shouldn’t doubt Daryl Morey – and it’s getting old, too. Ariza turns 33 this month; Paul and Tucker turned 33 in May.
The Cavaliers can’t put a unit like this on the floor in these finals, and are locked in to Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson for the next couple years.
The 76ers, whose best offensive player is 7-footer Joel Embiid, aren’t going to be able to play a switch-everything defense with him on the floor. It’s tough to imagine the 76ers keeping Embiid off the floor in crunch time, or him being cool with that. Also, they lost their two best shooting wings (Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova), although neither was particularly effective against Boston’s much more athletic wings.
There is one team that is on its way to being built in the form of the Warriors: The Lakers.
(There is another team that is already built in the fashion of the Warriors, as Zach Lowe mentioned in a column – the Celtics. “The combination of two-way guys and star power on a fully actualized Boston team makes it perhaps the most interesting Warriors opponent going forward.”)
The Lakers four key players right now are all two-way guys: Lonzo Ball (6-foot-6), Josh Hart (6-foot-5), Kyle Kuzma (6-foot-9) and Brandon Ingram (6-foot-9). The problem, of course is that a) none of them has been to the playoffs and b) none of them is 24 years old. Also, Lonzo only shot 30 percent on 3’s, but he was a 20-year old rookie.
This is where LeBron and Paul George come in. They come to the Lakers and instantly lead this team. No squabbles about whose team it is, like what happened with Kyrie, or what could happen with Harden or Embiid/Ben Simmons. I’ve speculated LA could trade Lonzo for a shooter (Khris Middleton?), and perhaps the Lakers will consider that.
LA will be looking to fill out the bench with shooters, Nick Young-types who they can hope provide 20 minutes a night in the regular season and then 10 minutes a game in the playoffs. It’s still very early, but a few names to consider, Lakers fans: Mario Hezonja (defensive issues), Dante Exum (injury history) and a home run would be Joe Harris, but he’s up for a much bigger money because he shot 41 percent on 3-pointers in his 4th year as a pro.
It felt like the league was a point guard league over the last few years; it’s shifting to 2-way wings as we head into the Build What the Warriors Built era.