The 2017 NBA Finals are upon us at long last. For the third consecutive season, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will face off in a battle of super-teams. Tension is mounting and the hype is as great as can be. Superstars will shine, emotions will rise, and the stakes will be higher than ever. With the series set to begin on Thursday night, here’s our 2017 NBA Finals predictions roundtable.
2017 NBA Finals Predictions Roundtable
What’s the biggest X-factor that will determine the outcome of the NBA Finals?
Harrison Marcus, senior editor: The biggest X-factor will be Cleveland’s defense, which has been far from respectable this season. Even in the Boston series, when their offense was clicking on all cylinders, the Cavs struggled at times to defend the Isaiah Thomas-less Celtics. Cleveland will need to improve its defense significantly in order to come away as back-to-back champions. Slight improvements here and there won’t cut it; the Cavs need to take major strides. Forcing Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson out of rhythm early in the series will be key, as is the need to play physical against and get inside the heads of Draymond Green and Kevin Durant. If the Warriors are able to smoothly execute their offense, the Cavaliers have no chance. Disrupting Golden State’s fluid offensive movement is easier said than done, but it will be the key to the series if Cleveland wants to repeat.
Ram Capoor, staff writer: Perimeter defense. Here’s a look at how close these teams’ shooting clips have been in the 2017 playoffs:
Warriors (per series): 50.2 FG%, 38.7 3FG%, 81.5 FT%
Cavaliers (per series): 50.5 FG%, 43.5 3FG%, 77.3 FT%
Both rosters are stacked with marksmen who can take aim from behind the arc and within the three-point line. There’s not a whole lot of scope for improvement in terms of the shooting percentages, so the teams have to shift their focus towards the opposition, and trying to contain them. The first team somehow able to shut down the other on the perimeter will gain the upper hand in this series. This X-factor is more than just playing good defense; it’s a mental scheme that can deter the confidence level of the opposition. When shots stop falling, particularly against elite teams, games can quickly slip away from a team – that goes for both Cleveland and Golden State.
Matthew Cardenas, associate editor: Kevin Love is the X-factor. This is the best we have seen him in a Cavaliers uniform. His perimeter shot has been automatic the entire playoffs, especially in the Eastern Conference Finals. With the Finals now here, this is where Love needs to be at his best. It will be interesting to see how he matches up with Draymond Green. If Love is playing well, it will take a huge load off of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving on the offensive end. Love will also need to be active on the glass and help the Cavs get out in transition. With this series looking to be fast-paced, we might see a few long outlet passes from Love to James.
Dan Gilinsky, staff writer: The Warriors and Cavaliers were the two best teams this season, in terms of offensive efficiency, due to their plethora of deep threats. It’s going to be quite a battle on the perimeter, with the likes of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, and many others. With that said, I see this series coming down to rebounding. Both teams have equalizers up front in terms of the glass. Although the Cavs have not been an elite rebounding team, they’ve controlled the glass in the playoffs with players like Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love. Golden State has been the second-best rebounding team in the playoffs, and their length and versatility are likely the reason for that. The matchup between Tristan Thompson and Draymond Green – and, at times, JaVale McGee – will be the X-factor. Extra possessions for these offenses are crucial in what should be a long series.
Lior Kozai, senior editor: The play of Stephen Curry. He is the engine that fuels the Warriors. When Curry dominates, the Warriors win. When he’s their best player, they play their best basketball. Golden State lost last year for countless reasons, but Curry playing poorly was one of the most important ones. He shot just 40.3 percent from the field in the 2016 Finals, including a 6-for-19 performance in the deciding Game 7. Curry simply has to show up, and if he does, the Cavaliers may be in trouble. Cleveland’s perimeter defense will also play a role in this; J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert need to be stellar in that regard. If Curry is at the absolute top of his game, this series may be shorter than most fans would like.
Which team will win the NBA Finals, and in how many games?
Harrison: Golden State in seven. Unlike last season, the Warriors are peaking at the right time. Also unlike last season, the Warriors will be seeking revenge in the worst of ways. Last year, the Warriors felt untouchable. They were overconfident, especially once they were up 3-1. This year’s sense of urgency, desperation, and the need to prove something should push the Warriors over the hump. Cleveland’s comeback last season was fueled not by superior talent but by superior motivation and urgency. This year, Golden State has the advantage in both talent and motivation, which is a scary combination. Even though I’m predicting the Warriors to win, I still expect LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and company to put up quite a fight. We’ve got a seven-game classic waiting for us once again.
Ram: The series will go all the way, but Cleveland will steal another Game 7 on the road to win consecutive titles.
The Warriors have not yet faced a team that was at full strength during these playoffs. They’ve swept a Jusuf Nurkic-less Portland, a Utah squad missing Rudy Gobert, and the Spurs minus Kawhi Leonard. To suddenly run into the freight train that is LeBron James, with his cavalry of teammates all pulling their weight, may be a little shock to them.
No player in the entire playoffs has come even remotely close to matching the numbers and the standard to which James has played. It will be the hardest task of his career thus far, but he has the tools and the willpower to at least attempt to deconstruct the Warriors. He’s not alone, either. Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, and the rest of the crew don’t quite match up pound-for-pound to the strength of Golden State’s roster, but they’re the defending champions; look for them to act and play like it.
Matthew: Before the season started, I picked the Cavaliers to repeat. I guess that means I have to stick with it, right? I’ll pick them to win another Game 7 at Oracle Arena. No other team in the league has a chance of beating the Warriors except the Cavs, and they know that, which I think gives them a confidence boost. The Cavs have not been tested much in these playoffs, but they are playing their best basketball on the offensive end. The ball movement has been excellent and everybody is staying engaged. There is work that needs to be done on the defensive end, though. Irving and James seem to be at their best when playing against the Warriors. If Cleveland’s offense continues to flow and the defense improves, the Cavs will repeat.
Dan: The odds will be stacked against the Cavs even more now, but they were last season. Cleveland’s core has faced adversity before: Remember when people thought the Cavs were “vulnerable” in the East during the regular season? I just don’t count out LeBron James on the big stage, and he still has Kevin Durant’s number. Stephen Curry has been playing like an MVP in these playoffs, and Durant has been remarkably efficient. I just don’t bank on Green shooting as well as he has in these playoffs in four out of seven games, and I’d be concerned about Klay Thompson’s recent inefficiency. I think J.R. Smith will continue to play solid defensively, and Kyle Korver will get going early on to ignite Cleveland’s bench. Though Kevin Love will have trouble defensively on switches in the screen-and-roll, I think he plays much better this time around. Cavs in seven.
Lior: Cavs in seven. It’s hard to see the Warriors losing another Game 7 at home, but it’s even harder to see them losing in less than that many games. Golden State has been the better team for most of the year, but it feels like it just can’t be this easy. The Spurs were onto something when they dominated Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals – until Kawhi Leonard went down. Equipped with more talent than San Antonio but a similarly strong game plan, the Cavs have the tools to pull off another upset. The Warriors are beatable, and Cleveland is the one team capable of beating them. The Warriors are peaking at the right time, but so are the Cavs. My brain says Golden State, but my gut feeling says Cleveland, and even though it might not work statistically in the Finals, I still feel safe betting on LeBron James. I’m not going to pick against him again, as so many of us did last year. Just like James did after his first Miami Heat season, Kevin Durant will have to wait a year to win that ever elusive championship.
Who will be the 2017 NBA Finals MVP?
Harrison: Kevin Durant. It’s been a long five-year wait for Durant to return to the Finals, and he will definitely make the most of this experience. I don’t think Durant has to take on a much larger role than he has so far in order to win both the series and Finals MVP. I think he simply needs to continue to play within the natural flow of the offense as he has been, in addition to hitting clutch shots down the stretch when needed most. Stephen Curry has struggled in the Finals before, and while I don’t think he will be dreadful this series, I don’t expect him to play quite like his peak regular season self. The dark horse here is Draymond Green, but I believe Durant’s stats will ultimately push him to the top in the minds of MVP voters.
Ram: LeBron James. Kyrie Irving will come close. Throughout the games, look for James to act as the motor of the Cavs. As a facilitator, scorer, and leader, it’ll be his responsibility to make sure they stay focused and sharp against a merciless opposition. He may not provide fourth quarter fireworks (that baton will be handed to Irving), but in order for Cleveland to even have a chance, he’ll need to man their steering wheel.
No slip-ups can be afforded. When James plays bad, his entire team plays bad. This series will be a yet another test on the grandest level of them all as to whether he can handle the pressure. My bet? He’ll savor it.
Matthew: LeBron James will win the Finals MVP for the fourth time in his career. The only way the Cavs can beat the Warriors is if he is at the top of his game, and it does not seem like he is slowing down. James has put up some of the best numbers of his career against the Warriors. Although Kevin Durant will likely be the defender on him, James has had Durant’s number since the 2012 Finals. James is ready to lead the Cavs to another championship, and that will motivate him to win the series and earn another Finals MVP.
Dan: I see this being the King’s court again. For whatever reason, Klay Thompson said that “his feelings were hurt” in last season’s Finals. Let’s just say that was a bad idea. James has played possibly the best basketball of his career in the postseason games since then. Back in 2015, in the first installation of Golden State-Cleveland, he actually could’ve been the only Finals MVP on the losing team since Jerry West in the 1969 Finals. The Warriors won 73 games in last year’s regular season, and the Cavs beat them three straight times. They added KD and are still very deep on the wings, but James is playing out of his mind right now. Irving and James have Golden State’s number, and Cleveland’s supporting cast is better than it was at this time last year. James is my pick for Finals MVP as he controls the game on both ends.
Lior: LeBron James. Picking the Cavs didn’t leave many other choices, did it? While the Skip Bayless-types will lament the play of Kyrie Irving – who will surely have to perform for Cleveland to win – the Cavs still live and die by James. If he leads his team to back-to-back titles again, this time in Cleveland, James will solidify his place as the second greatest NBA player of all time. He’ll even make the number one spot a legitimate debate. A fourth Finals MVP would also put James ahead of every player in NBA history not named Michael Jordan. This series has the ultimate potential for James’ legacy. “The ghost that played in Chicago” better watch out.