NBA Finals Preview: Long Live the King

At last check, Las Vegas has the Golden State Warriors as roughly 2-to-1 favorites (-205, 67 percent chance) to win the NBA Finals.

While betting lines aren’t comprehensive, this seems like steep odds against the best player in the world until you consider the following:

A) Golden State hasn’t just been the clear-cut best team this season, they’ve statistically been one of the best teams any of us have ever watched.

The Warriors ranked first in the league in defensive efficiency every day of the regular season and ranked first in offensive efficiency for the majority of the season, before narrowly being edged by the Clippers in the final days of the regular season — 109.8 vs. 109.7.

(For what it’s worth, FiveThirtyEight.com just placed the Warriors as, statistically, the fourth best single-season team ever… which I’m sure is making your grandpa roll over in his grave while wearing chucks.)

B) By almost any measure, this is the worst version of LeBron we’ve seen in the past five postseasons. In 14 playoff games, he’s shooting 43 percent from the field and 18 percent from three.  His last four postseasons in Miami, he averaged 50 percent from the field and 35 percent from three.

(This thanks in large part to a heavy reliance on inefficient isolation basketball with no other offensive options to lean on. LeBron leads all players in isolation plays with 192 this postseason, which is more than every other team except Houston, according to NBA.com’s SportVU player tracking data.)

C) Barring an unprecedented recovery by Kyrie Irving (who has already conceded he will not be 100 percent for Game 1), the Warriors will have as many as seven of the eight best players in this series.

(JR Smith, Tristan Thompson, and Dellahobo putting up inflated stats while playing inflated minutes with the best player in the league doesn’t mask their actual value.)

D) LeBron has had to drag his worst supporting cast since 2007 to the NBA Finals against: a Celtics team that had no business in the postseason, a Bulls team that just wanted their season over, and a hobbled Hawks team playing Kent Bazemore, Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack a combined 103 minutes in an overtime playoff loss.

This team isn’t exactly tested.

E) LeBron’s right-hand man for much of the series will likely be JR Smith. I cannot overstate this.

Taking into account the objective measurements and subjective eye test, this is one of the more uneven Finals matchups of the past decade.

While regular season supremacy isn’t always capped with championship hardware, even in a best-of-seven series, I have to imagine the Warriors would be much heavier favorites and considerably less doubted publicly if they had the “championship pedigree” of, say, the Spurs.

A quick scan through this week’s sports talk show lineup will provide a sample of the narrative and argument some are constructing around the almighty intangible of experience.

The younger Warriors, none of whom have ever played a game at this stage, are about to get a lesson in championship basketball from the two-time champion himself, LeBron.

Yeah, and Noah hadn’t built a damn ark either.

Nevermind that the Warriors have been historically great for seven months.  Do they have the heart of a champion? Have they earned it.

LeBron can win a championship. We know because we’ve watched him do it twice.

Can the Warriors win a championship? Have they earned it? How can we know?

Why do fans, especially in this sport, have a hard time believing a team can win a championship before they actually win one.

What kind of analysis is this?

The league’s history of “rites of passage” and “torch passing” between great teams helps breed this dogma.

Experience advantage.
Experience advantage, folks.

NBA folklore — as told by sports writers — will tell you that teams didn’t just win their first championship because they were the best team in a given year. They had to earn it and learn how to be champions first by suffering failure and heartbreak.

“LeBron only won his first title in 2012 because he was humbled the year prior vs. Dallas. Jordan couldn’t win his first until he finally took enough hard fouls and losses from the Bad Boy Pistons. And Wilt Chamberlain didn’t win his first until he lost to Bill Russell five times in seven postseasons.”

… or so the story goes.

(Nevermind that both Tim Duncan and Magic Johnson won Finals MVP’s in their first seasons in the league. Apparently they got an adversity discount from the Basketball Gods.)

Fans want to believe a team’s championship is something larger than a simple resolution for which team is better at a given time because they want their sports to be more than that.

They want plotlines.

They want heroes and villains and hard work and adversity and fairy tales and flying unicorns.

They want a damn Nike commercial.

These narratives exude everything that make people, myself included, gravitate to sports – heart, determination, overcoming challenges. Without these abstractions, sports writing would largely be reduced to relaying a box score and some quotes on deadline.

However, while I wouldn’t discredit the intuitive benefits of failures and experience while attempting a task over, any argument predominantly constructed upon LeBron’s “experience advantage” is empty, bullshit analysis.

No measure of “experience” will salvage a Cavs championship after JR Smith misses his 11th shot in the third quarter of game four before scanning the crowd for the Instagram model he DM’ed before the game.

Ask the 2004 Lakers how many games experience ever won.

There would be no sports fairy tale more fit for a Nike commercial than LeBron returning to his hometown to carry this overmatched team to a championship in his first season.

I’d enjoy seeing it; you’d enjoy seeing it; we’d all enjoy seeing it.

If it happens, it will be because the best player in the world tangibly outplayed the best team in the world four times.

Phil Knight shouldn’t hold his breathe.

Warriors in 5.

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