ESPN's Basketball Power Index gives the Cleveland Cavaliers only a 25 percent chance of beating the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. Given that steep hill to climb, the Cavaliers have to craft a game plan that takes advantage of their strengths and the matchups that favor them, while minimizing their weaknesses and avoiding unfavorable matchups. Since the 73-win Warriors do not have many weaknesses and have few matchups that don't favor them, the Cavaliers need to think a little differently. Focusing on the three points of emphasis below will help the Cavaliers do just that.
Job No. 1 for the Cavaliers will be to find a way to slow down the juggernaut that is the Steph Curry 3-point show. The problem with that, of course, is that no defense has been able to consistently keep the Warriors' offense under control. Typically, teams assume that the Warriors' offense is driven by the record-breaking number of highly efficient 3-point shots that they take. If that were the case, however, the Cavaliers' best shot would be to design a defensive game plan that looks to limit the Warriors' shot quality -- force them to take shots that have a lower expected effective field goal percentage (eFG). The Warriors' great strength, though, is not really their shot selection. Quantified Shot Quality (qSQ) is a measure that uses player tracking data to estimate a eFG based on shot distance, type of shot, defensive proximity and other factors.
The Warriors ranked third in the league with a qSQ of 52.2 during the regular season -- and that has dropped to 51.8 (league average is 50) in the postseason. Their historically efficient offense is not dependent on shot quality (Golden State has won 9-of-11 games with a shot quality below 50), but instead it is built on the incredible shooting ability of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Using quantified Shooter Impact, which measures how often a player hits his shots relative to an average shooter taking the same quality of shot, the Splash Brothers rank first (Curry) and fifth (Thompson) in the league -- no other team has two players in the top 10.
This means that no matter what kind of shots the Warriors are going to take, they'll make them at a higher rate than anyone else in the league. So, instead of worry about the shot quality, the Cavaliers should focus on the number of shots they get. While it may not be possible for the Cavaliers to limit the shot-making ability of the Warriors, they do have the tools to stop them from getting more shots.
The two mechanisms the Cavaliers have to limit the Warriors' opportunities are rebounding and turnovers -- and the Cavs can do both. Each defensive board that the Cavs haul in not only gives the Cavs an offensive possession, but denies the Warriors an opportunity to take another shot. And the Cavs ranked fifth in the league in defensive rebound percentage (DREB%) this season and have three players (Love, Frye, and Thompson) above 20. The Warriors rank 19th in offensive rebounding, so if the Cavaliers focus on rebounding every shot the Warriors miss, they will make a dent into the overall efficiency of the Warriors' offense.
The second area of focus for the Cavaliers should be creating turnovers. The Warriors can be sloppy with the ball, turning it over a league average of 14.5 percent on their possessions. Each turnover takes shots away from Steph and Klay.
When Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova and LeBron James are on the court together, they generate turnovers on 16.3 percent of possessions, which would be third in the league. When Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith are on the court with LeBron, they create turnovers on 13.9 percent of possessions, good for 20th in the league. So focusing on turnovers may mean finding more time for Delly and Shump and a little less for Kyrie and J.R.
The obvious objection to the second point of focus is that less Kyrie and J.R. means less offense, which brings us to the third point of focus for the Cavaliers: transition.
The first two points, rebounding and turnovers, play to a strength of the Cavaliers that they do not use frequently: their transition offense. The Cavaliers lead the league with 1.4 points per transition chances this season. Despite this strength, the Cavaliers ran on only 13.1 per 100 possessions this season -- 17th in the league. The Warriors, who ranked third in transition scoring, ran on five more possessions per 100 possessions than the Cavaliers. With the focus on defensive rebounding and steals, however, the Cavs will have more opportunities to run, provided they seize them.
Add in that when Shump and Delly are on the court with LeBron, their points per transition chance rise to 1.6 (0.2 points higher than when Irving and Smith are on the floor), and that when Kevin Love passes to a shooter on a fast break, they have an eFG of 80 percent, and there is a recipe to start to turn the BPI odds around.