The city of Cleveland hasn't won a professional sports championship since 1964 (or a year before Golden State coach Steve Kerr was born). The Warriors haven't been to the NBA Finals since 1975 (or two years before Cavs assistant Tyronn Lue was born). Which team quenches its championship thirst in the 2015 Finals? Our 5-on-5 panel breaks down the match between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors, which begins Thursday.
1. What is the most important storyline of the Finals?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Great player vs. great team. I've never seen so many individual-based facts associated with a team as I have with the Cavaliers these playoffs. Everything is "LeBron James' record when leading a series 2-0 is . . . " or "LeBron's fifth straight trip to the Finals." But that's how singularly significant he is in this league, reflective of a man who has won 17 of his past 19 playoff series. Then again, the Spurs hung one of those L's on him with outstanding team play in the 2014 Finals, and great team play in every facet has been the hallmark of these 2014-15 Warriors. History tells you the better team wins a best-of-seven series. But there's that nagging question: Can you beat a great player in his prime four times?
Dave McMenamin, Cavs writer, ESPN.com: Going into it, the most important storyline is Kyrie Irving's health. His status has been shrouded in a bit of mystery ever since the conference finals. Was Game 4 against Atlanta a breakthrough or an aberration? We just don't know at this point. If he's healthy, he has the potential to be the third-best player in the series after LeBron James and Stephen Curry.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: LeBron's chance to lead Cleveland to the city's first championship of any kind in a bazillion years; LeBron's potential slippage to a 2-4 career record in the NBA Finals; LeBron's status as the only player in this whole series with an NBA Finals pedigree to speak of; LeBron's mighty struggles from beyond the 3-point arc throughout this postseason. In a word: LeBron.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, Warriors writer, ESPN.com: From a league health perspective, how many will watch? Recent Warriors game ratings have been surprisingly strong and a Cavs title would be a massive story. With major teams like the Lakers, Knicks, Celtics and Bulls coming short of title contention (to varying degrees), the NBA needs a new draw. Can LeBron's Cavs capture the public's imagination for a while? Can Curry's Warriors?
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: The Warriors are one of the most popular teams of the past decade. Fans love the way they play, they love their star players, they love their star players' kids, they love their coach, they love their uniforms, they love their court. They're in the honeymoon, everyone is happy and smiling and their energy is infectious. It's a wonderful feel-good story, and America wants them to win.
2. The Cavaliers will win the title if . . .
Adande: . . . LeBron sets the tone for his teammates and sets them up. He can inform his less-experienced teammates what it takes to win in the NBA Finals, and he can create easy shots for them by drawing in the defense. His assists will be the biggest gauge of the series. One reason the 2014 Finals were the quickest of his four in Miami was he averaged only four assists after averaging more than seven in the previous three Finals.
McMenamin: . . . their defense looks anything like it did in the first three rounds of the playoffs. Sure, Golden State has more firepower than any of Cleveland's previous opponents, but the Cavs certainly found something on the defensive end with their communication, rotations, extra efforts and, of course, the whirling dervish that is Tristan Thompson.
Stein: . . . Kyrie Irving's knee and J.R. Smith's famed unpredictability trend in a positive direction to give LeBron some much-needed help. He won't be able to do it alone offensively against a Warriors team this deep and teeming with different defenders to throw at him: Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and, of course, Draymond Green.
Strauss: . . . they offensively rebound like crazy, that'll go a long way. The Warriors haven't exactly excelled at defensive rebounding this season and the Cavs have been so good at converting bricks to swishes. It sounds reductive, but if Golden State keeps the Cavs off the offensive glass, it wins.
Windhorst: . . . their defense is actually legit and not just a product of having played a weak Eastern Conference. They were a better defensive team in the last three months of the season, but what they've shown in the playoffs is nearly an unprecedented metamorphosis. Either the Warriors are going to be stunned by it, or they are going to expose it.
3. The Warriors will win the title if . . .
Adande: . . . they share the ball with each other instead of giving the ball to the Cavaliers. The times the Warriors have been in trouble in these playoffs is when the turnover count gets high. They're the second-best shooting team from the field and from 3 in the playoffs. The Cavaliers can't match them shot-for-shot, as long as the Warriors are getting them up.
McMenamin: . . . they take care of home court. It's that simple. The only way the Cavs win is if they steal at least one game at Oracle Arena.
Stein: . . . they aren't suffocated by the step up to the biggest stage in the sport. We really don't know how Finals pressure will affect a group that stunningly sports a combined zero seconds of Finals experience on its 15-man roster. Might the moment overwhelm these Warriors? We'll see. The last team to win a title with a squad full of Finals rookies, as the Elias Sports Bureau reminds us, was Michael Jordan's first title team in Chicago in 1991.
Strauss: . . . they secure defensive rebounds, which is key for the Warriors, but so is defense on Cleveland's shooters. The Warriors don't want to be like the Hawks, who sent so much help at LeBron that he found kickouts all over the floor. If Golden State mutes the likes of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, it's in great shape.
Windhorst: . . . they turn it into a score-fest. With every basket scored, the chances of the Warriors winning each game increases. I don't believe the Cavs can hang with them if it becomes a track meet and shooting contest. The Cavs have some weapons, but they can't match the Warriors full-blast.
4. Which MVP running mate is most important in this series?
Adande: Draymond Green. He can do so much for the Warriors: defend, rebound, push the ball in transition, make open 3s, be that dog that every team needs. The problems come when he tries to do too much: fire jumpers early in the shot clock, make passes to teammates who aren't open, woof when the referees are watching him. Still, he has more dimensions to his game than any of the Cavaliers' role players. Tristan Thompson can rebound, Timofey Mozgov can defend, J.R. Smith can shoot. But none has the versatility of Green.
McMenamin: Iman Shumpert. Not only will his defense on Stephen Curry be necessary for the Cavs to have a chance, but he will need to keep sticking open jumpers like he has in the playoffs thus far in order for Cleveland's offense to keep pace with the high-scoring Warriors.
Stein: Probably J.R. Smith. The Warriors are so much deeper than Cleveland that they can turn to two or three different sidekicks for Steph Curry on a game-to-game basis. The uncertainty that surrounds Irving's health, the unavailability of Kevin Love and Smith's flammability (or fallibility) from outside all figure to be huge swing factors.
Strauss: Green. He'll have to keep Tristan Thompson off the glass and also guard LeBron James at times. Mix in his considerable offensive responsibilities, and he's capable of having a huge impact. Maybe that's not surprising, considering he very well could be his team's second-best player.
Windhorst: The Cavs need Kyrie Irving more than the Warriors need Klay Thompson, in my opinion. In general, Golden State has a wider margin for error in this series, and that expands beyond individual players.
5. Which team will be crowned the 2014-15 NBA champion?
Adande: It's so tempting to go with the best player on the court and pick the Cavs, but ultimately my choice is impacted by Brian Scalabrine. Yes, Brian Scalabrine. After I and so many of my media colleagues went with the hot hand and picked Kobe Bryant and the Lakers to beat the Celtics in 2008, Scalabrine strolled into the interview room and chastised us after the Celtics' Game 6 triumph. It remains the only postgame podium by a player who didn't log a single second on the court. "We won 66 games, we had the best defense in the NBA," he reminded all of the failed prognosticators. "I just didn't see it." The Warriors won 67 games, they had the best defense in the NBA. I can see clearly now. Warriors in seven.
McMenamin: I'm going with the Cavs in six games. Maybe seeing LeBron James up close all season has made me biased about his influence, maybe I'm a sucker for a great story and the appeal of covering Cleveland ending its 51-year championship drought is swaying me. Whatever the case, give me Cleveland.
Stein: Warriors in six. They're deeper. They're healthier. They've got the extra home game. My sense is that the Cavs will have to win twice on Golden State's floor to win the series, and I can't see them winning more than once at Oracle.
Strauss: The Golden State Warriors will be champions. That's almost as strange a sentence to type as saying: "Cleveland will win the championship." Anyway, the Warriors have the top-ranked defense and the second-ranked offense this season. It sounds simplistic, but how do I pick against that?
Windhorst: I'm not interested in the prediction game. I'm having a hard time gauging these two teams since there is almost no track record of legitimate past matchups. The Warriors are favored and I agree with that assessment. I suspect the Cavs are a product of their conference and are about to be in some trouble, but I also recognize they're 46-11 since mid-January and if you don't respect that number, you're doing them a disservice.