The Cleveland Cavaliers' best player is LeBron James, who you've surely heard is quite good at basketball. James' shooting is way down by his standards, but he's still the most difficult man in the NBA to stop.
On paper, the Golden State Warriors are well-equipped to do the job. They had the league's best defense this year, which may come as a surprise to those who have never heard of pace-adjusted stats. If anyone in the NBA can stop LeBron, it's these Warriors.
Yet, LeBron has made a career out of taking the best-prepared defensive schemes and shredding them. The Warriors need to come up with a strategy that not only eliminates his own effectiveness, but also the many ways he aides his teammates. Nobody has been able to do that this postseason.
The Warriors can, but it may require a daring philosophy that few teams have the guts to try and the personnel to pull it off. This is why the Warriors should think about not double-teaming the best basketball player on the planet.
Because the Warriors are the only team with the personnel to guard him straight up
Few teams have even one player that could conceivably take the primary LeBron assignment. The Warriors arguably have five. Three (Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green) are obvious, while two (Klay Thompson and Shaun Livingston) can hang in there on switches.
Unfortunately, Steve Kerr can only choose one at a time, and that choice comes with several ripple effects. None of these options are as ideal as Kawhi Leonard in last year's finals. Each has drawbacks.
Barnes has quick feet and showed in the Memphis series that he can battle with post players, but he's still a little green at using his leverage in short spaces. It didn't take long for LeBron to go to work on Barnes when these two teams played in the regular season.
Iguodala is a better defensive option if James were only a pick-and-roll player. It's hard to screen Iguodala, at least on the plays where he's fully dialed in. The Cavaliers couldn't on this sequence in the February game and paid for it.
But at 215 pounds, Iguodala gives up a lot of size in the post, where James is scoring more often because his jumper isn't working. The Warriors will find that Iguodala's ball denial and help defense are more valuable than whatever chance he has preventing James from backing him into the rim.
That leaves Green. If you took everyone else off the court and had to choose the Warrior most likely to stop James from the free-throw line without any help, Green is the obvious winner. He's quick enough to stay with LeBron and physical enough to body him in the low post. Green spent most of the February game between these two teams guarding Kevin Love, which won't be a problem in this series.
But basketball isn't played in this vacuum. If Green guards LeBron, then Green can't help on the defensive glass or trigger fast breaks himself by grabbing rebounds and going. Green may also struggle defending those James/point guard screen and rolls that confused the Hawks at times.
All that explains why Kerr actually kept Iguodala on James and stuck Green on J.R. Smith in the few third-quarter minutes without Love in February. The guess here is that the Warriors will begin traditionally with Barnes or Iguodala on James while keeping the Green adjustment in their back pocket. That's a major luxury for Kerr to have even if he doesn't have Kawhi Leonard.
Because LeBron knows how to beat double teams
We know Andrew Bogut will play a major role no matter what. Every team that's challenged LeBron, from the 2009 Magic to the 2014 Spurs, used size to lurk around the rim and dish out perfectly legal verticality punishment. Bogut and backup Festus Ezeli will be beat at times, but they have to make LeBron work.
How much he and others help is far more difficult to figure out. LeBron's a devastating battering ram with a photographic memory that probably wins at chess with his eyes closed. You can't just flood bodies to him because he'll find open shooters. Just ask the Atlanta Hawks, who overloaded their defense to James' side as soon as he caught the ball, only for LeBron to pick them apart every damn time.
The Warriors at least have more size to impair James' vision should they choose hard double-teams, but James is smart enough to shift his positioning to find the passing lanes he needs.
That leaves a few alternatives. Teams sometimes confuse LeBron by faking hard double-teams different times, only to scurry back to their men when he looks to pass. That digging down must be well-disguised, though. Otherwise, James will chill and let those help defenders do the hokey pokey until they tire themselves out.
Another option is to send help only once James enters dangerous zones. That's the strategy the Bulls have used over the years, and it's reasonably effective thanks to the combination of Joakim Noah's rim protection and Jimmy Butler's sturdiness. But the Cavaliers feasted on the offensive glass in the second round because the Bulls' big men constantly ceded offensive rebounding position to Thompson and Mozgov when they helped on LeBron.
That's also why the Spurs' shell defense from last year's finals won't work. San Antonio played what was essentially a Box and 1 on James in the post, dropping each defender down to the edge of the paint.
Yet that defense was uniquely suited to beating the Heat because they put shooters around LeBron and rarely crashed the boards. James got his points this way, but nobody else did.
The Cavaliers present an entirely different problem. They lack perimeter-shooting big men with Love injured, but have multiple players that can duck in to take advantage of their men shading to James. Thompson in particular has terrorized the sensible plans that the Bulls and Hawks used to limit James' shooting efficiency, by sneaking in front of them and seizing loose balls out of his zone.
This is how the Cavaliers are snagging nearly 30 percent of James' many missed shots this playoffs. (Thompson and Mozgov alone have grabbed over 17 percent). Those many extra possessions allow Cleveland to control tempo and partially excuse James' poor shooting efficiency this postseason.
The Warriors' fast break is deadly taking advantage of teams crashing the glass, but nobody is crashing as well as the Cavaliers right now. Even sending late help on LeBron runs the risk of opening the Cavaliers' second-biggest offensive weapon.
- Sending early help to LeBron definitely won't work.
- Sending late help to LeBron probably won't work.
What's left? Not double-teaming much at all.
Because not doubling will break the rest of the Cavaliers
Cut LeBron off from his teammates, and LeBron's influence decreases.
On the surface, this statement seems like an academic one with no real-life practicality. For one, most humans overreact when someone hits three straight shots even if they're tough ones. For another, James has a way of coaxing help to him anyway even if it's not part of the plan. You try standing still as a battering ram destroys your castle.
But the Warriors may be the one team capable of turning this idea from theory to reality. They have a zillion wings to inflict punishment on LeBron in one-on-one situations. They have a center savvy enough to time his rim protection properly should James get all the way there. They have the defensive intelligence to understand not to freak out if James scores a bunch against that single coverage.
The Warriors are smart enough to realize that not helping on LeBron removes every other problem Cleveland poses. It makes it easier to keep the Cavaliers off the boards, which helps Golden State's fast break. It prevents Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Kyrie Irving and Matthew Dellavedova from getting clean three-point looks. Most importantly, it wears James down over time. Imagine having to punch a wall over and over until it cracks. Eventually, you'll get angry (mental fatigue) and your hand will hurt (physical fatigue), so your punches are weaker.
Easier said than done? Of course. But over time, this may be the Warriors' best strategy to shut down LeBron and remove the other Cavalier advantages.
The Warriors must understand that stopping LeBron James is a war of attrition. James will put up numbers against the Warriors' elite defense. He will test their resolve.
But by helping minimally and forcing jump shots whenever possible, the Warriors will limit James' efficiency and slowly tire him out. The Warriors have too much firepower for James to win four games by bowling his way into the lane time after time after time. Cleveland's only chance is if LeBron can continue to lift his teammates with the open shots and offensive rebound opportunities he creates.
Take those away, and James is merely one man. No single man, not even LeBron James, has enough in him to defeat a 67-win team all by himself.
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