Amid the grander talk of legacies and LeBron James' quest to bring one home for the Land, there's one essential question the Cavaliers must answer if they want to knock off the defending champs.
Can Kyrie and Kevin Love hold their own defending Warriors pick-and-rolls? If not, what will Cleveland do?
Given everything we've seen from Irving and Love this postseason and, frankly, throughout their careers, the answer to the first question is a resounding no.
Irving has all the physical tools, but never has shown any ability or desire to stick with opposing guards. He gets beat off the dribble and collapses on screens as if he's run into a brick wall. Love, meanwhile, doesn't have the strength to bang with the league's beefy bodies or the quickness to contain athletes on the perimeter. During this postseason run, the Cavaliers have been 8.4 points per 100 possessions better on defense when Love sits and a whopping 16.4 points per 100 possessions better defensively without Irving, according to NBA.com.
Love and Irving struggle with everything on that end of the court, but they've been particularly bad when opponents put them in the pick-and-roll. The pick-and-roll happens to be the precise play the Warriors run more effectively and efficiently than any team in the league, and perhaps in NBA history. Obviously, that puts Cleveland in an even tougher spot.
The Warriors' success begins with the never-before-seen talents of Stephen Curry. The Warriors could throw a stuffed animal onto the court to screen for Curry and the play would still produce something close to these otherworldly numbers.
Yet Curry's production is enhanced because he gets to dance with a partner like Draymond Green, a "big man" in size only. Green sees the court and handles the ball better than every other frontcourt player in the league. That combination is a cheat code that torments opposing coaches and defenders. Love famously fell victim to the Warriors' dynamic duo in early January.
If the Cavaliers kept their matchups simple and asked each player to guard their position counterpart, Love would start the game on Green and Irving would defend Curry. Cleveland head coach Tyronn Lue cannot allow that to happen. As of Game 5 against Toronto, opponents were scoring 1.09 points per play this postseason when targeting Irving and Love in pick-and-rolls, according to ESPN's Zach Lowe. That number that would have easily ranked last among duos that defended at least 250 pick-and-rolls during the regular season.
Irving doesn't have the strength or savvy to navigate around screens and prevent Curry from launching uncontested jumpers, while Love isn't swift enough to leap out above the three-point line. By the end of the Western Conference Finals, Curry was roasting the Thunder's limber big men every time they switched onto him on the perimeter. Imagine what he'll do if isolated against Love.
At the same time, Love also struggles when dropping back into the paint. Opponents are shooting 65 percent at the rim against him this postseason, per NBA.com. This is why Warriors staffers hinted to Lowe that a part of them would actually have preferred to play a healthy Cavaliers team during last year's Finals instead of the gritty, defense-oriented crew that Cleveland put on the floor after both Irving and Love went down.
There are some solutions for the Cavaliers, though they aren't ideal. Unfortunately for them, Irving has to guard Curry because there's nowhere else for Cleveland to stick him. He cannot guard Klay Thompson and there isn't an obvious replacement to guard Curry either. Benching Irving for last year's Finals hero Matthew Dellavedova also takes Cleveland back to Square 1: the Cavaliers also need Irving on the floor for his ability to create shots and make Curry and Thompson work on defense.
The good news is that Irving at least showed flashes of competent defense when guarding Curry during Game 1 of last year's Finals before going down with a knee injury. That leaves some hope that he could perhaps hold his own.
Love might need to be moved around or replaced, though the latter is not ideal because of his offensive contributions. He's shooting an excellent 45 percent on catch-and-shoot three-pointers during the playoffs, per NBA.com. That ability to space the floor creates all sorts of lanes and opportunities for Irving and LeBron James, even if it's all Love does. The Cavaliers' suddenly prolific and explosive offense has been nearly 17 points per 100 possessions better with Love this postseason, per NBA.com. It's on Lue to figure out ways to hide Love on defense so that he can remain on the floor.
Lue does have a few intriguing options. He can stash Love on Andrew Bogut whenever the Warriors elect to keep a center on the floor. That would hurt the Cavaliers' rim protection, but Cleveland has done well at keeping opponents away from the rim this postseason.
It's also likely that Golden State head coach Steve Kerr decides to play Green at center for a good chunk of the series, like he did last year after replacing Bogut in the starting lineup with Andre Iguodala. When that happens, Love will have to slide onto either Iguodala or Harrison Barnes. Barnes would be more ideal; he's not as effective as Iguodala off the dribble and is connecting on just 35 percent of his catch-and-shoot three-pointers this postseason, according to NBA.com. But the Warriors are experts at targeting opposing weak links and throwing them into all sorts of action, especially off the ball. They would no doubt do so with Love, even if he was on Barnes.
But the best way for Lue to find a solution to the Love problem is to think backwards. He should figure out who everyone else should guard, then circle back to Love.
Lue's top options for slowing down Golden State's dreaded Death Lineup involve putting either Tristan Thompson or LeBron James on Draymond Green. Though Thompson can't stop Curry, he's better than any Cavaliers big man at moving his feet getting in good positions to try.
But using James on Green and then asking him to switch onto Curry whenever thrown into a pick-and-roll is an intriguing solution. That's the strategy the Thunder used with Kevin Durant last series and they had more success slowing Golden State than anyone else over the past two years. The Cavaliers don't have the same absurd combination of athleticism and length that Oklahoma City does, but with the way they've been shooting, they don't need to defend at that level either.
Asking James to do that for the entire game could exhaust him and/or cause foul trouble. But fatigue shouldn't become a major issue with the amount of days off between games. Also, it's the Finals.
With James on Green, Thompson and Love can then split up the Iguodala/Barnes assignments. If Lue wants to keep Love on the floor, that's the best approach.
Then again, searching for ways to keep Love on the floor might be a futile exercise. The Cavaliers could instead replace Love with Channing Frye, who's shot the lights out even more than Love this postseason, but has also made Cleveland's defense seven points per 100 possessions better, per NBA.com. As dominant as the Cavaliers' starting five has been, the defense-and-shooting five-man grouping of James, Frye, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson and Matthew Dellavedova has been even better, outscoring opponents by 46.6 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. It might be time to see if Frye (and perhaps that Cavaliers' "death lineup," too) can be as effective playing more minutes.
Doing so would mean benching an All-Star making big-time money, but now's not the time for Lue to worry about egos or feelings. It's his job to put his players in the best possible positions, and pairing Love with Irving for big minutes could dramatically expose their defensive problems.
That's why the best position for Love this series may actually be on the bench.