The (advanced) stats that will define the NBA Finals
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Speed and Distance
After watching LeBron James zip around the court for four seasons in Miami, it's easy to assume that he's doing the same thing in Cleveland. Yet for all his highlight dunks this season, LeBron's team is playing at pace Byron Scott would appreciate. In fact, the Cavaliers are tied for last in average speed in these playoffs at 4 mph (I too assumed that NBA athletes played faster than this). Their counterpart, the Warriors, rank 3rd at 4.2 mph. Obviously, a 0.2 difference doesn't seem like much, but it becomes more discernible when considering the effect it has on distance traveled per game.
The Warriors rank fourth among all teams to have played in the playoffs with 16.8 miles traveled per game. Can you take a guess where the Cavs rank? They are second to last at 16.2. Mozgov's heavy footed trot alone might be the difference in all of this. So despite this series being billed as a matchup of relatively similar teams, they are not. The Warriors are high octane, using the transition as their nitrus to put up points quickly while establishing big leads.
The Cavs rely on something completely different: offensive rebounding (well, and LeBron James). The clash of these two styles will be a piece of the expansive puzzle that will solve itself over the course of the next two weeks. Until then, I am just going to spout off questions like a kid watching a complicated-for-a-kid movie: Can the Cavs keep up with the Warriors? Do they want to keep up with the Warriors? Can the Warriors win playing at a pace akin to keeping a Ferrari in first gear? How fast can LeBron James run? Can he run the length of the floor twice before Mozgov runs it once?
Around the Basket
Protecting the paint, and ultimately the thing people are aiming for, is a pretty big no-brainer, right? You'd think the team that does this the best has a discernible advantage over the other, right? The answer is yes. In these playoffs, the Warriors are ranked second in opponent's field goal percentage at the rim at 47.5 percent. The Cavs are ranked 5th with 50.6 percent. While this statistic is important for both teams, it is not created equal.
The Warriors are pretty "meh" on drives. They average the fourth lowest drives per game of all playoff teams and average the fifth lowest points per game off drives. Cleveland, on the other hand, consistently drives to the basket. They are averaging 32.9 points off drives per game in these playoffs which ranks third. Where this matchup really gets juicy (yes, stats can be juicy -- just ask Daryl Morey, who's been living off the fatty juices of NBA statistics for years) is when comparing the Cav's field goal percentage on drives with the Warriors opponent field goal percentage at the rim.
The Cavaliers are shooting 50.5 percent on drives. Whether or not they can continue to do that is a major question. The Warriors have been able to count on Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green to protect the peach basket so far, but when LeBron James is barreling down the lane it'll be a different story.
The battle under the rim will be as entertaining as any. At center it'll be a heavyweight fight between two 7-foot foreigners, (always intriguing for Americans) and at power forward it will be a brawl between a player that has relied mostly on athletic ability and tenacity (Tristan Thompson), and a player that has relied entirely on tenacity (Draymond Green). The rebounding numbers in particular will have a huge affect on the end result of this series. Although the Cavaliers are typically thought of as the better rebounding team, the stats don't scream, "This team has a major advantage!"
Take contested for rebounding rate, for example. One of these two teams is ranked first among all teams in the playoffs, and it's not the Cavaliers. The Dubs, at 38 percent are the best in the playoffs. The Cavs are 6th at 33.8 percent. For all the hoopla over the Cavs aggression on the rebounding end, the Warriors scrap harder. But the story doesn't end there. The Cavs are gobbling up more rebounds per chance than Golden State, beating them at a clip of 62.7% to 61.7%. Huge difference, I know.
And yet, the story still doesn't end there. The Cavs are tied for first in the playoffs in second chance points with 15.8 per game. So they are turning those rebounds into points at a high rate. The Warriors have the goods to combat that, however, as they are allowing just 10.9 second chance points per game. So, yeah, clearly these two teams are pretty well matched up. That's how it should be considering they are playing for a world championship. It's not accurate to say that the team that wins this battle will win the series. Rather it is more accurate to say that Cleveland will lose this series if they don't win this battle.
Basketball's transition away from the Jordan-like system of giving your best player the ball and letting them do their thing is still just that: a transition. It is not yet complete, as evidenced by these Cavs. After playing in Miami's space and pace system for four years, the King is bringing iso ball back. I guess he got tired of watching players like Mario Chalmers miss wide open corner three's. He's had 192 iso's in 14 games so far in the playoffs. Hows that going for him?
Well, he's ranked 6th to last in points per isolation at 0.68 in the playoffs. So despite the volume of isolations, it hasn't really been all that successful. James' is only averaging a 35% scoring frequency on such plays, that's almost half the scoring frequency of the man who will likely be guarding him, Harrison Barnes. Barnes has a frequency of 61.5 percent on isolations. So what does this say about LeBron? Well, he's shooting 37 percent on these plays, so it's not like he's using them to set up his teammates for an assist. Instead this indicates that he's running an inefficient play at an inefficient rate. Essentially, once LeBron has the ball in an iso, he's likelier to chuck the ball into the upper deck than dish it. And yet, the Cavs have won 12 of their past 14 games.
If LeBron is going to keep doing his best Dion Waiters impression he's going to have shoot a lot better than he has been of late. In the Cavs two losses this postseason, he's averaging 7 or more dribbles per possession 38.3 percent of the time. On those plays he's shooting a bleak 22.2 percent. In the same two games he shot 53.8 percent when he didn't take a single dribble. Furthermore, he shot just 14.3 percent when the closest defender was 6 or more feet away and LeBron was 10 or more feet from the basket. Yes, you read that right, 14.3 percent. Those are Rajon Rondo numbers. Actually, even Rondo shoots 40% on these shots... so I don't know if there is an accurate comparison.
Now, to be fair, these were in losses. In wins LeBron plays more like a king. He takes more than 7 dribbles 30.6 percent of the time and is shooting 45.7 percent on those plays. He takes 0 dribbles 22.6 percent of the time in such games and is shooting 48.5 percent when doing so. More importantly, he gets that measly 14.3 percent up to 25 percent when essentially unguarded and shooting from more than 10 feet. That's still a number you'd more expect from Deron Williams than LeBron, but 11 percent can make a difference. It feels redundant to say this, but I will: LeBron needs to dominate isolations to justify them in these finals.Other Stats of Note
-The Warriors best lineup this postseason is Curry, Green, Thompson, Livingston and Barnes. That group is +5.2. This is a variation of their small lineup, and it will be interesting to see how they play when they go small. Mosgov and Thompson might dominate the boards against such a lineup, so whether or not this group (or some variation) is effective will be an important part of this series. In case you were wondering, the Cavs best lineup is LeBron, Dellavedova, Shumpert, Smith, and Thompson at +3.3. Funny how these are both small lineups, huh? It's pretty clear where the style of play in NBA is heading.
-James Jones is going to get some playing time in this series, and it will be interesting to see how the Cavs hide him on defense. Opponents are shooting 43.6% when he's on the floor. That is second worst on the team behind, well, the guy who would replace him in the rotation; Shawn Marion. Teams are shooting 43.9% when Marion is on the floor. They may be vets with championship experience, but they are major liabilities.
-Opponent three point percentage is another key statistic. Why? Because threes are more than twos and it only took the league 30 years to figure it out. In wins this postseason the Cavs are holding opponents to 26.3 percent. In losses they are allowing teams to shoot 41%. In the Warriors 12 wins so far this postseason they are shooting 39.5 percent from three. In their three losses they are shooting 32.7 percent. In both wins and losses they are getting about 33 percent of their points from three pointers.
*Stats per NBA.com and Probasketballtalk.com