Cavs, War­riors lap­ping the field

Even ma­jor ad­di­tions might not boost other teams to level of NBA’s top two

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY NEIL GREEN­BERG­berg@wash­

The Golden State War­riors and Cleve­land Cavaliers will meet in the NBA Fi­nals. This is not a record­ing. But maybe it should be. Be­cause we’ll al­most cer­tainly play it again next year.

Af­ter the War­riors added Kevin Du­rant last sum­mer, many be­lieved an­other meet­ing be­tween the War­riors and Cavs was pre­des­tined be­fore the sea­son even be­gan. And un­less some­thing crazy hap­pens to sap the strength of ei­ther team be­fore next sea­son, it seems likely the cy­cle will re­peat un­til their re­spec­tive core play­ers ei­ther fall off or break apart. Even with po­ten­tial block­buster off­sea­son moves, it’s un­likely any NBA team can as­sem­ble the nec­es­sary tal­ent to ri­val ei­ther the War­riors or Cavaliers. The NBA, un­til fur­ther no­tice, is a league of two teams.

In terms of win shares — an es­ti­mate of the num­ber of wins con­trib­uted by a player on the ros­ter per 48 min­utes, with a league av­er­age of about .100 — the War­riors’ ros­ter has pro­duced .194 win shares per 48 min­utes, the most in this year’s NBA play­offs. The Cavaliers are a close sec­ond (.190) be­fore a huge dropoff to the other teams mak­ing it past the first round, such as the Hous­ton Rock­ets (.116), San An­to­nio Spurs (.109) and Wash­ing­ton Wizards (.106). That’s roughly the same as hav­ing a ros­ter full of first-team all-NBA for­ward An­thony Davis (.196 win shares per 48 min­utes) play­ing against a team made up of Seth (not Steph) Curry clones (.109). Post­sea­son per­for­mance is pre­ferred here be­cause of how lack­adaisi­cal the Cavaliers were dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son — their net rat­ing of plus-2.9 has since ex­ploded to plus-16.1 in the post­sea­son de­spite con­cerns about their depth and de­fense be­fore the play­offs be­gan. It seems rea­son­able to con­clude that the Cavaliers’ per­for­mance we’re wit­ness­ing now is closer to the “true” Cavs.

Any would-be ti­tle con­tender will have a tough task in try­ing to catch up to the War­riors and Cavaliers. There sim­ply aren’t enough play­ers avail­able via free agency or trade who can push a team into con­tention in one off­sea­son while that team also ad­heres to the salary cap.

It is even un­cer­tain whether the Spurs — largely con­sid­ered to be the clos­est team to join­ing the NBA’s top two — will be able to take the next step with a healthy Kawhi Leonard and some ad­di­tional all-star help.

Leonard was pro­duc­ing a league-high .316 win shares per 48 min­utes in the play­offs be­fore get­ting in­jured, and the Spurs were still far be­hind the tal­ent level of the Cavaliers and War­riors. Even adding pend­ing un­re­stricted free agent point guard Chris Paul (.264 win shares per 48 min­utes this sea­son), who is ru­mored to be in­ter­ested in join­ing the Spurs next sea­son, might not be enough to bridge the gap.

Let’s say the Spurs are able to add Paul, who would be an up­grade at the point over the in­jured and ag­ing Tony Parker and backup Patty Mills. The team would likely have to say good­bye to big man Pau Ga­sol, who at .189 pro­duced the sec­ond­most win shares per 48 min­utes on the team this sea­son, in an ef­fort to cre­ate cap space.

The Bos­ton Celtics, who rank sev­enth in win shares per 48 min­utes (.080) this post­sea­son, are ex­pected to make a big leap this sum­mer, thanks in large part to own­ing the rights to the No. 1 over­all pick in the up­com­ing draft plus enough flex­i­bil­ity to cre­ate cap space to sign one of the prom­i­nent free agents on the mar­ket, such as Utah Jazz for­ward Gor­don Hay­ward or Los An­ge­les Clip­pers for­ward Blake Grif­fin. They could also use fu­ture draft as­sets, such as next year’s un­pro­tected Brook­lyn Nets pick, which is likely to be an­other high lot­tery se­lec­tion, to ac­quire some­one such as In­di­ana Pac­ers for­ward Paul Ge­orge or Chicago Bulls for­ward Jimmy But­ler.

Let’s as­sume the Celtics take Uni­ver­sity of Wash­ing­ton guard Markelle Fultz with the top pick over­all in the 2017 draft. In the lot­tery era, four guards have been se­lected No. 1 over­all: Allen Iver­son, Der­rick Rose, John Wall and Kyrie Irv­ing. That group av­er­aged .077 win shares per 48 min­utes dur­ing their rookie sea­sons and .104 dur­ing their first year of post­sea­son play. Let’s also look at the best-case sce­nario for Bos­ton this off­sea­son, which would in­clude it ac­quir­ing both Hay­ward and But­ler for next year’s play­off run. And fi­nally, let’s as­sume point guard Isa­iah Thomas was com­pletely healthy and avail­able for the en­tire sec­ond round of these play­offs, in­creas­ing the base­line of their win shares per 48 be­fore adding the new play­ers. Even with all that, the Celtics’ post­sea­son ros­ter would pro­duce .088 wins shares per 48 min­utes, leav­ing them still sev­enth over­all, just by a smaller mar­gin.

One caveat, be­cause adding those play­ers would make the Celtics un­de­ni­ably bet­ter: Their win shares this post­sea­son could be skewed be­cause they suf­fered some com­pletely lop­sided losses when they dropped games. Much as we used post­sea­son win shares per 48 be­cause it bet­ter iden­ti­fies the Cavaliers’ true abil­ity, us­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son win shares per 48 for the Celtics gives them a start­ing point of .117, which would be boosted to .131 by the ad­di­tions of But­ler, Hay­ward and Fultz. That would cer­tainly push the Celtics closer to com­pet­i­tive ter­ri­tory with the Cavs and War­riors in the win shares cat­e­gory, but they’re still a dis­tant third.


LeBron James and Cleve­land will face Stephen Curry and Golden State in a third straight NBA Fi­nals start­ing Thurs­day.

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