Cavs, Warriors lapping the field
Even major additions might not boost other teams to level of NBA’s top two
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.