NBA Finals Preview

The NBA Finals start on Thursday night in Oakland (9 PM ET, ABC) with the rematch between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Golden State is a (-180) favorite to win a repeat championship and there are storylines aplenty for the media - who needs the title more for their legacy, LeBron or the 73-win Warriors? Are a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love this time around the difference for the Cavs? But the biggest thing that matters is that these games are the last chance to make money betting basketball for a few months.

Let's set the tone for the Finals by looking at the tale of the tape, where each team ranks in the NBA among the 30 teams in the most important categories...

Golden State: 1st
Cleveland: 4th

Golden State: T4th
Cleveland: 10th

Golden State: 8th
Cleveland: T3rd

Golden State: 1st
Cleveland: 7th

Golden State: +7
Cleveland: +4.7

We see steady advantages for the Warriors in every area except rebounding. Given that Golden State set a league record with 73 wins, the fact they consistently rank higher in the component parts of winning is not a surprise. What matters is handicapping these Finals is determining if there's anywhere within the numbers, the head-to-head matchup, or in each team's current form, that would make Cleveland a value buy to win the championship.

The Cavaliers clearly need to control the glass if they're going to have any chance to win the series, and they will likely need to do it by a lot. We can tie this directly to the question of pace. The biggest distinction between Golden State & Cleveland this season is that the Warriors played at the fastest pace in the NBA and the Cavs were one of the slowest.

If Cleveland can get a halfcourt game, where their size advantage comes more into play, they become the better team. You may recall that in last year's Finals - without Love and Irving, the Cavs still won two of the first three games and center Timofey Mozgov was making a name for himself. It wasn't until the Warriors found a way to accelerate the tempo that they took over the series and won the final three.

The downside to this theory, at least from Cleveland's perspective, is that in two head-to-head meetings this season, they were unable to make it work. The Cavs lost to the Warriors on Christmas Day and were absolutely humiliated, 132-98 in mid-January. If the coaching staff has any way to slow Golden State down, we haven't seen it yet.

But about that coaching staff...the aforementioned 34-point loss came during a ten-day stretch when the Cavs also lost to the Spurs and Bulls and it ended with David Blatt being fired. Tyronn Lue, who obviously commands much more respect from LeBron than Blatt ever did, took his place.

Cleveland coasted through the Eastern Conference playoffs with a record of 12-2, while Golden State was pushed to the edge and had to win three straight against Oklahoma City to survive the conference finals. But the difference between the paths each team had to travel in the playoffs is vastly different. The East has no one besides the Cavs who is anywhere close to championship-caliber. The West offered up the Thunder as a challenger - a team who had beaten the 67-win Spurs.

The result of this is that breaking down data from the playoffs is going to be shaded towards the Cavs, who played the Pistons, Hawks & Raptors. The step up in class that Cleveland is going to have to make now is monumental. It's not to say they can't do it, but the fact they have the best three-point shooting percentage in the playoffs has to be taken with a grain of salt until we see them light it up against a championship-quality defense.

Finding a handicapping edge in this series requires all the resources we have, from statistical review to watching tape to consulting with on-scene sources. Cleveland is 9-5 ATS in the playoffs, while Golden State is 11-6 - both of those records round off to about 64 percent. The accuracy of the Vegas read on both teams is about the same.

But the edges can be found if you put the work in - are the Cavs a different team under Lue than they were with Blatt? Find the answers and you find the money.  

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