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Bob Ryan

This NBA Finals matchup is Man vs. Machine

LeBron James’s effect on an NBA team is undeniable. The Warriors, meanwhile, are trying to make a case for itself as one of the great single-season clubs of all time.USA Today Sports/EPA/USA Today Sports

I’m interested in the NBA Finals. I don’t know about you.

Yes, we have this dreadful gap between the Golden State conquest of Houston last Wednesday evening and the beginning of the 2015 Finals on Thursday. I’ve been listening closely, but I must confess that if there’s a, you know, buzz out there in the general sports community I have yet to hear it. An eight-day hiatus in basketball activity is a genuine buzz-killer if there ever was one.

That’s too bad, because this is a really intriguing Finals, starting with the presence of the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers as the Eastern Conference representative.


LeBron James is a magnificent basketball player. Is he perfect? No. But is he the greatest two-way player currently drawing breath on Planet Earth? Indisputably, yes, he is. As to whether or not he is the Greatest Thing Ever, well, that’s an issue that won’t be settled for many years. There’s a lot of tread left on them there tires, and we shall see how the rest of his career plays out.

What anyone professing to love basketball should do is avail oneself of as many opportunities to see LeBron James as he or she can. Players such as this do not materialize very often. We spend a great deal of time as sports fans lamenting the what-ifs. What if we could put Player X’s head on Player Y’s body? What if so-and-so didn’t get hurt? (Exhibit A: Bill Walton.) What if a hundred different things?

We have no such problem with LeBron James. Here is a man with Karl Malone’s body possessing the ball-handling skills and point guard sensibility of Magic Johnson, combined with the offensive versatility and the basketball IQ of Larry Bird. Never underestimate how huge he is. His massive strength enables him to finish off “and-ones” that are denied the average player.


There can be no denying the cause and effect of his presence on a team. The Cavaliers went from winning 61 games in 2009-10 to winning 19 games the year after he departed for Miami. They won 24 and 33 games in the two years prior to his return. This year they won 53 games while roaring down the stretch after a 19-20 start.

The Big One
LeBron James's production in the last five postseasons.
Postseason Team G PPG FGM-FGA FG% TS% MP
2010-11 MIA 21 23.7 174-373 .466 .563 43.9
2011-12 MIA 23 30.3 251-502 .500 .576 42.7
2012-13 MIA 23 25.9 212-432 .491 .585 41.7
2013-14 MIA 20 27.4 192-340 .565 .668 38.2
2014-15 CLE 14 27.6 149-348 .428 .492 40.7
Source: basketball-reference.com

And here they are, having rolled into the Finals with sweeps of Boston and Atlanta sandwiched around a 4-2 dispatch of Chicago.

They have done this with a vaunted Big Three sometimes having shrunk to a Big One, or at best, a Big One and a Half given the status of Kyrie Irving. The absence of Kevin Love has been insignificant, in part because Tristan Thompson has seized his own moment to frame himself as a preeminent Rebounding Dude. But the major reason the Cavs have kept on going has been the transcendent all-around play of LeBron James. With all due respect to the contributions of Thompson, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov, and the newly infamous Matthew Dellavedova, the fact that the Cavs are in the Finals is largely due to the amazing play of the World’s Greatest Player.

Opposite them are the Golden State Warriors, a team that is trying to make a case for itself as one of the great single-season clubs of all time.

You read that correctly. The Warriors are truly having a season for the ages.


I refer you to the writings of Nate Silver and Reuben Fischer-Baum, who have rated every NBA and ABA team that has ever played via something called the Elo Ratings. I couldn’t begin to tell you exactly how it’s compiled, but what I can tell you is that by their computation the Warriors put together the third-best regular season ever, trailing only the 1995-96 Bulls of 72-10 fame and the 1996-97 Bulls of 69-13 aggregation. In fourth place on this list are the 1985-86 Celtics.

Golden State's golden age
How this year's Warriors compare to the 1995-96 and 1996-97 Bulls.
Team Season PPG FG% 3P% MOV Opp PPG
CHI 1995-96 105.2 .478 .403 12.24 92.9
CHI 1996-67 103.1 .473 .373 10.08 92.3
GSW 2014-15 110.0 .478 .398 10.10 99.9
Source: basketball-reference.com

As you might suspect, nothing has yet altered my opinion that the ’85-86 Celtics would win any mythical all-time tournament, the ultimate trump card being that no team in NBA or ABA history ever brought anything remotely resembling a healthy Bill Walton off the bench. A close second reason I can guarantee you that the ’85-86 Celtics would have handled any of the Bulls’ teams was the presence in the lineup of Kevin McHale. Who, exactly, on the Bulls was going to guard Kevin McHale? Surely not Dennis Rodman, whom McHale would post up relentlessly while laughing his way to 35.

For the umpteenth time, I will tell you that the two best NBA teams I’ve ever seen were the ’85-86 Celtics and the ’86-87 Lakers. Oh, what a seven-game series those two would have waged.

All that said, the presence of the current Warriors team is more than a little impressive. They can start with the belief that in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson they have the most devastating pair of backcourt shooters in league history. (We must hope that Thompson will be OK after that awful moment when Trevor Ariza’s knee inadvertently came into contact with Thompson’s head in that game last Wednesday night). Curry and Thompson are a hard pair to keep down, and when they are both on at the same time, the Warriors cannot lose.


What impresses me most about the Warriors, and why I will defend their exalted presence on the Elo Rating list, is that they won 67 games while playing in the 2014-15 Western Conference, which is very likely the strongest conference in the history of the league, and they won it by 11 games!

Logic clearly dictates that the deeper Warriors, a great offensive team that, oh by the way, also ranked first in significant defensive metrics, will prevail, perhaps in as few as five games. That’s fine, but I’m anxious to see how the World’s Greatest Player responds to his latest challenge.

What I really wish is that the thing began last night. The wait is ridiculous.

Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.