This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.
One year ago, an injured and depleted Cleveland Cavaliers team pushed the 67-win Golden State Warriors to the brink in the NBA Finals. The Cavs took a 2-1 lead as they slowed the pace, trusted LeBron James to shoulder a superhuman load, and pragmatically dragged the Dubs into just the kind of game they didn't want to play. The Warriors adapted—this was the crucible in which the fearsome death lineup was forged—survived, and ultimately thrived, because they're the damn Warriors. They won the final three games of the series to claim the franchise's first Larry O'Brien Trophy since 1975.
Starting on Thursday night, these two teams will meet in the Finals once again; once again, the Warriors are favorites. That, it is tempting to say, is about where the similarities end.
Cleveland certainly hopes so, and a lot really has changed. The Cavaliers have a new coach in Tyronn Lue. They actually have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love available this time around, and a healthy Iman Shumpert. They have Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson, which doesn't sound like much until you remember who was playing in their place last year. The Cavaliers spent the entire season subtweeting one another, it's true, but this is also about as good as they've looked over the last two seasons.
The Warriors, meanwhile, are returning with mostly the same cast and crew they brought to the dance last June. This has worked out well for them—the Warriors did win 73 games over the regular season, and melted the minds of basketball's Jurassic pundits in so doing—but it also means that the questions Cleveland has to answer are largely the same ones that came up in 2015. It's just that the way Cleveland answers them might be different.
Last season, the Cavs ground the first three games to a halt with a four-pronged strategy: run down the shot clock as much as possible; avoid turnovers with an isolation-heavy offense; attack the offensive glass; and pressure the ball in the backcourt. Some of those tactics were born of necessity—when you're playing short-handed, slowing down the game not only helps conserve energy but also helps increase variance. The more possessions there are in a given game, the more chances there are for the team with the most talent to assert that advantage. So the Cavs slowed things as much as they could, and it worked right up until it didn't.
Should we expect Cleveland to try to slow things down again this year? Lue says we shouldn't, although we might not want to take him at his word. The Cavs coach has talked a lot about wanting to play much faster since he inherited the job, but it has been almost entirely talk. Cleveland played at a 95.05 possessions-per-game pace through David Blatt's firing, and was at 95.91 per game the rest of the regular season—a negligible bump up in the grand scheme of things. And in the playoffs, they actually have played much slower: the average Cavs postseason game has contained only 91.81 possessions. It's not necessarily beautiful basketball, but it's hard to argue with a 12-2 record over the first three rounds.
It makes sense that Lue would say he wants to get shots up early in the clock in this series—he probably does want to, if only because it's always easier to score before the defense is set—but if something doesn't materialize right away, the Cavs would be wise to grind things down in the half-court again. Not many teams have succeeded at beating the Warriors in an end-to-end transition game. One of the NBA's most fearsome transition teams just failed at it in the Western Conference Finals, as you might recall.
The Cavs don't have to grind out those possessions in the same way this year, though, because they have many more options now. LeBron James can still create every single offensive opportunity, but there's no need when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are capable of handling a far larger share of the load than Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson could last season. Their presence should also free up J.R. Smith to go back to playing the role he plays best: spot-up assassin. With more help around him and less weight on his shoulders, James will almost certainly be much more efficient.
Depleted supporting cast aside, the main reason James had such an inefficient 2015 Finals—he shot 39.8 percent from the field and 31.0 percent from three—was the defense of Andre Iguodala. If the Warriors want that matchup again for most of the game, Iguodala has to start, but right now it's still unclear whether Warriors coach Steve Kerr will go with him or Harrison Barnes. Barnes did not fare nearly as well guarding James as Iguodala did last season. Barnes will still get his chances against James, as will players like Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, simply because the Warriors switch pick-and-rolls so often, but there's no question the Warriors want Iguodala to spend the lion's share of the time on the King.
Because Cleveland has additional threats surrounding James this year, Golden State's rotations when the ball moves away from him will have to be much more on point than they were in last year's Finals. Irving is exactly the kind of jitterbug point guard with a jumper that has given the Dubs problems this season. Steph Curry can probably do a decent job guarding him, but the Warriors learned not to cross-match Thompson onto the opposing team's primary ball-handler at their peril in the Western Conference Finals. It wouldn't be a surprise if he started on Irving from the jump, with Curry cross-matched onto Smith. That's a much more challenging matchup for Curry than Shumpert was last season, or Andre Roberson last round. Smith is a far better shooter than either of those players, and his three-inch height advantage should let him shoot over the top without concern of being blocked.
There's also the question of how the Warriors will approach the Cavs' big men. Andrew Bogut on Tristan Thompson is a better match than having him chase Kevin Love, but then the Cavs might use Thompson as the primary screener and slot Love behind the three-point line, pulling Green, Golden State's best help defender, away from the lane. Still, there isn't any combination of Cleveland frontcourt players that seems likely to dissuade the Warriors from turning to their death lineup, and that may be where the series tips their way.
It wouldn't be the first time. Cleveland last season simply did not have an answer for a lineup that featured the speed, athleticism, shooting, and passing of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes, and Green. Irving and Love are much more dangerous offensive players than their counterparts in the 2015 Finals, but they're also far worse defenders, most glaringly in Love's case. For the Cavs, there are still plenty of basketball problems to solve here, even with the team at full strength.
In last year's Finals, much of Cleveland's defensive game plan depended on forcing Green to make bad decisions with the ball in his hands. They aggressively trapped Curry on pick-and-rolls, had their wings stay home on the shooters dotting the arc, and had Timofey Mozgov hang back near the basket, all in an effort to make Green think twice about what he wanted to do next. He bricked most of his threes, to the point that he was scared to shoot them, and was repeatedly thwarted by Mozgov at the rim. It wasn't until David Lee took advantage of that defense late in Game 3 that the Warriors figured things out. By going small the rest of the series, they rendered the Thompson–Mozgov frontcourt unplayable.
Green became much better at those kinds of decisions this season. Barring the Cavs dusting off Mozgov, who has barely played of late, that leaves Thompson, Love, and Frye in the frontcourt. Thompson seems likely to play huge minutes, but as much as Love and Frye bring offensively, there may come a point where their defense is too damaging for them to stay on the floor.
The Warriors relentlessly went after Love with one pick-and-roll after another in the two games the teams played this season, and he was flat-out embarrassed more than a few times. He just can't be on Green at all, and if he's on Bogut, that means he's the last line of defense at the rim, which is a precarious situation for Cleveland. Slotting him onto Barnes or Iguodala is more advantageous, but the Warriors don't care. They'll just use Love's matchup as Curry's screener and make Love pay all the same.
Frye can space the floor like Love and he's not as much of a liability on defense, but there's no safe place for him when the Warriors go small, either. The Cavs could try a super-small group with James as the true power forward next to Thompson, plus two of Shumpert, Smith, and Dellavedova flanking Irving on the wing, but that sacrifices their biggest advantage. The death lineup can scamper all over the perimeter, but its biggest vulnerability is on the glass. That's a Cavs strength when they play their two-big frontcourt, but not so much when they go small.
Whichever of Shump and Delly is on the floor isn't going to be as much of an offensive threat as Love, either. Playing big, pounding the offensive glass, and trying to smother Golden State's interior offense, Thunder-style, seems like an option—until you remember that the Cavs aren't nearly as long as the Thunder, and that such a strategy would involve going to either a Thompson–Mozgov or Love–Thompson frontcourt, both of which come with serious shortcomings on both ends. Every counter seems to play into Golden State's hands. Great teams are tough that way.
All that, and we haven't even gotten into how the hell the Cavs can slow down Klay Thompson. Smith and Shump are going to have to play the best defense of their lives, and even that might not be enough. The most tempting answer to the "Who guards Curry/Green/Thompson?" question is always LeBron James, whether straight up or off a switch, but the man can only do so many things, especially considering the burden he carries on the other end.
Because of the additional weapons the Cavs are bringing to the fight, this series should be different in a number of ways. But one important issue seems to remain: the Warriors just present too many questions for which Cleveland has no answer beyond simply hoping that LeBron wills them past the better team. He almost did it last year; with a little more help from his friends, it's possible he actually succeeds this time around. But what's the same is the same: this year, as last year, there is no easy way with the Warriors.
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