With their NBA Finals-clinching game six victory Tuesday night, the Golden State Warriors officially redefined what it takes to beat LeBron James in the playoffs. No longer is an elite rim protector sufficient on its own; befitting the evolution of the game, versatility is just as critical now.
Two years ago at RealGM, Jonathan Tjarks described the strategy to knock out a James-led team from the postseason:
The pattern in LeBron James’ playoff defeats is striking. It takes a Defensive Player of the Year manning the middle to beat him: Ben Wallace (2006), Tim Duncan (2007), Kevin Garnett (2008, 2010), Dwight Howard (2009) and Chandler (2011). You could see the dynamic playing out against Indiana. Through the first six games, Miami took 33 percent of their shots in the paint with Hibbert in and 42 percent with him out. Even LeBron finds it difficult to finish over the top of a 7’2, 275 center with a 7’4+ wingspan. If he’s allowed to run a conga line to the front of the rim… forget it.
The San Antonio Spurs continued that trend with their five-game defeat of James’s Miami Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals. Though Tim Duncan has never actually won the Defensive Player of the Year award — sidenote: WTF, voters? — 15 appearances on an NBA All-Defensive team, including eight first-team nods, cement his case as one of the generation’s top frontcourt defenders.
In theory, the Chicago Bulls had the personnel to beat James’s Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals this year, with 2013-14 Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah prowling the middle. However, Noah’s ineffectiveness, internal dysfunction and an untimely offensive slump proved Chicago’s undoing, despite Cleveland being without Kevin Love and with Kyrie Irving hobbled for much of the series.
Through three games of the 2015 NBA Finals, the Warriors appeared in danger of succumbing to the same fate. James was dictating each contest’s tempo, grinding possessions to a halt as he isolated on the left wing and repeatedly drained the shot clock, negating Golden State’s vaunted transition attack. With regular-season MVP Stephen Curry suffering through an unexpected shooting slump and the Cavs up 2-1 heading into game four in Cleveland, the 67-win Dubs appeared in grave danger of losing to what effectively amounted to a one-man team.
But give Warriors head coach Steve Kerr credit: He recognized a schematic flaw and addressed it, benching seven-foot center Andrew Bogut in favor of 6’6″ Swiss Army knife Andre Iguodala.
Rolling out a starting lineup with no player above 6’8″ seemed like suicide against a Cavs team already abusing Golden State on the glass, and a 7-0 Cleveland run to start game four only appeared to underlie the insanity of that plan. Instead, Kerr stayed the course, and the Dubs’ small-ball lineup changed the course of the series, helping key two straight double-digit wins. Bogut, who tallied 70 minutes through the first three contests, played just three minutes in game four and didn’t make a single appearance in games five or six. In fact, only two conventional bigs received any playing time — David Lee played nine minutes and Festus Ezeli played three in game five, while Ezeli had 11 and Lee had one in game six — while Bogut and Marreese Speights languished on the bench all night.
Based on all of LeBron’s previous playoff defeats, relying so heavily upon a small-ball lineup should have been a death knell for Golden State. Instead, the Warriors reeled off three straight dominant wins after making the Iguodala-for-Bogut swap, and the former wound up winning the Finals MVP award for his yeoman’s work defending LeBron.
That depth and versatility is what sets Golden State apart from James’s previous playoff conquerors, as the Dubs could throw a multitude of defensive looks at LeBron on a possession-by-possession basis.
In Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green, the Dubs had four players who could cover James at times. When one option faltered, Kerr could simply rotate to the next, as he quickly did throughout game one of the series. According to SportVU, James roasted Barnes alive in that opening contest, knocking down 4-of-4 field-goal attempts and putting up 1.83 points per possession in the 5:37 minutes of time the UNC product guarded him. Instead of being stuck with few other alternatives, though, Kerr simply trotted out Iguodala to draw the defensive assignment against LeBron, one of the factors that helped turn the series around.
In game one, LeBron went 4-of-13 from the field and scored just 0.69 points per possession with Iguodala matched up against him. That trend continued throughout the series, as LeBron went just 1-of-7 from the field against Iguodala in 9:59 of playing time in game four, per SportVU. According to ESPN.com’s J.A. Adande, throughout the series, “James shot only 30 percent on contested shots against Iguodala and committed 13 of his 21 turnovers in the series when guarded by him.”
Overall, in the 209 minutes Iguodala and James shared the court, the four-time MVP shot just 38.1% from the floor and the Cavs were a minus-55, per NBA.com. In the 65 minutes in which James could roam free without Iggy on the floor, he knocked down 43.9% of his looks and Cleveland was a plus-30.
Not having multiple capable options to throw at LeBron was the Bulls’ undoing in the Eastern Conference semifinals, as Tony Snell and Mike Dunleavy stood little chance in one-on-one situations against him. The same went for the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, particularly after DeMarre Carroll suffered a knee injury at the end of game one. Any chance the Hawks had of knocking off Cleveland faded away on April 8th, when Thabo Sefolosha suffered a broken leg during a late-night altercation with police. He likely wouldn’t have provided much offensively — and James very well could have abused him defensively, too — but buying Carroll a few possessions off would have been invaluable nevertheless.
Loading up on stifling wing defenders isn’t enough to beat LeBron on its own, though. In Green, the Dubs have a playmaking four who’s capable of sliding to the five in a pinch and holding his own against a seven-footer like Timofey Mozgov. Curry and Thomspon are two of the league’s most lethal three-point shooters, even if the latter’s stroke went MIA for most of the Finals. Reserve Shaun Livingston frequently put his 6’7″ frame to good use, bullying his way into the paint by posting up smaller defenders or cutting to the hoop for offensive boards and putbacks. Without all of these pieces working in harmony, there’s no telling whether the Warriors would have been capable of dethroning James and the Cavaliers. (Would-be imitators, take note.)
And yet, even despite Golden State’s humongous advantages in both depth and versatility, LeBron damn near willed his battered Cavs to the title. Had Love and/or Irving been healthy — or, well, as healthy as one is at this time of year — they might have provided enough offensive relief to help Cleveland emerge victorious.
You can’t hold that against the Warriors. They could only play the lineups Cleveland trotted out against them. And the Cavs, even with their severely depleted depth, held a 2-1 series lead at one point, sending shockwaves of panic throughout the Bay Area. Through game three, the Dubs’ starting lineup of Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Green and Bogut had a net rating of minus-12.2, per NBA.com. James was seemingly in the process of rewriting the “LeBron Rules,” as Bogut’s elite rim protection couldn’t deter the four-time MVP from dissecting Golden State with isolations, post-ups and pick-and-rolls with Timofey Mozgov.
Desperate times called for desperate measures, and Kerr responded brilliantly, deciding to go down swinging with the small-ball combination that proved lethal for the Warriors all year. In the 70 minutes in which Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes and Green shared the court, the Dubs had a net rating of plus-21.8, per NBA.com. In the 16 minutes with Livingston instead of Barnes joining that quartet, Golden State’s net rating jumped to plus-45.1.
Beating LeBron, who averaged an unfathomable 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists in these Finals, required a team-wide effort from Golden State. The Warriors needed four players who could switch onto him defensively at a moment’s notice. They needed the ability to shift from a big lineup with Bogut or Ezeli in the middle to a small lineup with Green at the five. They needed elite three-point shooters connecting from deep with regularity, and they needed an unheralded star, Iguodala, to knock down the open looks Cleveland intentionally gave him, too.
Any team hoping to replicate this strategy will almost assuredly fall short. Golden State took years to build this particular roster, relying on a hefty helping of lottery picks (Curry, Thompson, Barnes), some savvy selections later in the draft (Ezeli, Green), crucial plunges into free agency (Livingston, Iguodala, Speights, Leandro Barbosa) and buy-low trade opportunities (Lee, Bogut). Even with the impending salary-cap explosion, it will be an incredible challenge for any team to construct a corps this deep and versatile.
If a franchise manages to accomplish the unlikely feat, though, it may just have the combination necessary to overcome James’ Herculean efforts in a future NBA Finals.