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When the bench units come in, the Cavaliers have the upper hand

The attention will be deservedly focused on the starters, but the Cavaliers have to take advantage when the bench units are on the court.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The glitz and glamour of the 2017 NBA Finals will deservedly focus on the endless amount of superstars that will grace the court to start the game. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry, Kevin Love, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green *long exhale* will undoubtedly be the face of the series, but that doesn’t mean the bench doesn’t play a huge role. While the superstar names will flood the court when the ball is tipped, when those players are sitting, someone has to come in and fill the void to the best of their ability.

Neither the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Golden State Warriors would be in the position they’re in if it wasn’t for their benches. While having LeBron and Durant on their respective teams is the reasoning behind the majority of their team’s success this season, the guys who only play 15-20 minutes per game have done more than their fair share to aid their team in reaching the Finals for the third straight season.

There will be plenty of instances during this series when the number of All-Stars on the court goes down from seven to two or three. This will be the opportunity for the Cavaliers to either stretch an existing lead or crawl back from a deficit. The Cavaliers have the advantage when it comes to comparing bench units and if they can abuse that, it will alleviate some of the stress away from the starters.

Cleveland Cavaliers reserves sorted by minutes per game in the playoffs:

*All statistics are from the 2017 playoffs*

  • Kyle Korver: 6.4 PPG, 41.5 three-point percentage
  • Iman Shumpert: 4.7 PPG, 48.8 field goal percentage
  • Deron Williams: 5.6 PPG, 2.5 APG, 54.2 field goal percentage
  • Channing Frye: 7.8 PPG, 52.6 three-point percentage
  • Richard Jefferson: 2.9 PPG, 40.0 field goal percentage

Golden State Warriors reserves sorted by minutes per game in the playoffs:

* While Andre Iguodala technically comes off the bench, he still plays starter minutes. Zaza Pachulia will be included instead*

  • Shaun Livingston: 4.4 PPG, 61.3 field percentage
  • Patrick McCaw: 5.0 PPG, 48.6 field percentage
  • Ian Clark: 7.5 PPG, 52.4 field percentage
  • Zaza Pachulia: 6.1 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 53.2 field goal percentage
  • David West: 4.6 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.8 APG, 57.1 field goal percentage
  • JaVale McGee: 7.0 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 74.0 field goal percentage

The first thing that should be pointed out when comparing these two benches is the three-point shooting dynamic. The Warriors have four bench players who aren’t even remotely close to being considered perimeter shooters (McGee, West, Pachulia, and Livingston). In fact, Livingston and and McGee have yet to attempt a shot from beyond the arc this playoffs - although McGee should never attempt a three even in NBA2K. Ian Clark and Patrick McCaw are the two options for perimeter scoring and neither of them are shooting over 40 percent from three during the playoffs. On the flip side of that, four of the Cavaliers five bench players shoot over 40 percent from three and the lone player who does not (Richard Jefferson) is shooting exactly 40 percent.

The Cavaliers have shot the highest percentage from three during the playoffs of any team and they’ve done so at an incredibly efficient 43.5 percent compared to the Warriors 38.9 percent, and a lot of that has to do with the bench shooting just as effectively as the starters. The NBA has quickly morphed into a shooters league and while the Warriors starters are the epitome of a jump-shooting team, their bench is quite the opposite. Cleveland has given 6’11” Channing Frye a light greener than the grass that covers the flat earth we walk on and he’s a matchup nightmare because of it. Frye’s deadly stroke forces opposing bigs to guard him out on the perimeter, freeing up space in the paint. Since the Warriors bench consists of three players over the height of 6’9”, one of those potential shot blockers will have to step out of their comfort zone and face-guard Frye.

The Warriors most glaring advantage with their bench is the presence of a shot blocker, actually, two shot blockers. JaVale McGee is an athletic shot blocker as he can fly above everyone else to swat shots into the third row. David West is a smart defender who is constantly aware of his surroundings which allows him to time his blocks, plus he is also a solid defender with his back to the post. McGee and West have 13 and 10 blocks during this postseason, respectively, ranking second and fourth on their team. The interesting factor to this advantage is that it may not be one at all. As stated before, the Cavaliers are an excellent three-point shooting team from top to bottom and the presence of someone in the paint only allows more open looks. McGee is going to have to guard either Frye or Kevin Love on the perimeter, rendering one of McGee’s best attributes essentially useless.

The Cavaliers hardly run an all bench unit that doesn’t feature LeBron, which is where having an abundant amount of shooters on the court benefits them. With four shooters surrounding LeBron, the defense must respect the value of defending the three while also denying LeBron an open lane to the basket. This lineup won’t beat the opposition with pure talent, but constant ball movement and lethal shooting (plus LeBron) creates an attack that other bench units can’t mimic on their end or defend on the other.

The Warriors’ biggest thread coming off the bench is Shaun Livingston. The 6’7” veteran point guard has been through more in this league than most players ever will, and you can add another Finals run to his career marks. Livingston is unique because of how he uses his height to allow him to guard multiple positions combined with an almost unblock-able jumpshot. The Cavaliers will gladly let Livingston shoot from the perimeter, but his post-up game can be impossible to guard. Mix Livingston in with either McCaw or Clark and even the Warriors bench backcourt becomes versatile on offense. Shumpert will likely be in charge of defending whichever one of those three is on the court, but after doing exactly what was needed from him against Paul George, DeMar DeRozan, and Isaiah Thomas, this should be light work for the Cavaliers best backcourt defender.

Head coach Tyronn Lue has switched up his rotation during the playoffs, alternating between playing Jefferson and Frye. This series will be all about matchups and it will likely depend on the situation before we know who will get the majority of the clock. If McGee is in, expect to see Frye/Love in as well. If West is in, Jefferson’s ability to get to the rim against slower defenders, even at age 36, is valuable enough to warrant him playing time.

The veterans, Deron Williams and Kyle Korver, will have to use that experience against the younger Clark and McCaw. Korver has caught fire a couple of times during the playoffs, literally shooting directly over smaller defenders at times, however that may not be possible this series. McCaw and Livingston are both 6’7” and even Clark is 6’3”. If Korver wants to continue to be effective, he’s going to have to work for his shots more than he has thus far. Williams has played valuable and effective minutes in the first 13 playoff games - he even showed signs of Utah-Deron in Game 5 of the Celtics series - and as long as he can take care of the ball like he has been, don’t be surprised if Williams drops his third 14 point game of the playoffs.