Please alert the Fun Police: the following is a sound argument for why the NBA’s two best players should match up directly against one another during the 2016 NBA Finals, despite a five-inch height difference, over 60-plus pound weight discrepancy, and general old-timey basketball heresy.
LeBron James, formerly the best player in the NBA, is appropriately salty about his new title. He carried a Cavaliers team that played the 278-year-old signer of the Declaration of Independence, Richard Jefferson, over 15 minutes per game in these playoffs to a 12-2 record so far this postseason.
When Steph Curry, the best player in the NBA, won his second MVP award, James rightfully went into a smart, Faustian explanation of what “valuable” really means, which was taken by the press to mean, “My only mission is to disappear Steph Curry from this planet.”
We’re in a Bird vs. Magic situation, where two players are competing for the title of the best player of an era in the middle of an NBA Finals. And one of them has the opportunity to square up against the other one defensively.
LeBron should do that. Not because it’s a cute story. Not because this is a hot take so fiery it could wipe out a thousand lesser suns (although it is).
LeBron should take on the assignment of Steph Curry because, in today’s weird, almost position-free NBA, it makes sense.
The Warriors’ last series against Oklahoma City showed that, for whatever reason, Steph has had recent trouble shooting over and blowing past big men who are mobile and stand their ground. At points, he looked flustered with Steven Adams on him. Adams even snagged a few rare blocks on Curry’s jumpers and drives that analysts immediately attributed to an injury he may or may not still have.
It certainly wasn’t Curry’s kryptonite. The deciding possession of Game 7 featured a 7-footer, Serge Ibaka, accidentally wrapping up Curry like a blanket 30 feet away from the basket.
But injury or not, Adams, a bruising, inside linebacker of an old-fashioned center, gave Curry fits.
Imagine a five-time first-team All-Defense wing player—with the same kind of size—doing the same.
Here’s the thing: The Cavs don’t really have a better option. Cleveland starts two abominable-at-worst, passable-at-best perimeter defenders. This allows them to hit record numbers of threes in a playoff game and blow lesser teams out of the water by the second quarter, but Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith will find it almost impossible to blow Steph Curry and Klay Thompson out of the water by the second quarter.
It is going to be a rough go no matter what. So why not put your best guy on their best guy?
“So here's my issue with that idea, which I bet we see some of: moving LeBron onto Curry means Kyrie Irving is defending Harrison Barnes or Andre Iguodala,” says Chris Manning. “The latter is probably workable, but the former won't end well even if Barnes isn't exactly a lead option.”
Manning is the editor over at SB Nation’s Fear the Sword, the Cavs’ most popular blog. He’s seen enough of this team to know that, basically, the Cavs are going to get murdered defensively one way or another. That’s why he’d rather have LeBron hanging out, not doing much on defense against a bigger defender, and preserving his energy for offense.
“The Cavs probably have to bank on their offense—which has been historically good during this playoff run—to carry them to victory. I'm not sure they have a defensive tweak available that really means anything in a meaningful way. Thus, you probably don't want LeBron using up a ton of energy chasing around Curry all the time,” Manning says. “Maybe it'll happen some, but LeBron probably needs to roam a bit and use up more energy on offense, especially if he starts playing 46 minutes a night.”
But say you’re down 2-0 headed back to Cleveland, and Steph has torched every guard in Cleveland’s backcourt. You’ve gotta give it a shot, right?
“It's not something that crossed my mind until you mentioned it, to be honest,” Manning says. “With the Warriors, it's all sort of rough. I’m glad I’m not [Cleveland coach] Tyronn Lue.”
Other smart people have approached the world’s hottest take with other kinds of skepticism that all come back to one overriding theme: If they can’t score, the Cavs are screwed no matter what.
Jesse Blanchard is the Editor-in-Chief of BBallBreakdown, which has become the go-to Twitter account and website for people who want to pretend to know what they’re talking about regarding X’s-and-O’s in this NBA Playoffs. It has clearly done wonders for my ego.
“The reason [playing bigs on Curry] worked so well with Oklahoma City is the Thunder had size and athleticism advantages at almost every position. Cleveland is locked into far more rigid defensive personnel, matchup-wise. And no matter how Lue adjusts, or where he moves LeBron, the Warriors are simply going to seek out Irving and Love and try to punish them,” says Blanchard. “Also, at this point in his career, it's hard to say LeBron can track Curry for 40 minutes through screens and carry the bulk of the playmaking on offense.”
Also, Blanchard begs you to consider his alternate theorem: Nothing Matters 2.0.
“The primary defender is rarely going to matter against the Warriors because they're going to either induce switches with screens or get a 4-on-3 in the middle of the floor with Draymond Green if they send two defenders towards Curry on those screens,” he says.
Basically, it doesn’t matter who starts on Curry at the beginning of the possession. The Warriors tend to get whatever they want.
Even CBS Sports’ Matt Moore, the sole proponent of my plan, agrees.
“I like the idea, but they’ll just run him around the screen and force him to switch,” he says. “[Golden State] will do whatever they have to in order to peel him off Steph.”
Plus, as Manning points out, there will be an appropriate amount of burn from somewhat better defenders off the bench. Iman Shumpert, who has looked lost this offseason, will get a shot. They’ll wheel out Senator Richard Jefferson for a few minutes on either Curry or Thompson. Matthew Dellavedova, who was a temporarily successful nuisance to Curry in last year’s NBA Finals, will get a crack, too.
“J.R. has also done of decent job this year of being good and engaged on defense, plus Iman Shumpert will probably play a little more than normal. Delly will definitely get some run, but it won't be like last year unless something goes wrong,” he says.
But at that point, why not give it a shot? The Warriors are 6 point favorites in Game 1. And nobody whom I talked to really addressed the havoc this would create for Golden State in transition off of missed shots. If Curry immediately has to chase down LeBron, that leaves a bigger, slower guy like Harrison Barnes to try to stop Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith in transition.
LeBron on Curry is a mess for Cleveland, but it’s a mess for the Warriors, too. Cleveland has a better chance with messy basketball.
And more importantly: It’s LeBron James. He thinks he’s the NBA’s best player. Let him prove it.
It’s an inelegant solution. It’s the option so star-studded and obvious your aunt who thinks Brett Favre is the starting point guard for the Chicago Bulls would make it.
But say nobody’s stopping Steph Curry. The best player on your team is hiding, playing defense on the fifth best player on the other team in the NBA Finals. He thinks he’s better than their best guy, and he may have a point.
It’s the dumbest idea in the world. And it may be the right one.