NBA Finals Preview: Small Forward

In part three of our NBA Finals preview, we leave behind the guard positions and welcome the forwards. On one side, we have a guy that just turned twenty three, posted career bests in all categories except free throw percentage, and may be the glue guy that nobody is talking about. On the other, we have the consensus best player in the world, an unmistakable leader, making his fifth straight appearance to the NBA Finals, the first of which doesn’t seem to come with outrageous expectations.

Let’s look at our small forwards.

The Starters

Harrison Barnes

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It’s weird to say that it’s been over three years since he last played a college game. Maybe it’s simply the fact that I don’t watch enough west coast basketball, but I feel like I haven’t really seen Harrison Barnes play in the NBA, when in fact his pro career (3 years) is already longer than his college (two years). Or maybe it’s because he’s the least talked about player of the starting five, a trait he shares with 2014 Kawhi Leonard.

What I like about Barnes is that he seems to be making the leap at the perfect moment. As a college player, and through his first two years of the NBA, he seemed to hover around the 34 – 35 % mark from three. This year he jumped up to a respectable 40.5% while also shooting more (215 this year versus 190 last year and 145 the year prior). Even better, he doesn’t live out there, shooting 52% inside the arc on 441 attempts. He’s never been a big rebounder, but at the three it’s not necessarily his role to be one. With guys like Curry and Thompson up top and Green and Bogut down low, Barnes plays the perfect back and forth role that this team needs.

I haven’t watched enough to know how he is defensively. Per basketball-reference, he doesn’t even average a single steal (0.7) or block (0.2) per game. There’s only so much I can infer from raw numbers, but I imagine that a guy that putting up those stats won’t be much help when it comes to slowing down LeBron James. This is a concern when Golden State’s #1 priority will be to slow down LeBron James. I’m sure Coach Kerr will want to switch Draymond on to the King when it counts, but that’s not a long term solution, because if Draymond is on LeBron, then who is covering Tristan Thompson? Harrison Barnes might need to watch some film from last year’s Finals and take notes from a certain DPOY.

LeBron James

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LeBron James became the first player in NBA history (as did James Jones !!) to reach five straight NBA Finals while wearing two different uniforms. Watered down East or not, that’s an incredible accomplishment that should soften the LeBron narrative a little bit. I don’t know what will happen if he’s loses this series and falls to 2-4 (versus Jordan’s 6-0), but I also don’t think it should matter.

In what many consider a down year, LeBron finished the year averaging 25.3/7.4/6.0. That’s a career year for almost everybody else. Everybody knows that the moment LeBron steps on the floor he makes a difference. Whether he is putting numbers on the scoreboard or drawing defensive attention away from himself, the LeBron effect is very real. What I like most about LeBron’s game is that he’s never been hungry offensively. He takes what the defense gives him and continues to do so even when the media and everybody else tears him apart for it.

All that being said, I have some very real concerns about LeBron this year. Though he happened to acknowledge it and is somewhat self-aware, the Cavaliers seemed to run some heavy-iso play for him the last two series, and it really didn’t pan out the way they would have hoped. I’m okay with LeBron isolation, so long as they’re exposing a mismatch, but I’m not going to consider Harrison Barnes a mismatch. He’s also been absolutely terrible from outside this postseason. He shot his worst from three since the 10-11 season this year, but that was still a respectable 35%. Since the playoffs began? Only 17%. That’s Lance Stephenson bad. It’s also an outlier statistic in terms of his past performances. I’m a firm believer in regression to the mean, and I think on the big stage, when it matters most, LeBron’s shooting will improve. On top of that, he’s still averaging 28 ppg this post season with all that wretched shooting. The concern is legitimate, but don’t look to me to put money on a LeBron no-show.

The Back Ups

Andre Iguodala may have been the true Sixth Man of the Year, but I don’t imagine he’s too upset about losing the award. He’s in the NBA Finals for the first time in his career, playing a vital role for one of the best teams in NBA history. This is the first year of his eight year career that he didn’t start a single game, and the first season he didn’t average at least 30 minutes per game. However, when you look at his stats per 36 minutes (10.5 ppg), or even per 100 possessions (14.3), you see that his production, though a little less than before, are fairly on par for his usual stuff. He’s a little small for a three at 6’6, but he’s a lot more mobile despite being a veteran. He functions best as a third guard and his ability to put the ball on the floor gives him an edge over the back ups that my have to face him.

James Jones has seen some regular minutes this post season, and has been fairly productive, averaging 12 points per 36 minutes. He’s a really threat from outside, and at 6’8, could shoot over someone smaller than him, but outside of being a spot up shooter, he doesn’t offer much else. He’s not a great defender and doesn’t have the bulk to guard anyone else on a switch. If he isn’t hitting threes, then there’s no reason to have him on the floor.

Mike Miller has played a total of 37 minutes the entire postseason and has put up 6 points in those minutes. I’m not sure why he’s fallen out of David Blatt’s rotation, but as an overall player, I’d prefer him over James Jones anyday. As we’ve seen in playoffs past (especially 2012), Miller can come off the bench and light up the opponent, and though injury prone, he’s a skilled rebounder and in the moment player. Anyone remember the shoe-less three? He can be a real asset off the bench… but I don’t think we’ll see much of him outside of garbage time.

Advantage?

Harrison Barnes made a real leap this year, and Iguodala is skilled veteran on both ends.

The Cavs have no real depth at the position unless James Jones is hitting threes.

But LeBron is LeBron and as long as you have him, I give you the edge in that department. Advantage Cleveland.

 

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