The Bizarro Finals: How Bogut and Delly will impact the title
Hark back to twelve months ago, the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers found themselves in the identical situation of reinventing themselves on the fly. The Bizarro Finals were here, and it was awesome.
The Cavaliers, in perhaps more dramatic fashion, had to adjust to life without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, in the process figuring out a plan of attack that was at once both gimmicky and duh: hey, we have the best all-round player in the world! Let’s just give him the ball!
LeBron James soaked up a hyper-insane 39.3 percent of possessions during those Finals because he had to; the Cavs reworked their system on the fly to feature LeBron as a post-bully, slowed the pace down, and pinged passes to shooters lined across the court. And if those shots missed? They featured two mobile bigs in Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson who would crash the offensive glass like mad men, and gobble up second-chance possessions.
On defense, they asked a gritty point guard, named Matthew Dellavedova, who clenched his teeth through every exertion of the body, to harass and annoy a certain Steph Curry until he could physically do no more. They would grind the Warriors to oblivion, and it damn near worked if not for the brilliance of Curry and Andre Iguodala.
The Warriors were rattled. After feasting on the league playing with the sort of verve and joy that unleashed transition 3-ball death on opponents -- the sorts of shots out of chaos that they thrived in -- the slowpoke Cavs had bottled up their freedom. At its core, the Warriors needed to re-imagine themselves, ultimately deciding that they needed to ramp up the pace of the game. In that process of self-discovery, the lumbering Andrew Bogut was sacrificed, and the Death Lineup was born.
Fast forward to the present day, and the maligned duo of Andrew Bogut and Matthew Dellavedova have since embarked on divergent paths. In Cleveland, after a gritty 2015 playoff performance, Dellavedova strengthened his claims as a legitimate NBA rotation player, fighting off an established veteran, Mo Williams, as the primary backup to Kyrie Irving.
Over in Oakland, Bogut ostensibly started for the Golden State Warriors this season, but his role appeared to be increasingly marginalised as one of a bit player. Bogut’s place in the team mirrored that of a placeholder; it was always a matter of when, and not if, Steve Kerr would bench him to roll out the Death Lineup, and devastate the basketball world.
But something seemingly flipped during the playoffs.
Delly’s minutes decreased dramatically, plunging from 24.6 minutes a night in the regular season, to 14 minutes per game throughout the playoffs. That figure dropped to 11.4 minutes per game in the Conference Finals. The intangibles he brought to the team seemingly no longer warranted the court time.
Meanwhile, “light years” away in Oakland, Bogut’s rise from inconvenience, to Game 5 hero against Oklahoma City, appeared in stark contrast. Whilst Bogut’s minutes were limited during the earlier portion of that epic seven game series, Steve Kerr reiterated the importance of the big man, and staged a public plea for the Aussie big man to cease his hack-a-thon.
“When he’s out there, we rebound better and we’ve got a good passer out of the post,” he said at the time. “We want to play Bogut more, but he’s got to stay on the floor.”
And it’s this flip-flopping of identities which makes the fortunes of both players so fascinating.
Much pregame chatter will justifiably centre on the starry names of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and the Cavs’ Big Three of Lebron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love. How the Cavs defend the Warriors in the pick-and-roll dance (and poor Kevin Love will be ruthlessly targeted in this area), and conversely, how the Warriors defend a healthy Cavs team that is 3-balling opponents to death will be the enduring narratives.
But don’t forget to keep an eye out for both Aussies.
Bogut’s big presence
Despite the obsession with small-ball discourse, Bogut re-emerged as a key piece in the Conference Finals. And the numbers back it up.
Bogut averaged 18.3 minutes per game in the Conference Finals, only a hair above his playoff average. What makes that figure jarring was that he and Harrison Barnes were the only Warriors (for those who averaged above 10 minutes per game) who were a net-positive throughout the entire series.
Take a moment to consider that.
The man who garnered all sorts of heroic praise for his defense on Kevin Durant? Iggy was a disastrous minus-41 for the series.
Underscoring the point here, per research via NBAwowy, the vaunted Death Lineup was outscored 149-139 by the Thunder in 59 minutes of court time throughout the series.
Small ball saved the Warriors…? Pluh…easeeee.
Per NBA.com, the Thunder outscored the Warriors, out-rebounded them, and had less turnovers. In an alternate universe, they’re preparing for Game 1 of the Finals right now. Random blips dot a seven-game series, and if not for Klay Thompson catching fire for a five-minute stretch in Game 6, we might be ruing the fact that Bogut didn’t quite play enough.
It’s easy to forget that Bogut was the Warriors’ best rim protector throughout the season. They also rebounded better when he was on the court. Peak Bogut disrupts an entire possession just by ignoring his man and walling off the lane.
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Against the Cavaliers during the regular season, Bogut led the Warriors in the number field goal attempts defended at the rim. In the two games, Bogut contested 18 shots, with the Cavs shooting a ghastly 27.8 percent at the rim.
Bogut’s ability to stay out of foul trouble will be a key during the Finals (when is it never?) – he’ll be expected to wrestle with Tristan Thompson and prevent him from gobbling up second chance points. He’ll also be expected to exhibit his typical meanness at the rim, sometimes zoning off his direct opponent to clog up the lane on James and Irving drives.
Kerr may very well have a quick hook with Bogut, particularly when Channing Frye comes on, or when Cavs coach, Tyronn Lue, shifts Love to the centre position. But those are tactical, in-game adjustments. Bogut remains a supremely important figure for the Dubs, and it’s something that we should remember.
Will Delly shine?
Delly has shot horribly from the 3-point arc, at an icy 28 percent throughout the playoffs. But he’s plus-69 when he’s on the court in 196 minutes of postseason action, numbers that jibe with his relative lack of court time.
But there’s also a very simple reason for his decline in minutes: Kyrie Irving is back to full health.
Delly’s minutes have been on a steady decline on a monthly basis since Irving was slowly nursed back to health. In the playoffs, you typically play your stars longer, and Lue hasn’t shied away from that adage. His Big Three have all logged heavier minutes during the postseason than in the regular season, per NBA.com. Even J.R. Freaking Smith is playing over 33 minutes a night.
Despite the greater focus on star power, Delly figures to feature in the national spotlight again, with the Cavs set to unleash a brigade of defenders to hound Steph Curry.
Spotty shooting numbers aside, Delly’s impact has always been in his ability to make the simple plays, and get his teammates involved.
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Per NBA.com, when Delly was on the court this season, the Cavs just shot better. Those numbers haven’t quite stacked up to the same degree during the playoffs, but you expect that, with teams being able to scout and gameplan more extensively for a specific opponent.
Despite the minutes crunch, Delly’s passing numbers have held up during the playoffs, perhaps revealing a snapshot of his true value on offense as a prime mover of the ball. Don’t forget that during the regular season, Delly finished second in the team across total assists, hockey assists and passes received, trailing only LeBron James.
With Delly expected to be marked by Steph Curry when he does take to the court in the Finals, expect the Cavs to roll out a 1-3 pick-and-roll, with Delly screening for LeBron James. If the Warriors hope to expose Love to as many ball screens as possible, expect the same treatment for Curry. That play by the Cavs has been super effective throughout the season.
Switch, and you face a sizeable mismatch. Any indecision and you face the unenviable position of LeBron James with a full head of steam, and death at the rim.
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The Dubs might be better off sticking with James and daring Delly to finish in the lane, and likely over the hulking Bogut. But Delly has shown the ability to can those suckers.
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On defense, Delly will draw shifts on Curry, with his only task being to deny him the ball. He doesn’t have the foot speed to check Curry once the two-time MVP starts dancing with the ball. Delly will also have to navigate through thickets of screens set by large humans -- it’s a task that he's disciplined enough to perform. But all Curry needs is a 2-minute stretch to unleash 3-point fury – it’s totally unfair, by the way – and swing a game, meaning that every second defending him will require complete mental and physical attention.
Is Delly up for it? We’ll see soon enough.