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Playing the ‘What If’ Game with the NBA Finals

Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports

Things aren’t looking great for the Cleveland Cavaliers right now. Down 3-2 and ravaged by injuries, they’re stuck playing with an eight-man roster that involves giving Mike Miller and James Jones a combined 32 minutes in Game 5. Stephen Curry has figured out how to score on Matthew Dellavedova, and the rest of the Warriors are making their shots again. LeBron James is doing everything he can for the Cavs, constituting pretty much all of their offensive output, but it wasn’t enough last night. The Cavs need more bodies, and one has to wonder how things would be different if Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love had been healthy enough to play in the series.

The biggest improvement would obviously be to Cleveland’s offense. LeBron’s efforts to shoulder all of, and I mean all of, Cleveland’s offense has been impressive, but it’s not a healthy way to win basketball games. As we saw in Game 4, revolving the offense around James doesn’t work when he “only” scores 20 points with eight assists. Even when LeBron has been great, the offense has still struggled at times. Irving and Love were far and away the Cavs’ second and third-best offensive players this season, and they would’ve helped shoulder some of the offensive load from LeBron and not tie the team’s fate so tightly to the shooting performance of one player.

The presence of those players would’ve really helped a lot when LeBron hit the bench. The Cavaliers have been a disaster with James on the pine in the Finals, scoring an incredibly putrid 54.6 points per 100 possessions in his 22 minutes off the floor, per NBA.com. Cleveland’s struggles with James out has forced him to play huge minutes, and fatigue has set in at points this series. If Irving and Love were around, they’d be able to anchor the offense when James sat.

Defense would’ve been another matter entirely, of course. Love isn’t a defensive stalwart, and it’s hard to see him doing the same job defensively as Tristan Thompson, whose defense, rebounding and physical presence have been invaluable to the Cavs in this series. Irving’s reputation as a defender has also been shaky throughout his career, but he did have a good defensive showing in Game 1. We still don’t know if his defense would’ve held up, but with Dellavedova fading big time, having another point guard to throw at Curry would be helpful. And again, there’s that whole offensive upgrade thing.

Having both stars available would obviously be better, but how would their presence have affected David Blatt’s decisions when making his lineups? If Love had been available for the whole series, would Thompson be getting the start and making the impact he’s had on the series thus far? If Irving were still in the series, would Dellavedova have had the opportunity to neutralize Curry in Game 2 and part of Game 3? Adding these two players to the series would’ve changed the Cavs’ lineups entirely and thrown in a whole new set of hypothetical matchups.

One thing is certain: the Cavs would’ve had a lot more players to spread the minutes around. The Cavs only had three players play fewer than 35 minutes on Sunday night. The Warriors had five. The three Cavs were Miller, Jones and Timofey Mozgov. Mozgov was taken out for strategic reasons, leaving Miller and Jones as the only source of rest for the other five players on Cleveland. The lack of depth has really hurt the Cavs this series, especially late in games. Cleveland was within two points with just over four minutes remaining until Golden State pulled away to close it out.

Maybe Irving and Love wouldn’t have been enough to prevent the Warriors from being on the verge of a title, but having them around would only have improved the Cavs’ chances. Having two more competent guys can never hurt a squad, especially when they’re players the caliber of Irving and Love. Worst-case scenario is they’re ineffective and the Warriors win anyway, but best-case scenario means a fully-stocked juggernaut that dominated the second half of the season and the first round of the postseason. It could’ve have been a whole different ballgame, but we’ll never know.

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