Former coach Neal Meyer, who spent 16 years in the league with six different teams, takes a look at what should be a hotly contested NBA Conference Finals, as the Atlanta Hawks take on the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors face the Houston Rockets.
Competitive balance is strong as new teams are making a run at the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The top two seeds from both conferences have advanced to the final four for the second year in a row. The 2015 conference finals, however, consist of four different teams after all four conference finalists from 2014 failed to reach the second round for the first time since the NBA expanded the playoff field to 16 teams in 1983-84.
None of the remaining teams has won a championship in at least two decades, if at all.
Houston is the most recent champion of the four, having won the second of back-to-back titles 20 years ago, in 1995. The Warriors have gone twice as long without winning a championship, their last coming in 1975. The Hawks’ one title came in 1958, when the franchise played in St Louis. And the Cavaliers have never won a championship, though they are the only one of the four to appear in the conference finals since 1997 (Cleveland won the East in 2007 and lost in the conference finals in 2009).
Here is the complete breakdown of the four teams:
FRESH BLOOD, PART II
The coaches are new to this stage, too. The four coaches have a combined nine years of NBA head-coaching experience, including six for Houston’s Kevin McHale, who has spent the last four seasons with the Rockets after coaching the Timberwolves for parts of two seasons. Golden State’s Steve Kerr and David Blatt are in their first seasons, while Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer of Atlanta is in his second season after a long stint as a Spurs assistant.
If the Warriors and Cavaliers advance, the NBA Finals would feature two first-year coaches for the first time since the league’s first year in 1946-47.
The final four have relied heavily on the three-point shot both in the regular season and the playoffs. The Rockets set an NBA single-season record for three-pointers made, and the Warriors posted the third-most threes in league history.
The Cavaliers tied for third this season in threes and the Hawks were fifth. The top four teams in three-pointers per game during the playoffs happen to be the four conference finalists.
MAKING MOVES …
Cleveland and Houston were two of the most aggressive teams in reshaping their rosters before the trade deadline, with each adding three rotation players.
The Cavaliers acquired guards J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert in a trade with the Knicks and obtained center Timofey Mozgov in a trade with the Nuggets. All three are averaging more than 25 minutes per game in the playoffs. Similarly, the Rockets added forwards Josh Smith (as a free agent after his release by Detroit) and Corey Brewer (trade with Minnesota) and guard Pablo Prigioni (trade with New York) during the season.
Smith and Brewer have been invaluable during the playoffs, and Prigioni was a huge spark in Houston’s Game 7 victory over the Clippers. It’s safe to say that Cleveland and Houston aren’t playing for a spot in the NBA Finals without in-season moves from general managers David Griffin and Daryl Morey, respectively.
…OR NOT MAKING MOVES
On the other end of the spectrum are the Warriors and Hawks, two teams that rode continuity and internal improvement to the best regular seasons in franchise history.
Seven of the top eight players in minutes played for both teams this season are the same as last season. Golden State didn’t pull the trigger on a much-discussed Klay Thompson-for-Kevin Love offseason trade, a decision that has looked savvy as Thompson made his first All-Star team and Draymond Green blossomed into a solid all-around player at Love’s power forward position.
Atlanta’s faith in its core has paid massive dividends: Four starters were selected to the All-Star team and the fifth, DeMarre Carroll has been a breakout performer in the playoffs after the best regular season of his career.
The top three finishers in the MVP race have led their teams to the final four: Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Houston’s James Harden and Cleveland’s LeBron James.
This is the first time since 2000-01 that the top three in the MVP voting are all in the conference finals.
2009 DRAFT REVISISTED
The conference semifinals inspired talk about how a “re-draft” of 2009 would look because the Clippers’ Blake Griffin was the first pick, the Rockets’ James Harden was the third pick and the Warriors’ Stephen Curry was the seventh pick. That talk will continue now that Harden and Curry are squaring off in the conference finals.
But the 2009 draft also produced some steals who will be on display in these series. Atlanta’s Jeff Teague, who has emerged as an All-Star point guard, was drafted 19 in 2009. Atlanta’s DeMarre Carroll, who is averaging 17.1 points in the playoffs, was drafted 27. And Houston’s Patrick Beverley, a top defender who has an outside shot to return from injury in this round, was drafted 42.
NEAL MEYER'S NBA CV
October 94 - August 95 - San Antonio Spurs - Assistant Video Coordinator & Camp Director, Basketball Operations
September 95 - July 97 - Denver Nuggets - Video Coordinator & Camp Director, Basketball Operations
August 97 - August 00 - Portland Trail Blazers - Video Coordinator & Camp Director, Basketball Operations
September 00 - July 02 - Portland Trail Blazers - Assistant Coach & Scout, Basketball Operations
October 02 - April 03 - Atlanta Hawks, Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors - Regional Advance Scout
August 03 - June 09 - Los Angeles Clippers - Assistant Coach & Director of Player Development, Basketball Operations
September 09 - October 10 - Cleveland Cavaliers - Video Coordinator/Coach, Basketball Operations
October 10 - present - Senior Director for the NBA's Basketball Operations across Europe, Middle East and Africa
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