Could the Cleveland Cavaliers Shock the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals?

In Vegas, the Warriors are heavy favorites to defeat LeBron and the Cavaliers. But, by our metrics, will it be a closer series than the experts think?

The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will square off in the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive year, but not much about this installment suggests that it will be the same old story.

For starters, according to Basketball-Reference's Simple Rating System (a rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule, denominated in points above/below average, where zero is average), both teams are the worst versions of themselves over the history of this recent rivalry:

YearGolden State WarriorsCleveland Cavaliers

The Warriors still look like the better team by a fairly considerable margin, but their SRS for the 2017-18 season (5.79) is nearly half of what it was last year (11.35). Sure, last year's mark was the fourth-best SRS of all time, but Golden State didn't even sniff that this time around. They have still been a great team -- make no mistake -- but they are not an all-time great team in the same way they were for the three seasons prior.

Call it energy conservation, fatigue, laziness, what have you, but the point remains that this Warriors team has not been the world-beater that we've been accustomed to seeing.

And while you would figure that that would result in a more conservative betting line for the fourth version of this NBA Finals matchup, the Cavaliers were so bad this year (14th in our end-of-season NBA team power rankings) that we're heading into this series with the most lopsided line yet (according to Sports Odds History):

Year Golden State Warriors Cleveland Cavaliers
2015 -220 +190
2016 -220 +180
2017 -300 +250
2018 -1060 +680

Vegas' current series price is not only the most lopsided line we've ever seen for this matchup, it's also the fourth-most one-sided spread of this entire postseason (with a wider margin than seven of the eight first-round series). Granted, Vegas sets the opening lines based on where they think the public money will come in (you won't find many people picking the Cavaliers in this series), but the 91.38% implied odds in favor of the Warriors is still jarringly decisive.

Our metrics, on the other hand, aren't quite as certain of a Golden State victory as Vegas (or just about anyone, for that matter):

Golden State Warriors Cleveland Cavaliers
Win in 4 6.80% 5.14%
Win in 5 16.23% 9.54%
Win in 6 14.79% 16.15%
Win in 7 18.42% 12.93%
Win series 56.24% 43.76%

The Warriors are still the favorites by our algorithm, but only at 56.24% (a difference of 35.14% from Vegas' implied odds), or what would translate to a -129 line. And while a lot of people are calling for a short series, our odds-on scenario is Warriors in 7 (18.42%), followed closely by Cavaliers in 6 (16.15%).

We're not saying to bet the house on Cleveland by any means, but the cold, hard numbers say that they're not as dead in the water as most pundits will tell you. So there could be some value in betting them at +680, as our probability would amount to +129 line for the series.

Golden State's roster is decidedly shallower than it's been in recent years, and LeBron James is working with the worst supporting cast he's had during his most recent Cleveland stint (and possibly ever), but neither of those things means we are in for a bad one-sided series. The level of pure excellence is a notch or two lower than the last few times these two teams squared off, and our numbers suggest that we're in for a closer NBA Finals than Vegas and most of the basketball world thinks.