NBA AM: X-Factors Of The 2015 NBA Finals

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The mainstream headlines will hype the upcoming NBA Finals tilt between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers as a battle of two stars colliding, with LeBron James and Stephen Curry playing the lead roles as past and current MVPs. The storyline will attract the casual fan and make for an intriguing television editorial package, but outside of those two superstars the Finals will be won or lost in the trenches.

Ironically, two of the biggest x-factors in the series will also be heading toward (restricted) free agency this summer and both guys could command eight figure per year salaries.

Golden State’s Draymond Green and Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson are two guys who have floated under the radar, at one point or another, and are now set to display their talents on the biggest of stages.

Green’s recent ascent has been more in the forefront this season. The former second round pick, making a modest $915k this season, was a candidate for Most Improved Player and was selected to the All-Defensive first team. Entering the Finals, Green is averaging 14 points, 10.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.2 blocks.  Those are solid numbers considering the undersized Green has faced New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, Memphis’ Zach Randolph and Houston’s Terrence Jones and Josh Smith thus far in the playoffs.

There’s little doubt that the Warriors will issue a qualifying offer to Green once the season ends, enabling the franchise to match any offers from opposing teams in free agency. All indications point toward Golden State retaining Green at all costs, but their financial situation gets a little tricky.

Golden State already has $77 million in guaranteed salaries on the books next season. David Lee ($15.5 million), Klay Thompson ($15.5 million), Andrew Bogut ($12 million), Andre Iguodala ($11.7 million) and Curry ($11.3 million) are all on the books making eight figures. Let’s say the Warriors can re-sign Green to a deal in the neighborhood of $12 million per season. That would be a total of $78 million invested in six players. This would ultimately give the team little flexibility to fill out the remaining portion of the roster and would force the club to try to land impact players on veteran minimum deals.

The rise of Thompson has been a bit different. Upon securing James’ name on the dotted line in free agency last summer, Cleveland almost immediately struck a deal with Minnesota to acquire All-Star forward Kevin Love. The deal transitioned Thompson back into a reserve role behind Love and most figured the newly acquired star to be the forward of the future for the Cavaliers.

For the season, Thompson averaged a solid 8.5 points and eight rebounds per game on 55 percent shooting from the field – playing in all 82 games. However a season ending injury to Love in the first round of the playoffs thrust Thompson back into his old starting role for the franchise.

Entering the Finals, Thompson is averaging 9.4 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks on 59 percent shooting in the playoffs. During the Eastern Conference Finals, Thompson arguably outplayed Atlanta’s All-Star forward Paul Millsap on both ends of the floor and his relentless work on the offensive glass was a key driver in the Cavaliers’ resounding series sweep. But Thompson’s work on the glass hasn’t just become a playoff story. The 2014-15 campaign marks the second consecutive season the forward finished in the top five in the league in offensive rebounds.

From a financial standpoint, the Cavaliers have roughly $26 million in guaranteed salaries on the books. James holds a $21 million player option, while Love ($16.7 million) and guard J.R. Smith ($6.4 million) hold the same option as well. The cap figure also doesn’t include a $4.9 million team option on Timofey Mozgov. If all of those options are exercised or picked up, Cleveland’s guaranteed salary commitment would rise to around $64 million.

But similar to Green, Cleveland can issue a qualifying offer to Thompson in order to make the forward a “restricted” free agent this summer and secure a bit of leverage. However, with the Cavaliers reeling from injuries to Love and All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, the once benched Thompson has emerged as one of the franchise’s playoff heroes – which undoubtedly increases his market value heading into the summer.

So while Curry and James will headline the Finals and be tasked with carrying their respective teams, there is an underlying storyline developing between two power forwards on a similar underdog path. Both are heading towards big money this summer solidified by their respective playoffs runs.