This afternoon, ESPN NBA analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson discussed the 2016 NBA Finals in a media conference call.
The defending NBA Champion Golden State Warriors and Stephen Curry vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James will tip off Thursday, June 2, at 9 p.m. ET exclusively on ABC with Van Gundy and Jackson joined by play-by-play commentator Mike Breen and reporter Doris Burke for the entirety of the series. This will be their record seventh NBA Finals as a full broadcast team – the most for an NBA Finals quartet on TV. Additionally, Van Gundy will call his record 10th NBA Finals, the most ever for a Finals TV game analyst.
For more details on ABC & ESPN coverage for the 2016 NBA Finals, click here.
To listen to a replay of the media conference call, click here.
Q. With Jeff [Van Gundy] doing ten of these now, are you surprised he’s still there? Did you think he would be back in coaching by now, or does he just like doing the job and just like being with you and Mike?
MARK JACKSON: Well, it’s a great question. Appreciate it. I will say this: I’m working with two guys that have — obviously in the midst of making television history as far as the NBA is concerned and it’s an honor and a thrill.
To answer your question, I’m surprised, I’m very surprised that he is working his tenth NBA Finals; and it’s not because he didn’t go back to coaching.
I’m surprised that watching his body of work, playing for him twice, and witnessing him as a coach, in my opinion, a genius, still around and nobody has made a move to hire him, whether he wants it or not. I’ve been around coaching and I’ve witnessed coaching and this guy is an absolute gem.
So that’s the shock for me. That’s a huge shock.
Q. I know this is a rematch from last year’s finals but I’ve heard both teams say that they are drastically different teams from a year ago. Wonder what you guys anticipate being the major similarities and the major differences from what we saw a year ago.
JACKSON: I think the similarities, obviously, to me, Golden State, still a great basketball team. I think that similar as far as talent is concerned. But the difference is that they are a drastic team because they are coming in as champs. Last year they did not come in as champs. That’s a huge difference. That’s a difference in mentality. That’s a team that has gotten it done.
The difference with Cleveland, obviously, to me, a new coach. And a huge difference is healthy and whole. I expect it to be an incredible finals.
JEFF VAN GUNDY: You know, Golden State, to me, is very similar to what they were last year, other than the fact that as Mark said, they have won it already. They are coming off a great series win against Oklahoma City.
And then I think Cleveland is playing smaller. Obviously they have a different coach, but Mozgov who started last year is not even in the rotation. So their center position is different in that they are starting Thompson, coming back in with Frye; Love there obviously now, and both the good and the bad with him as far as the shooting, the offense, but maybe the pick-and-roll defense; that will be the question mark.
And then Kyrie Irving obviously in a great head-to-head matchup with Steph Curry.
Q. You’ve had a lot of production meetings over the years with coaches and players. I wonder if you could give a description of how LeBron James is in those meetings with you and how Steph Curry is with those meetings with you, in relation to how forthcoming you think both players are.
VAN GUNDY: I don’t remember the last time we talked to LeBron James. It might have been last year in the finals. I know we haven’t had the opportunity when I’ve done a game of Cleveland’s this year to talk to him. I’m just going off last year’s finals.
I think, I’m sure he’s guarded somewhat; rightfully so, because I don’t think the media really wants honesty nor do the fans. They want people to tell them what they want to hear.
We saw a glimpse of that with the Westbrook/Durant dynamic when they were asked questions, and they got criticized for not giving the answers or the body language that the media covering them expected or wanted them to give.
Steph Curry, I don’t know him obviously like Mark knows him. You don’t really know somebody until you coach them, I don’t think. I always think he’s very friendly, but I don’t think necessarily, just like James, I don’t think they are going to tell you what they really think, because I think they have figured out that’s not what plays well.
JACKSON: I totally agree with everything that Coach just said. I think any guy, not just Curry and James, that sits in the seat being interviewed, they are going to be somewhat guarded, and rightfully so.
I speak from a former player; had the privilege at times to sit in that seat. You use wisdom with your answers. You don’t want to put any bulletin board material up. You also want to protect your interests.
So what we see is guarded individuals, but I will say with both guys, both guys are class acts, total class, and do a tremendous job being guys that are faces of the NBA, and not just on the floor but what they do off the floor doesn’t get enough credit.
So I think both guys hit it out of the park as far as that’s concerned.
Q. A lot of people from day one this season were expecting this final. I want to know if you guys expected it, surprised at all? And what kind of style do you think we’ll see, what kind of games we’ll see compared to last year, if that makes any sense.
JACKSON: I think all along, you knew that they were two of the best, if not the two best teams in basketball. Clearly you felt that Golden State coming in was the best in the West and that Cleveland was the best in the East.
A lot of people called it, rightfully so. I didn’t think it would be easy for either one of them because of the challenges that were presented in each conference. I thought that it would be an easier route for Cleveland because of the gap between them and the second best team in the east was much larger.
But both teams deserve a lot of credit, and I think it’s going to be, like I said, an incredible NBA Finals. I think it’s a great match-up with interesting match-ups within the team match-ups. So I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.
VAN GUNDY: I think like Mark said, Cleveland, certainly, I think was expected to sort of cruise through, and even though they only had a one-game lead over Toronto at the end of the regular season, I think everybody understood that there was a large gap between Cleveland and everybody else.
I think the coaching change maybe gave some people the idea that there was something amiss or wrong or whatever it may be that caused Cleveland to change, but I don’t think people studying the Eastern Conference ever wavered on Cleveland being the best team.
I think Golden State clearly showed that they were the best team in the NBA this year. San Antonio and Oklahoma City were great teams, but here we are again. I think it’s going to be an interesting and competitive series, but I think Golden State’s the prohibitive favorite.
Q. Draymond Green, especially in the last series, really throughout the playoffs, has found himself in some confrontations, Steven Adams and a few others, just kind of the way that he goes about playing the game that hard, that intense style. I just wonder what you saw from him early in his career and was that fire and intensity always there? Did you see him kind of eventually developing into this kind of rugged role where he’s almost being kind of cast as the villain in some parts?
JACKSON: I will say this, Draymond Green had the same mentality first day he walked through the door— great competitor; great competitive spirit. He was sold out on doing all the intangibles that not only make him successful, but to make the team successful. He was a guy that you quickly found out made you a better basketball team when he was on the floor.
Obviously he’s been in different altercations throughout the playoffs. But I will say this, listening to him last night, the respect that he has for Steven Adams, who also has been in altercations, because of the appreciation for how hard he plays and how fierce he competes. The respect level was, I believe at the end of the day, when you look at him as a competitor, you want Draymond Green on your team, and you probably fear (ph) when you have to face him because he constantly keeps his foot on the gas and he’s going to do whatever it takes to win ballgames as far as a competitive spirit is concerned.
Q. What do you guys make of the new, more spread out Finals’ schedule, both in terms of how it impacts the fan experience of watching it and also how it might impact the series competitively.
JACKSON: I think I really like it, one of the reasons, it gives us a chance to go home in between. Coming off this Eastern Conference Finals with Toronto and Cleveland, we were basically on the road for two straight weeks. That’s a selfish standpoint speaking on behalf of Jeff and myself.
But from a fan’s standpoint, I think it increases or enhances the quality of basketball that will take place. It gives guys a chance to get fresh, to relax and then come back the same way and I think it truly at the end of the day presents a champion.
VAN GUNDY: I like it, too. I think giving rest days — I’m not sure. Between the first two games, I hate it. I think it’s too long. But I do like when they are flying across country, to give them that extra day, I think is a really wise and brilliant maneuver by Adam Silver to try. And even though it elongates the series, try to give the players their best chance to play their best on this big stage.
It’s a little drawn out, and I think between Game 1 and 2, they could do better. But I think after that, I think it’s really a well-constructed series.
Q. Speaking from your coaching experience, we get a lot of these shots on the sidelines of when Steph is dribbling and driving around and he puts up a shot, and we see Steve Kerr throwing up his arms going, no, no; and then the ball goes in and he sort of goes, yeah, I’m glad he did that and he shrugs his shoulders. Did you have experience with players who were frustrating and satisfying at the same time in the way he seems to be?
VAN GUNDY: Listen, Curry is just a unique player that you’re not going to get a chance to coach, who has incredible self-confidence, and also whatever is beyond the green light, he has. And the shots that he takes, are good only for he and his team. It wouldn’t be good for any other player in the NBA or for any other team.
And so, I think that’s what makes it unique, and I’m sure Mark had these experiences, too. What may look to be a bad shot for him, could often qualify as a great shot because it is him. I think you just get used to coaching someone who, skill-wise, is just from the shooting standpoint, off the dribble in particular, is just at a completely different level.
JACKSON: To answer your question, obviously I was fortunate enough to coach him, so had the same feelings and agree with everything that Jeff just finished saying.
I will also add Klay Thompson to the exclusion, I think both guys are all-time great shooters, and the shots that they take and make, are great shots for them. But certainly, you sit there and say, that’s a bad one, but they have the ability to make them because of the gift that they have as far as shooting the basketball. They are the right shots for those guys.
Q. Warriors with 73 wins in the regular season and now a chance for back-to-back NBA titles; how do you evaluate them in the all-time greats debate?
VAN GUNDY: I stay away from that because I’ve found that — and I used this on Mark a few weeks ago: Comparison is the thief of joy. If you start getting into who is better between teams that never had a chance to compete against each other, ultimately your praise of one is interpreted as the diminishing of somebody else.
So I know what I feel, but what I say, it doesn’t do anybody any good because this is — one thing that’s factual, is the most successful regular season team in the history of basketball. They worked hard for that and they deserve all sort of credit.
Now, who is better? I’ll leave that up to other people to decide.
JACKSON: I agree with what Coach just said.
VAN GUNDY: That is a great quote, right, Jack? Come on.
MARK JACKSON: That is an all-time great quote, and it’s truth. He’s preaching right there.
Q. Last year the Cavs played without Kyrie and Kevin Love, and so now they have more options offensively than the team they put on the floor against the Warriors last year. Are they as good defensively, and could they have trouble defending this team, especially with Golden State’s pick-and-roll and their perimeter shooting game?
JACKSON: I think there were times in that Eastern Conference Finals against Toronto watching Cleveland where they were a far better basketball team defensively than they have been at any point that I’ve seen them. You’ve got to give them credit. They bought in.
I thought J.R. Smith was unbelievable at times. Obviously LeBron is an elite defender. Tristan Thompson, an elite defender with his ability to defend the pick-and-roll.
I think Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, even though they are not elite defenders, they bought in and they competed on the defensive end, and that’s all you can ask for; a guy that probably their strength is not defending.
But I think collectively I think they played the best defense I’ve seen them play since they have been a unit. And if they play that way, obviously they are tough to beat, but they are going to be up for some tremendous challenges because those are the type of challenges that Golden State presents offensively.
VAN GUNDY: I agree with Mark. I thought particularly in Games 5 and 6, they were terrific defensively, and they are going to have to be if they are going to push the Warriors in the finals, because the challenges are much different because of great backcourt shooting and the terrific passing throughout the Golden State roster.
And so they are going to have to — whatever plan they come up with, they are going to have execute it. And the hard thing against the Warriors is to sustain your concentration. You watch last night with Golden State clinging to a four-point lead, jumped ball, 1:20, it’s anybody’s game, and Ibaka commits a foul that will resonate with Oklahoma City, maybe forever, that basically gives them that cushion that they needed to close out the game.
So you have to be able to concentrate. You can’t do dumb stuff, and if you do, Golden State makes you pay.
Q. Is this the best both of you guys have seen the Cavs play collectively since LeBron has been back in Cleveland and who do you think some of your X-factors are for the Cavaliers in this upcoming series?
VAN GUNDY: I actually thought last year when they beat Chicago after being down 2-1 was the best I had seen them play, because I think the competition level was at its highest in the Eastern Conference in that series.
And then I thought last year, James will never have a finer moment than what he put forth in that final series. To me, he was clearly the MVP of that series. I thought it should have been unanimous. I can’t even imagine somebody else voting for someone other than James after watching that.
But they are going to have to be even better this year. I know people are taking a lot with them being whole, but there are going to be challenges defensively. Where I think they had offensive question marks last year due to their injuries; this year being whole I think presents defensive challenges for them as they go up to compete against Golden State.
But they have had a terrific year, and they should be so proud of them getting back to the finals. It’s very difficult to do.
JACKSON: To me, this is the best that they have played being whole. I think they have done a very good job of picking and choosing when LeBron will be aggressive as a scorer, when Kyrie Irving will be aggressive as a scorer taking over the offense, getting Kevin Love involved offensively, whether it being pick-and-rolls or post-ups. The role players are playing exceptional. This is the best to me that they have played.
But like Jeff said, the challenges are still going to be there. They are playing a great basketball team that create a lot of problems for you to have to defend against. And to me, the wild card to look for is J.R. Smith. I think his ability to not only take, but make, tough shots and big shots, is going to be on display.
Last year, looking at the finals, he did not play up to par but he’s a guy that you’re going to have to defend because of his shot-making ability.
Q. Tyronn Lue took over in midseason and may not have had the best level of competition during the playoff. What challenges does he face coaching against Steve Kerr in these Finals that you think he may be at a disadvantage?
VAN GUNDY: I think this: I think when they say coaching match-ups, I couldn’t disagree more. You’re not coaching against the other coach. You’re coaching your team to try to put that team in the best possible position to win.
And so when I see inevitable comparison, I don’t get it. I don’t think there’s one thing that Ty Lue is unprepared for. I think he worked under and played under some obviously great coaches like Phil Jackson. He coached under Doc Rivers. David Blatt showed the blueprint last year for how the Cavaliers could get to the finals and he was a major part of that, Ty was.
I don’t think there’s anything he’s going to be unprepared for. It’s going to come down to whether his players play well enough. But I don’t think it comes down to him being in any way at any type of disadvantage.
JACKSON: I totally agree. I think both coaches have done an outstanding job. Both coaches are surrounded by outstanding staff and incredible talent. I don’t see any disadvantage at all, and that’s with respect to Steve Kerr. That’s just giving credit to Tyronn Lue and to the job that he’s done from day one.
Q. Jeff, I wanted to follow-up with some of the things you said earlier regarding the defensive match-ups for Cleveland. Can you elaborate a little bit on what specifically do you see as a problem for them defensively? And for both of you, how much do you think small ball will play a factor in this series? Will the Cavs be able to matchup to the proverbial death lineup?
VAN GUNDY: Can I say that the death lineup is maybe the most overused phrase in sports now; that would be No. 1. When you’re 73-9, most of your lineups are death lineups.
Curry and Thompson should be called the death tandem, is what they should be called.
But to get back to your question about last year, they played a huge front nine in Thompson and Mozgov and Mozgov has great feet. And so they were longer at the rim. I’m interested to see how they match up with the front court of Golden State; who does Love guard and how do they play the pick-and-roll. Love against Toronto, he showed a lot; so he extended his defense out. I will be interested to see if they continue that.
And Toronto, by the end of the series, Thompson was trapping every pick-and-roll, and I don’t think you can do that against Golden State very often because of their shooting and passing. They would be in too many four on three situations.
And last year, Golden State, to get to your second part, Golden State played small. Cleveland I think rightfully tried to stay big, and what you’re trying to do is impose your will on somebody else to make them change versus you having to change and match up in a way that may not put your best team on the floor.
MARK JACKSON: And I guess the part you wanted me to answer was the small ball. I expect both teams to play a lot of small ball because of the challenges that they will create at the point guard position in Curry and Irving, and also just defending shooters around the perimeter, it’s just a tough tall task to play big against.
And I thought at times, Golden State exposed that in last year’s finals and I think both teams are more equipped to go small. So I expect to see a steady diet of it.
Q. Mark, you talked earlier, I believe you said it might be great match-ups within the team matchup; if you can expound on that, and Jeff, you can add on that if you like. And also, Mark, you talked about Coach Van Gundy not being snapped up. Could you speak on, are you surprised why you haven’t been looked at more seriously returning as a head coach?
JACKSON: I appreciate the question. I’m having a blast from my end calling NBA games and working for ESPN/ABC and being surrounded by a legendary group of people who are not only coworkers but more importantly great friends of mine. That hopefully answers my part.
As far as Jeff, again, I’m shocked; I’m stunned, and that’s with respect to the 30 head coaches in the NBA. I know his body of work; not only by sitting next to him but by being in uniform and playing for him. It was an absolute thrill for me to play for him.
I have utmost respect for his knowledge of the game and his preparation. He’s an incredible motivator. So that’s shocking to me and it will remain shocking to me, as long as he’s sitting next to me. I think if I was owner or general manager or running a team, it would be his call, meaning Jeff’s call, to say no to me, because he’s absolutely that great of a coach in my opinion.
And to answer your last part, the matchups within the matchups, I look at the Warriors going small. They were successful last year at times defending Kevin Love with small guys; will they get away with that. How will they defend Kyrie Irving; who matches up against him.
LeBron James, at times, last year, no secret, Andre Iguodala was their best defender that gave them the best chance to defend LeBron James; that chess match within the game. The matchup of not giving the Warriors open shots, whether it’s Klay Thompson or Steph Curry, that can kill you quickly. All of those things will play a huge part. The matchup of keeping Tristan Thompson off the offensive boards.
I look at not just the matchup team-wise but how do you stop the other team at being so successful at what they have done to put them in position to be on the brink of winning a championship.
VAN GUNDY: For me, the one I’m really interested is in, is do the Warriors continue to start Iguodala and bring Barnes off the bench. To me, I am so interested in what Steve Kerr ultimately decides.
You can tell who a coach trusts the most by who he puts out there in must-win situations. And the trust that Kerr has in Iguodala defensively, I believe, similar to what Mark did, was off the charts.
And I just want to throw something in about Mark. Mark, coaching-wise, what he was able to accomplish at Golden State, I think unfortunately has not been given its proper due by so many. And he built a program, started it off and unfortunately didn’t get the chance to finish it. But it just also does show to me, he interviewed with Minnesota this year, and maybe other places that I’m not aware of.
But I just think he chooses not to publicize all the people who have interest in him; whereas a lot of people, through agents and whatever, choose to be very public about when they are interviewing or whose clients are interviewing. Mark has chosen to be more private in that area.
But I don’t think it should be thought of that there is not interest, because anybody who did what he did in Golden State, people are going to be interested in.
Q. The Cavs made about 10.5 threes during the regular season and they are up to 14.5 in the playoffs. Curry and Thompson both hit more threes in a series than anyone ever has. So this finals, is it just going to be all threes? And do you think that’s good for the game or do you think it’s a bad trend?
VAN GUNDY: Listen, I think the defense dictates often what shots you end up taking. From Cleveland’s standpoint, they are going to try to attack the basket. When Toronto didn’t in Game 1 or 2 choose to protect the paint and they chose to stay at home with the three-point shooters, they took less threes because it was dunks and layups.
When teams attack the basket and help is created, that second defender comes to the ball and the ball is sprayed out to the perimeter, both teams have the shooting to make 20 threes in a game, as we’ve seen.
And so this is why individual defense is so important, to try to keep the ball out of the paint and not have to give too much help. But both teams create those opportunities.
You know, I think a little bit more balance would be actually better for the game, but the rules are now, it’s the appropriate use — when you have this type of shooting on both teams, it’s the appropriate use of the three-point shot.
The one thing that — my pet peeve is when the ball goes in from the three-point line, everyone in the media talks about great ball movement. When the same ball movement creates a three-point shot and they don’t go in, the media then talks about, they are settling.
I think you just have to declare, is it great ball movement; you have to make your decision on the shot when the ball is in flight, not wait to see if the ball goes in or not as to whether it was great ball movement or on a particular possession if that was a settled type of possession.
JACKSON: I think we are going to see a lot of three-point shooting in the finals, obviously because of the Warriors, that’s their strength and that’s what has gotten them to be the team with a legitimate chance to go back-to-back.
And I think what Jeff pointed out, Cleveland has the ability to read a defense and either attack the paint area or be a three-point shooting team.
I think the consistent thing with both teams, which makes them three-point shooting teams, neither team outside of LeBron James has in my opinion a legitimate guy that you’ve got to worry about on the block.
Kevin Love had success in his past and there’s been times where he’s been successful, but if you’re matching him up with Draymond Green, I think it’s an interesting battle and I think Draymond Green can hold his own defending Kevin Love on the block.
Both teams, neither one of them have a strength outside of James’s ability in posting up, so I expect to see a lot of driving kicks and spot-up shots and play-making alone at the three-point line.
Q. What do you think about the super-team philosophy when you still have a few teams with supremely talented guys on just a few teams in the NBA which is yielding a lot of these teams going to the Finals; your thoughts on that. And also, both coaches have played and won NBA Finals. What do you think that dynamic brings to the series?
VAN GUNDY: I think both Ty Lue and Steve Kerr would acknowledge that them winning a championship as players, they certainly made their contributions. But the lion’s share of the credit would go to Jordan and Pippen, and O’Neill and Bryant. But I think what they learned is what it feels like to be a role player and how to try to get the best out of those guys when you know that your stars are going to deliver on a nightly basis.
And then — what was the first part of that question? I’m sorry.
Q. About the supremely talented players.
VAN GUNDY: Listen, you don’t get to the Finals if you don’t have supremely-talented players; if you don’t have multiple Hall of Fame-type players, and certainly we have that in this series. You just don’t get anywhere deep in the playoffs if you don’t have that idea of a super team in that you have multiple great players.
JACKSON: I agree with what Coach said. I think the important thing, I think your question was geared towards teams around the league building supreme teams. That’s just the way to go.
I’m sure this summer, all of those teams will be in discussion to try to do it. You want to win a championship; your best possibility is no longer having one superstar. It’s important to try to get at least two superstars and surround them with great role players that’s willing to buy in. I think that both teams in the finals have done a very good job of doing just that.
VAN GUNDY: I want to add one thing. I want to add one thing. What you can’t underestimate in all of this: Ownership spending the money necessary. Because a lot of people talk about wanting to win, but there’s not many owners like Dan Gilbert who will go so far over the luxury tax to try to give you the best chance to win.
Oklahoma City had a very high payroll, as does Golden State and Toronto, as well. That doesn’t mean you’re going to use every dollar the best or you won’t make mistakes, but those owners who give you the chance to overcome your mistakes; as a management team, to still add pieces, that’s what gives you a great opportunity.
Dan Gilbert, to me, is not getting nearly enough credit for what he’s been willing to do financially to try to put Cleveland in the best possible chance — give them the best possible chance to win.
Q. In the Western Conference Finals, the key stats: Turnovers, rebound margin, especially three-point differential. Based upon this matchup, what numbers would you be looking at if you’re coaching in the finals and you’re handed that stat sheet during media breaks?
JACKSON: Well, I think when you look at the success of both of these teams, the thing that would jump out to me is how are they taking care of the basketball. Turnovers against either one of these teams is a recipe for disasters.
If you look at the Warriors, if you turn the ball over against them, they are pushing the ball down the floor and the three-point line is wide open for Curry or Thompson or any of the other shooters. They make plays in transition.
If you’re turning it over against the Cavaliers, they are going downhill and James gets it going, attacking the rim, and now all of a sudden the floor is open and it creates a lot of problems.
The thing I would look at, if I was either one of these teams, is how are we taking care of the basketball.
VAN GUNDY: Yeah, I agree with Mark totally. To me it always comes down to turnover rate, both what you force and what you are able to — how you’re able to protect the ball, free throws made, effective field goal percentage which incorporates the three-point shot into your percentage and then defensive rebounding rate. It always comes down to those four things. Everything else is like a subplot to those four areas. I couldn’t agree more with Mark.
Media contact: Gianina Thompson at [email protected] (@Gianina_ESPN)