The month of April in the NBA is always an interesting one. In general, teams spend those last 2-3 weeks of the season doing one of three things. Some teams are fighting for a certain playoff spot, some teams are fighting just to get into the playoffs, and others are trying to get a look at what their young players can do as they are already preparing for the next season.
The Cleveland Cavaliers might be in a moderately unique position, though. With just 11 games remaining for the Cavaliers in the regular season, they currently find themselves with a 5 game lead over both the Orlando Magic and the Boston Celtics for the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference (the Cavs have a lead of six games over the Celtics in the loss column). With the lead beginning to look a little insurmountable (though by no means impossible to give up), the Cavaliers can almost begin to look ahead to the start of the playoffs.
Sure, the Cavaliers would love to secure the NBA’s best record overall and guarantee home court advantage throughout the playoffs, but more importantly, the Cavaliers are beginning to play winning playoff basketball again. If the Cavaliers get home court throughout, so be it, but the focus of the Cavaliers from here on should be on getting into the proper rhythm on both offense and defense, as well as figuring out substitution patterns and player rotations.
The remarkable fact of the matter is, however, that the Cavaliers are already doing just that, and are beginning to look like a team who is entering into playoff mode. One of the greatest analytical basketball minds ever, Dean Oliver, once came up with his Four Factors of winning basketball. Essentially, by studying various statistics he came up with the 4 most important aspects of winning a basketball game. They are:
- Shooting (40%)
- Turnovers (25%)
- Rebounding (20%)
- Free Throws (15%)
As the Cavaliers have been enjoying their current 10 game winning streak, it’s interesting that they have been steadily improving in these very aspects of the game.
In the 10 games prior to the current winning streak, the Cavaliers’ eFG% was 50.60%, they were averaging 13.5 turnovers per game, their total rebounding percentage was 51.125% (40.9 rebounds per game, +1.8 difference), and they were shooting 25.4 FTs per game at a 75.98% rate.
During the current 10 game winning streak, the Cavaliers eFG% went up to 51.25%, they reduced their turnovers down to 10.9 per game, their total rebounding percentage increased to 51.432% (43.1 rebounds per game, +2.4 diff), and they averaged slightly more FTs, at 26.1 attempts per game at a 75.48% rate.
These numbers are nothing earth shattering to look at, but they show the subtle areas in which the Cavaliers have been improving during this current stretch of winning. Their assists are up from 18.9 per game in the 10 games prior to 21.0 per game during the win streak. Their scoring is up from 94.8 points per game to 101.9 points per game. Almost across the board the Cavaliers are playing better basketball right now, which is a good sign as the playoffs loom near.
Beyond just looking at the numbers, though, there are other factors that are likely to work in the Cavs’ favor when the playoffs arrive. After blowing out so many teams earlier in the year, the Cavaliers have had to learn recently how to win in other ways, particularly pulling out close wins in the 4th quarter. The Cavs are showing that while they are capable of hanging on to big leads, they are also capable of regaining control of games when they do give up leads and are still able to find ways to win in the last few minutes of games, a trait that is always helpful to have in the playoffs.
Furthermore, while dealing with injuries is certainly never very much fun, the Cavaliers have found a silver lining in having so many injuries this year. The Cavaliers’ depth was a bit of a concern coming into the season, but as role players have had to step into meaningful roles to fill in for injured guys, many players have been able to get some key experience. Some of those players have flourished in those situations. Sasha Pavlovic has played well in spots, and even a guy like Tarence Kinsey has shown that he can contribute should the team need him. Rookies JJ Hickson and Darnell Jackson have taken turns getting minutes at the end of the bench, but the experience they gained could be invaluable should the Cavaliers run into injuries or extended foul trouble in the playoffs.
At different points throughout the season (and sometimes at coinciding points), the Cavaliers have had to deal with injuries to Delonte West (18 games), Ben Wallace (18 games), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (16 games), Wally Szczerbiak (seven games), Sasha Pavlovic, Daniel Gibson, and Tarence Kinsey. The one constant throughout all the injuries has been winning, and the reason for the continued winning has been the consistent stellar play of LeBron James and Mo Williams along with timely performances from role players stepping up.
Moreover, in addition to the benefit of experience and building depth, the injuries the Cavaliers have faced do serve an additional hidden benefit – rest. Older players such as Ilgauskas and Wallace having to sit for a few weeks each could help them be fresh and rested for the grind of an extended playoff run. There’s no question that prior to his injury, Ben Wallace was starting to look tired. His legs didn’t seem near as fresh as they did earlier in the year. While he may need a while to get back into game shape, and there’s talk that he may be held out of the starting lineup to re-acclimate him slowly, if there’s any chance of Ben playing like he was in the first 2 months of the season again, then it would be hard to see this period of rest due to injury being anything but helpful (especially when you consider that the Cavs have not lost any ground at all without him).
Once the playoffs arrive, the Cavaliers will be a battle tested team with the confidence to know they can survive injuries, huge leads, deficits, and foul trouble. Once Szczerbiak and Wallace return (and both are expected to be back at least by the time the playoffs start), the Cavaliers will be at full strength, and the bench will be as deep as its ever been in the LeBron James era. There’s still plenty of time before the playoffs get here, and a lot can change between now and then, but at the moment the Cavaliers appear to be getting into playoff shape. There’s still plenty for the Cavaliers to work on, as they have struggled a little bit with a few teams at home recently and the Cavaliers’ killer instinct to put teams away earlier in games when they have them on the ropes seems to have waned a bit. The main point, though, is that the Cavaliers are playing the best basketball they have since the beginning of the season, they are building depth, and they are learning how to play in different types of games and scenarios. For the Cleveland Cavaliers, the playoffs can’t get here soon enough.