Cleveland Cavaliers, Rotisserie Champions

Cleveland Cavaliers

With the NBA regular season winding down, the story lines aren’t heating up, but rather becoming more and more homogenized. With few real playoff races and seeds up for grabs, talk has primarily centered around the MVP race, home court advantage, and which teams have the best chance of winning the title.

So with that in mind, I got to thinking about the Cavaliers’ chances of winning the title. There are literally close to a hundred different ways of looking at it. You can look at any combination of efficiency ratings, point differentials, assist to turnover ratios, rebounding rates, and on and on. What I wanted to do, though, was try to compare the Cavaliers to past NBA Champions to see how they rate.   

The criteria I chose to use was Dean Oliver’s “Four Factors” of basketball success. The four factors he identified are, in order, shooting (eFG%), turnovers (TOV%), rebounding (rebounding percentage), and free throws (free throw rate). Each of these four factors can be broken down into offensive and defensive rates, giving us a total of 8 factors to determine whether a team is setting itself up for success or for failure.

With the Four Factors being used for the criteria, I then simply went back to the last 20 NBA Champions and looked at where they ranked in each of the 8 aspects of winning basketball in that season. Then, I could find the average of their ranks in each categories for a total average rank number. Those of you who are familiar with Rotisserie leagues will understand the concept. For example, in 1991-92, the Chicago Bulls ranked 3rd in offensive eFG%, 1st in offensive TOV%, 5th in ORB%, 16th in offensive free throw rate, 9th in defensive eFG%, 9th in defensive TOV%, 4th in DRB%, and 8th in defensive FT rate.

At first glance, one might think those numbers, while solid, hardly seem overwhelmingly dominant. But when you average their rank in each of the 8 categories, you get an average of 6.5, which was by far the best average in the 1991-92 season (and, furthermore, the best average of each of the past 20 Champions). The next closest that year was the Portland Trail Blazers, whom the Bulls defeated in the NBA Finals.

For comparison’s sake, the Cavaliers ranks this year are 4th in Off eFG%, 5th in Off TOV%, 15th in ORB%, 15th in Off FT rate, 3rd in Def eFG%, 10th in Def TOV%, 9th in DRB%, and 10th in Def FT rate. That gives the Cavaliers an average rank of 8.88 overall. That number is significantly lower than the 1992 Bulls’ average rank, but the 8.88 number is still pretty impressive. In fact, it’s the best rank in the 2008-09 season so far. Here’s how the top 15 teams rank this season:

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers (8.88)
  2. Los Angeles Lakers (9.25)
  3. Boston Celtics (9.63)
  4. Portland Trail Blazers (10.38)
  5. Orlando Magic (10.75)
  6. New Orleans Hornets (12.50)
  7. Utah Jazz (12.63)
  8. Philadelphia 76ers (12.75)
  9. Denver Nuggets (13.00)
  10. San Antonio Spurs (13.13)
  11. Houston Rockets (13.13)
  12. Atlanta Hawks (13.75)
  13. Dallas Mavericks (14.13)
  14. Milwaukee Bucks (15.00)
  15. Chicago Bulls (16.13)

Having the best average rank doesn’t guarantee a team will win the Championship, but it certainly helps your chances.

It’s one thing to compare the Cavaliers’ average rank to just other teams this season, but it might be interesting to also see how the Cavs compare to the past 20 NBA Champions. The 1991-92 Bulls had the best average rank of all the past 20 Champions with a 6.5, while the 1994-95 Houston Rockets had the worst, at 14.13. The Cavaliers’ 8.88 average rank actually would tie them for 5th with the 1996-97 Bulls team. Here’s how the Cavaliers would rank with each of the past 20 NBA Champions:

  1. 1992 Bulls (6.5)
  2. 1996 Bulls (7.38)
  3. 1991 Bulls (7.88)
  4. 2000 Lakers (8.75)
  5. 1997 Bulls (8.88) [tie]
  6. 2009 Cavaliers? (8.88) [tie]
  7. 2005 Spurs (9.38)
  8. 1998 Bulls (9.63)
  9. 2004 Pistons (9.75)
  10. 1993 Bulls (10.00)
  11. 2003 Spurs (10.13)
  12. 1990 Pistons (10.25) [tie]
  13. 1989 Pistons (10.25) [tie]
  14. 2007 Spurs (10.38)
  15. 2008 Celtics (10.88) [tie]
  16. 2001 Lakers (10.88) [tie]
  17. 2002 Lakers (11.13)
  18. 1999 Spurs (11.88)
  19. 1994 Rockets (12.88)
  20. 2006 Heat (13.63)
  21. 1995 Rockets (14.13)

So obviously the Cavaliers compare favorably with the previous NBA Champions, which is a good sign for their Championship chances. It’s important to note, though, that the Cavaliers are not the only team this year to match up well with these past Champions. The Lakers and Celtics would each rank in the top half of this list as well, should they happen to win the title. In fact, any of the top 12 teams from this season would be ahead of the 1995 Rockets on this list. Having said that, though, only the Cavaliers would be a top 5 team, so there’s the silver lining for Cavs fans.

There are a few other interesting things I noticed on this chart of past Champions. If you look at the top 3 and bottom 3 outliers of each category (for example, the top 3 in Off eFG% are the 1991 Bulls, 2006 Heat, and 2007 Spurs, while the bottom 3 are the 1998 Bulls, 2000 Lakers, and 2004 Pistons), it’s interesting that the Cavaliers are not in the top 3 or bottom 3 of any category. The only Champion of the last 20 years to also not have any outliers is the 1989 Pistons. The only Champions to not be in the top 3 in any category are the 1989 Pistons, 2001 Lakers, and 2002 Lakers. The only Champions to not be in the bottom 3 in any category are the 1989 Pistons, 1992 Bulls, and 2005 Spurs.

The Cavaliers’ ranks in most categories are above the average rank of the 20 Champions. In Off eFG% they rank 4th (average is 7.15), in OTOV% they are 5th (average is 10.55), in Off FT rate they are 15th (average is 15.55), in Def eFG% they are 3rd (average is 5.00), and in DTOV% they are 10th (average is 14.50). The only categories they are below the average are ORB% (15th, compared to 11.05 average), DRB% (9th, compared to 8.45 average) and Def FT rate (10th, compared to 9.55 average). The average offensive factors rank is 11.08, and the Cavaliers’ average is 9.75, which ranks 9th among the past Champions. The average defensive factors rank is 9.38, and the Cavaliers’ average is 8.00, which ranks 7th among the past Champions.

In summary, it’s important to reiterate that none of this means the Cavaliers will win the NBA Championship this year. With that in mind, though, what this does show us is that the Cavaliers genuinely do have a great chance at winning it, and correlated to how the past Champions have compared to other teams in their seasons, the Cavaliers’ position as the top team this year is a good sign. It shows that the Cavaliers are a pretty consistent team and they rely on excelling in multiple facets of the game of basketball to win games, which is the sign of a champion. The Cavaliers may just be Rotisserie Champions in terms of Dean Oliver’s “Four Factors”, but come June, they will try to parlay this success into a real title, the first in Cleveland since 1964.

To view the full chart used for the data in this article, click on the thumbnail below:

Past Champions
  • creative

    this is the type of post that makes this site great. Keep up the phenomonal work Rock.

  • Scott

    Good stuff, Rock. Never hurts to have the numbers in our favor, even if they are trailing indicators.

  • RockKing

    They’re only trailing indicators if you already bought into the Cavs being better than Orlando. :)

  • Ricky

    well done with the analysis sir. another factor the cavs have in their favor is point differential, which along with PER is what John Hollinger goes to sleep with every night

  • Denny

    What is this, a math website?!

  • Rick

    We’re Number 1! (And we can prove it!)

  • RockKing

    By the way, the most surprising thing in this whole article is that Orlando is 5th this year. The only reason I fear the Lakers more than the Magic is because the Lakers thrashed the Cavs at the Q this year, while the Cavs barely squeaked out a win over Orlando at home. So I was very surprised to see Orlando so low on this list.

  • adam

    again, math wins championships

  • dgriff13

    ow. my head hurts.

    y’know all we’ll be hearing about is our poor record against the Big 3 teams. To a lot of sportscasters, that’s all you need to really consider. But the regular season is NOTHING like the playoffs.

  • CJG

    Numbers hurt the head, but justify the pride.

  • sambofromOH

    I find this type of post very interesting.

    A couple of thoughts: Ones ranking in a season is completely dependant on the other teams dominance as well. I think that it is a given that not only teams but leagues have up and down years. It seems to me that, especially in the East, there are a lot of really good teams this year. That makes the Cavs run even more impressive.

    I am not sure if I am just missing it on the table but it would be interesting to know how many champions had the best ranking that year.

  • Kory

    I would like to know all of those past champions rank was in that season I.e. the cavs are #1 this season, how many of those teams were also #1 in that season?

  • Ersan

    Check out the chart, see the difference…

  • cs

    If you take the cavs off that chart and put this years second place team they have the same actual ranking of 6th.
    In no way are this years cavs = to the ’97 bulls

  • Garron


    I do a lot of regression statistics and wanted to do soemthign like this. I wanted to ask, how do you get stats in excel format?

    Secondly, I think you need to use actual numbers (Pace based) instead of ranks, as ranks could just represent down years. A 5th ranked OR% this year could be 10th in a different one.

  • greggrant

    I’d like to point out that rank comparison is somewhat biased as different seasons have different strengths. Like Garron said, actual numbers would do better maybe here. But for in-year comparison, ranks are just good, pointing out how balanced a team is compared to others. That’s why it would be quite interesting to see how those past 20 champs measure up against their competition of their respective season, like we know the ’92 Bulls were well ahead of the pack – but what about the others? Does leading all teams in the league according to this ranking correlate well with winning the championship, or should the lead over the other teams be significant to determine the champions of the year? I assume you have the data available, can you post such correlations as well, please? Thanks!

  • RockKing

    Perhaps for a future post I will do something like that. But for this post, my goal wasn’t any kind of sound statistical analysis……it was really just intended to be for fun. Hence the “Rotisserie Champions” headline.

    I suppose I probably didn’t express this clearly enough, but my goal in comparing this to the past 20 NBA Champions was merely to compare level of dominance over the league in each perspective season, similar to comparing records, wins, point differential, etc. I’ll try to expand this for a post next week since people seem to have an interest in finding a true correlation.

  • Joe

    Great stats, although I agree with some of the posters who mentioned that regular-season play doesn’t always correlate to good postseason play. 3 out of Shaq’s 4 championship teams are ranked very low on the list, probably because he never took the regular season very seriously.

    I think this is true of many teams that have a lot of veteran players. So, this year, teams like Portland or Atlanta will probably have a dropoff in the playoffs compared to their regular season numbers. But, I would expect the opposite to be true for veteran teams like the Rockets and the Pistons.