After discussions with my brother before and during Game One against Atlanta, I decided to write up this article about some long-term questions concerning the Cleveland Cavaliers. Topics include the upcoming rounds of the playoffs, hot teams in the early rounds, and the likelihood of LeBron leaving. These are just my opinions, but as always I looked to build up my argument on cold-hard objective stats. Let the discussion begin!
The Cavaliers are now 10 wins away from their first NBA Championship in franchise history. We at WFNY have supported the idea of practical confidence in regards to our expectations this year in the playoffs, and thus I decided to take a look at out potential opponents in the upcoming rounds. In the Eastern Conference, the Cavaliers will take on the winner of the series between the Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics. The series is tied at 1-1, and game three at Orlando is a must-win for the Magic if they hope to keep an edge with home court. Over in the Western Conference, Houston and LA are knotted up at 1 as well, while Denver is up 2-0 on the Dallas Mavericks.
On the season, the three teams the Cavaliers had the most trouble with are currently in the playoffs. While the Cavaliers went a perfect 4-0 against Denver and Dallas, they went a combined 4-8 against the other four teams currently in the playoffs (meaning that they went 58-8 against all other teams including Atlanta). The Lakers were the only team to never lose to Cleveland, winning both match ups, while Houston destroyed the Cavs by 19 in February in splitting the season series. Orlando won the two match ups in Florida but lost once in a close game in Cleveland, while Boston and Cleveland each won their home games as has been the case in the past 16 duels between the two teams including playoffs in the last three years.
Thus, when looking at the list of teams I want the Cavaliers to play in the upcoming rounds, here is what I believe to be the order (1 is preferred option, 6 is least preferred).
1. Dallas (2-0, avg. diff = +23.5)
2. Denver (2-0, avg. diff = +14.0)
3. Boston (2-2, avg. diff = +7.5)
4. Houston (1-1, avg. diff = -5.0)
5. Orlando (1-2, avg. diff = -12.0)
6. LA Lakers (0-2, avg. diff = -13.5)
In the three games against Orlando, the Cavaliers always seemed to fall apart in the middle of the game. In the first quarters, we had an average differential of +2.3, while in the second and third quarters combined we lost by an average of 16 points. I feel more comfortable against Orlando than I do against the Lakers because of the improved combined duo of LeBron and Mo Williams (averaging a combined 48.4 points on 50.3% shooting in the playoffs). In their three games against the Magic they combined to average 45.0 points on 41.4% shooting with 4.3 turnovers. They have shown that they can lead the entire team to victory over Orlando, with or without some increased help down low by Andy, Joe Smith and Z.
Meanwhile, against the Lakers they averaged 37.0 points on 33.8% shooting to go along with 7.0 turnovers. The Lakers played much better team defense on our two key players, and dominated inside the paint. On the season, the Lakers were fourth in the NBA with a +5.1 average differential on points in the paint, while the Cavaliers were nineteenth at -1.0. The plus/minus on points in the paint will be huge in terms of the home/road match-up as the Cavaliers are +2.0 at home and -4.3 on the road, while the Lakers were +7.3 at home and +2.8 on the road. I do not think the Cavaliers will be able to surmount that huge disadvantage in the paint in Los Angeles, and thus that entire series will be a struggle because I seriously doubt the Cavaliers could win at the Staples Center.
Question #2 – Do the hot teams in the early playoff rounds usually win out the rest of the way?
Only one team in the last six years has advanced to the Conference Finals in under 10 games. The NBA changed the first round to a 7-game series for the 2003 playoffs, and since this time only the Miami Heat went better than 8-2 in their two rounds. In addition, of the six teams over these six years that actually did go 8-2 in the first two rounds, only half of them (Lakers 08, Cavaliers 07, Nets 03) advanced past the conference finals and none won the NBA Championship. This shows how in essence, first and second round success normally does not relate to later success in the playoffs.
In the last six years as I mentioned above, no team has won an NBA Championship after losing less than three games in the first two rounds. Boston (6 losses in 08), San Antonio (3 losses in 07), Miami (3 in 06), San Antonio (3 in 05), Detroit (4 in 04) and San Antonio (4 in 03) all had some struggles in the first two round en route to winning the championship. The average number of first and second losses for the champion is 3.8, while the runner-up has averaged 2.5 losses and the two conference final losers have averaged 3.5 losses. Clearly, there is no exact correlation between early round success and the eventual champion and thus, there is no precedent for the Denver Nuggets (currently 6-1) and Cleveland Cavaliers (6-0) of 2009 to succeed past the first two rounds.
Question #3 – Does a 2009 NBA Championship guarantee LeBron forever, or make him more willing to leave?
According to my research, Dennis Johnson is the only player in NBA history to leave his team within three years of winning the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP award. After leading his Seattle Supersonics to a championship in the 1978-1979 season, Johnson left one year later for greener pastures in Phoenix and then Boston. Several other players, such as Moses Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, left their team three years after winning an NBA Finals MVP. So if the Cavaliers do win the championship this season, it would be quite unprecedented for the unquestioned leader of the team to leave in a very short time frame.
In the 40-year history of the Bill Russell MVP award, only eleven players have been under the age of 27 when winning the trophy. Lew Alcindor at age 23 started the trend, and Tim Duncan in 1999 at age 22 remains the youngest to this day. In these 40 seasons, only thirteen times has the winner also been the NBA regular season MVP, and this feat has not happened since the Tim Duncan-led Spurs won it all back in 2003. Of these thirteen occurrences, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan account for seven while Willis Reed (1970), Lew Alcindor (1971), Moses Malone (1983), Hakeem Olajuwon (1994), Shaquille O’Neal (2000) and Tim Duncan round out the field.
What this shows is that in recent history there are very, very few examples of players leading their team to victory in the NBA Finals and then leaving town. The great players of our day, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Tim Duncan, all stuck around to win multiple titles with their original team. If the Cavaliers win the NBA Championship in the next two seasons, it would virtually lock LeBron James for an additional three years, or even for life. If he wants to make Cleveland a basketball dynasty, just like the Bulls of the 90′s, the Lakers of the 80′s or the Celtics of the 60′s, then he would stick around and not join Dennis Johnson as the only player to win Finals MVP then leave. I know that LeBron James will bring a title to the Cleveland area, and the only thing that can change is when the first title will occur to lock him up as a Cavalier for the rest of his playing days.