One year ago, the Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA title for the 15th time in their historic franchise history. This occurred in June despite the fact the Lakers actually finished the regular season with one fewer victory than the Cleveland Cavaliers. What this means is that there there was something else more important than the sheer number of wins during the season. That main difference was that Cleveland struggled mightily throughout the year in their biggest games while the Lakers coasted through all the way to the championship.
Cleveland’s inability to win big games eventually led to their conference finals defeat at the hands of the Orlando Magic. Thus far this season however, with both teams having played 52 out of 82 total games, the numbers below start to show that there is a significant role reversal in comparison to what happened a year ago. While the Lakers are struggling against the top teams in the league, the Cavaliers are riding a season-high 11-game winning streak and appear to be the team to beat in the NBA.
Heading into the playoffs, many individuals figured that the teams were actually the best team in the league. Here are two such examples of this thinking on this particular site: 1) “Lakers and Cavs: Numbers for the NBA Finals” and 2) “WFNY Predicts the Conference Finals.” In the first post, I argued that due to the numbers between the two conferences, the Cavaliers actually proved more in the regular season. In the next piece of evidence, every single one of our writers predicted a Cavs victory in the Eastern Conference Finals while I was the only one to even think it would take longer than six games.
Beginning with the numbers, take a look at the breakdown of the regular season statistics for both the Cavaliers and the Lakers. Splitting their schedule into three parts, this is where we start with the 2008-2009 regular season of games:
Last year, Cleveland Cavaliers vs. the top three teams in the NBA (ORL, BOS, LAL):
3-6 record (.333 win pct), 105.4 offensive efficiency, 109.6 defensive efficiency = -4.2 margin
Cleveland against the teams in the middle tier of the 08-09 league standings:
29-7 record (.806 win pct), 113.1 off. efficiency, 104.1 def. efficiency = +9.0 margin
Cleveland Cavaliers against teams with less than 39 total wins last season:
34-3 record (.916 win pct), 115.2 off. efficiency, 100.7 def. efficiency = +14.5 margin
As shown in these stats above, the Cavs clearly dominated the vast majority of the NBA. Unfortunately however, they would need to have success against the top tier of the league in order to win a championship. The stats are highlighted by polar opposites: a 3-6 record against the top three teams and then an unbelievable .916 winning percentage against teams with less than 39 wins. The consistency across the board for Los Angeles was thus the key for their eventual triumph:
Last year, LA Lakers vs. the top three teams in the NBA (ORL, BOS, CLE):
4-2 record (.667 win pct), 113.5 offensive efficiency, 106.0 defensive efficiency = +7.6 margin
Los Angeles against the teams in the middle tier of the 08-09 league standings:
28-11 record (.718 win pct), 112.2 off. efficiency, 105.8 def. efficiency = +6.4 margin
LA Lakers against teams with less than 39 total wins last season:
33-4 record (.892 win pct), 115.4 off. efficiency, 105.0 def. efficiency = +10.4 margin
For major fans of either teams, these statistics above are no surprise. The Cavaliers struggled mightily against Boston, Orlando and the Lakers, but dominated everyone else. In fact, they went an astonishing 63-10 against the rest of the NBA. But the problem here is that on any given night, fans of the Lakers knew that their team had a chance to win. They could beat Boston or Orlando just as easily as they could beat a team like Atlanta or Dallas, and their efficiency numbers were fairly even throughout the split of the schedule.
Comparing the records in these categories last season, it is obvious that the Lakers would eventually have the upper-hand in the later rounds of the playoffs. Extravagant success against the lower rankings of the league did not help Cleveland at all during the playoffs when all the teams are clearly above average or way better. May we now also be seeing a similar type comparison between these two teams again this season? These numbers below for the 2009-2010 season do not include the results from last night when the Cavs hosted the Knicks and LA played at Portland:
This season, Cleveland Cavaliers vs. teams with .531 win pct or better:
16-7 record (.696 win pct), 110.0 off. efficiency, 103.2 def. efficiency = +6.2 margin
Cleveland Cavaliers against the rest of the teams in the NBA in 2009-2010:
24-4 record (.857 win pct), 112.6 off. efficiency, 103.3 def. efficiency = +9.3 margin
Now we see that the Cavaliers are becoming more consistent, especially on the defensive end. Last season, they averaged a 109.6 defensive efficiency against the top three teams and a 100.7 mark against the lowest third in the league. Splitting the NBA in halves this time, the Cavs defensive efficiency is practically the same in both categories, although technically 0.1 better against the upper half. This shows just how good Cleveland has been against the entire NBA, proving their difference from one year ago. Take a look also at what the Lakers are doing between these two categories:
This season, LA Lakers vs. teams with .531 win pct or better:
14-12 record (.538 win pct), 107.5 off. efficiency, 106.4 def. efficiency = +1.1 margin
LA Lakers against the rest of the teams in the NBA in 2009-2010:
24-1 record (.960 win pct), 112.8 off. efficiency, 100.4 def. efficiency = +11.8 margin
As evidenced in great detail Friday night against the Nuggets, these Lakers are not playing up to their potential in the biggest games. Despite this fact, they still continue to obliterate their clearly inferior competition much like the Cavaliers of a season ago. There is absolutely nothing wrong with destroying weak opponents in the NBA, but those stats, records and accomplishments mean nothing when you compare it to the eventual task of competing and succeeding in the playoffs.
Los Angeles won the NBA title last year by proving throughout the regular season they could beat any team at any style of pace. Cleveland’s obscene destruction of the worst teams in the NBA however, proved to have little correlation to eventual success in the playoffs. Based on these early results with still another 30 games left in the season, we may be seeing a similar performance from the two teams. The only difference is that the roles have switched with the Cavaliers looking strong as the NBA’s top playoff-ready team.
(Both photos above from Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)