Can The Cavaliers Exceed Expected Results in 2010-11?

By now we all know the Cavaliers are going to be a worse basketball team this year. That much is obvious, but what many of us are wondering is, just how much worse will they really be. The common guess I’ve heard repeatedly has been somewhere in the 35 win vicinity. But is there any historical precedent for unexpectedly losing your franchise superstar in the middle of his prime?

Neil Paine points out an interesting case on the Basketball-Reference.com Blog in the form of the 1994 Chicago Bulls. If you recall, in the 1992-93 season, the Bulls won 57 games and took home their 3rd consecutive NBA Championship, and then Michael Jordan walked away from the sport. Everyone expected the Bulls to have a major setback, but in the 1993-94 season, the Bulls still won 55 games, although they fell short of winning a 4th straight Championship.

Is there any chance of the Cleveland Cavaliers repeating this kind of resilient bounce back in 2010-11? The short answer is, not really. There’s always the slightest of chances, but Paine makes some good points about why the Bulls had the minimum drop-off that they experienced in 1994. He writes:

One major reason for the Bulls’ apparent lack of decline was simply luck. In 1993, Chicago’s Pythagorean record was 58-24 and they only won 57 games, but in 1994 their luck reversed and then some — they won 55 despite a Pythagorean record of 50-32. Further reinforcing this point is the fact that their SRS fell from +6.19 (4th in the league) in 1993 to +2.87 (11th) in 1994. They may have won only 2 fewer games in ’94, but in reality the drop-off in performance was more like 8-9 wins. Still, remember this post about how much losing LeBron would hurt Cleveland? Using SPM, I estimated the loss of James would cost the Cavs 20-25 wins even if they replaced him with an average player… And Jordan’s SPM in 1993 was higher than James’ was in 2010!

Of course, as of right now the Cavaliers haven’t even replaced LeBron with an average player. They’ve replaced him with nobody as they are the only team in the NBA who has not added a single player this offseason, whether it be by draft, trade, or free agent signing.

Getting back to the Bulls performance in those two years, one of the points Paine brings up is that 56.7% of the Bulls minutes in 1994 were from players who were still on the team from 1993. The make up in difference of those minutes came from Steve Kerr, Pete Myers, Toni Kukoc, Bill Wennington, and Corie Blount. The implication there being that by losing Michael Jordan and essentially replacing him with those core players would seem to indicate a larger drop than just 2 games, especially when you consider the sizeable Statistical Plus/Minus (SPM) that MJ was carrying.

This is difference #1 for the Cavaliers. Losing LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, presumably Delonte West, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Darnell Jackson, Cedric Jackson, and all 5 minutes of Coby Karl means that the Cavaliers have 63.7% of their minutes from 2010 coming back. With Antawn Jamison, Daniel Gibson, Jamario Moon, and Leon Powe all certainly increasing their total minutes played in this upcoming season, that number is likely to grow, meaning that while the Bulls had almost half of their minutes changed up with losing Jordan, the Cavaliers as constituted right now will be by and large the same team minus LeBron.

So while Michael Jordan’s SPM may have been higher than LeBron’s, the Bulls made some moves to at least try to cut into that loss somewhat. The Cavaliers, by standing still, are going to take on the entire force of losing that SPM. Their only way of cutting into this right now is by the increased minutes of the 4 aforementioned players.

As far as the luck factor is concerned, last season the Cavaliers actually performed better than their expected results. Their Pythagorean W-L was 59-23, which was 2nd in the NBA. The Cavaliers won 2 more games than expected, and it would have been more had they not given the starters a week off at the end of the year. Their SRS of +6.17 was also good for 2nd in the league. By these statistical measures, the Cavaliers should have been the 2nd best team in the regular season, rather than the best. After exceeding the Pythagorean W-L for three consecutive seasons now, you might expect that trend to come to an end now that LeBron is no longer there to bail the team out when they have their off nights.

There were other factors for the Bulls in 1994, including their improved defense and their ability to still be an efficient enough offensive team, but the biggest factor that people might overlook here is the presence of one Scottie Pippen. The Bulls still had one of the so-called 50 Greatest Players of all time on that team in 1994. They still had Phil Jackson as coach and they were a team of players who were used to winning surrounding an all time great player in Pippen.

The Cavaliers aren’t so fortunate. Maybe you could muster up an argument for Jamison being one of the 100 best players of all time (he is currently 75th all time points and 89th all time in rebounds, and 59th in career points per game and 105th in career rebounds per game), but he’s in the twilight of his career at this point. Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao are above average NBA players and JJ Hickson has a lot of potential to become a very, very good NBA player, but there’s not much else there to be excited about. The Cavaliers have no center and only one small forward in Jamario Moon.

It’s not all bad news, though. The Cavaliers do have a few things going for them and a couple wild card scenarios that could play in their favor. For all of Mike Brown’s strengths as a head coach, one of his biggest weaknesses was his stubbornness. By having a new set of eyes in Coach Scott, the Cavaliers have a coach who will be starting from scratch and will work to find the best way to fit player rotations into his system in an effort to maximize effectiveness with the talent he has available to him.

Second, the Cavaliers still have a culture of winning. Six straight winning seasons and five straight trips to at least the 2nd round of the playoffs can’t be completely undone in one day. There are plenty of players on this Cavs roster who know nothing but winning and will continue to bring a winning mentality to this team. In basketball especially, effort and hustle can at times make up a little bit for a lack of talent. Over the course of time, talent generally wins out, but if the Cavaliers come in to this season hungry to prove the doubters wrong, they can harness that energy and use it to slightly exceed expected results.

We know for sure the Cavaliers are not a Championship contending team in 2011, and we know it will be tough (but by no means impossible) to make the playoffs. A lot of things will have to go right for them to win 45+ games. I do think 38-43 wins is a realistic goal for the Cavaliers to have, though, and a few smart moves by Chris Grant could improve that. The problem this franchise faces, though, is deciding what’s best moving forward. While we would all love to see this team show the heart and determination to give us a 45 win season and get into the playoffs, it wouldn’t necessarily help in the rebuilding process.

This is a discussion for another time, but if the Cavaliers get into the playoffs this year, their hope will be that as they continue to build cap space in the next couple offseasons, that perhaps their winning performance would convince a couple free agents that coming to Cleveland might not be so bad after all. The problem with that logic is they tried this in the late 90s and it didn’t work. Free agents still wouldn’t come.

What Cavaliers fans have to decide then is how to weigh all this. I can’t speak for all Cavs fans, but I can’t root for the Cavaliers to lose. I want them to stick it to the doubters this year and prove that it was more than just LeBron. If that’s going to happen, we now know there’s at least a blueprint on how one team did it. We’ll see if the Cavaliers can follow in those rather large footsteps.

  • Lyon

    Good article, but like you said, we don’t have Pippen. Him and Kukoc were big parts of why they didn’t fall off. Could see Mo stepping his game up, but not to that level.

    I won’t root for us to lose, but if we happen to miss the playoffs it wouldn’t be the worst thing. Either way, go into the season like you do with the Tribe. Low expectations so that no matter what, we won’t be disappointed.

  • Roosevelt

    Rebuilding is overrated. Even if you get a great pick, it has to be in a year where there is a great player. And one is not enough.

    Frankly, the model for our rebuilding should be the Lakers; not OKC.

    And despite what I just said, here’s a crazy idea: instead of capitalizing on the Raptors’ mistake, and signing Barnes with our MLE, how bout we sign and trade him to the Raps for a future first rounder?

  • MattyFos

    I can’t root against them either. I would hate to see this team tank and lose the fanbase that #6 built. The fans are still around to show Gilbert support, but if we start putting up 20 win seasons, the fans will quit supporting this team. Make smart trades. I do expect the team to compete in the playoffs this season. I think this roster was better than the Bulls 2009 roster. Yeah, we don’t have the star potential of Rose. And Noah only truly had one good game in the playoffs, but now everybody says he’s the next Dennis Rodman. In all seriousness we took the Bulls to the final minute at the end of the season, in a game that didn’t matter for us. But a MUST WIN game for the Bulls. #6 wasn’t playing, and Antawn, Shaq and Mo were all playing limited minutes. We lost that game, but we were competitive. I think we can reach 45 wins. But I will predict 41(.500) and an 8th seed.
    If we can bring in Koufos, Barnes, and Sessions. I would predict between 45-50 wins.

  • Chris

    They do have cap space and the TPE. If a team wildly underperforms and wants to cut some salary, we could get a decent big that way, no?

  • MattyFos

    @Roosevelt, I think the Cavs were offering way less than the full MLE, we just sat on our offer and since Toronto and Orlando can’t figure out the specifics of a sign and trade, we are back in the running. And maybe Barnes’ number one choice.

  • Architrance

    Agreed good article, but I should just have skipped to paragraph #10 and started reading for the reasons the Bulls remained good:

    The presence of one Scottie Pippen.

    They still had Phil Jackson as coach.

    They were a team of players who were used to winning surrounding.

    Obviously the Cavs won’t be as good as last year. But I think they may be a real team with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove. These guys have been maligned by the national media as “not being a good enough supporting cast” for years and have since been shunned by DWade, and He Who Shall Not Be Mentioned.

    Whats wrong with acquiring more “assets” to try to build a contending team this year?

    Some team will be tanking by the deadline and will be willing to part with a legitimate talent for our Trade Exemption. I say go for it Gil! It helps us with a chance to win this year, and if the team still sucks – firesale it before the deadline or next offseason. By adding another talent, it gives us a better shot at winning now or another chip to eventually trade for prospects/picks.

    Whats wrong with waiting one year before entering full on rebuilding mode. One year, to see what this team can do.

    For all this talk of “loyalty” and “family” and “commitment” what would it say about our franchise and city if they just gutted this team because of one man’s bad decision and we all just supported it?

  • Roosevelt

    Matty: My point is that maybe Toronto has egg on their face now, and would be willing to do something extreme, like giving up a 1st rounder for Barnes. The Cavs would waste their MLE or some of their trade exception, but if they wanted to sign anyone (who’s left? Penny Hardaway?) they still have a some trade exception, and/or some cap space.

    Then, they’d be barely competitive this year and next, maybe a playoff team, and they’d have six or seven first round picks over the next 4-5 years. Miami’s obviously wouldn’t be all that great, but a pick from Toronto could potentially be in the lottery. If they trade their few big contracts as they approach expiration, they could stockpile even more.

    They could enter 2012-13 with a core of JJ and Andy, a few spare parts, and a LOT of decent picks coming.

  • AMC

    @ Roosevelt – I might be wrong on this, but I believe only that a player may do a sign and trade only with the team he played for the previous season.

    Hard to believe that the Cavs are the ONLY NBA team not to add a new player.

  • J-Dub

    I think this team will win more than 35 games and will surprise a lot of people. Scott is a good coach and his ‘run first’ offense will work on a lot of teams, last year’s Cavs struggled defending up-tempo teams last year despite being a juggernaut defensively. They will get consistently dominated on the glass and any team with a decent big man will give them fits. We’ll be seeing a completely different side of Mo, Antwan, J.J., and Andy (he’ll be trying to score a lot more and it will be scary), I think they’ll have respectable seasons and maybe we can move Jamison half way through the season to a playoff contender. Barnes would be a huge addition and add some much needed toughness that they lack, but I think this year will provide plenty to build on and can hopefully put them in a good position to get back to a contending team in 2012.

  • Roosevelt

    @6 Architrance – I see how you tried to sneak Arenas in. Not in a million over my dead body years.

  • mike

    ugh – the NBA should just “award” Cle with next year’s #1 pick and Tor with the #2 pick and be done with it.

  • http://shakesthesnowglobe.blogspot.com EZ

    @Roosevelt

    I don’t think he said “Go for Gil”

    I think he said “Go for it Gil” as in Dan Gilbert should totally spend the money to bring in high priced talent with our TPE at the deadline.

  • Jim

    38-43 wins is the nightmare scenario for this team. You stand no chance of winning in the NBA by being in the middle of the pack (see the Cavaliers, Cleveland: 1994-2000). This league is predicated on superstars, and outside of this years free agency, the one way to get a super star is to draft him. That means getting high picks in the lottery.

    They need to blow it up. I’ll still watch because I love basketball, but the most painful outcome of “the decision” would be if this team deludes itself into thinking it can compete in the present while building towards the future. The time is now to start saving cap space, trading older players for young talent and/or draft picks, and build a team that can truly compete in the future.

  • 5KMD

    AMC:

    “Hard to believe that the Cavs are the ONLY NBA team not to add a new player.”

    I think the key to that statement was throught free agency, trade, or draft.

    I think the Cavs were one of the very few teams who had no draft picks this year, and of those, the only team not to add anyone through other means as well.

    It sounded wierd to me at first too.

  • Roosevelt

    @12 EZ
    Whoops Sorry
    (/humiliated)

  • Architrance

    I dont know if anyone else remembers this, but we did tank a few seasons, win the lottery, get the best prospect in 20 years (not named Durant or Kobe), had a good run, and that still wasnt good enough to win a championship.

    Now you want to follow this exact same pattern again? Isnt the definition of insanity: performing the same actions over and over again yet expecting a different result?

    How will this end up any differently?

    You really think we’ll get a star BETTER than the one we had???

    In my opinion, the Cavs need SEVERAL high draft picks in a span of 2-3 years. Hopefully get SEVERAL blue chip players through the draft and let them thrive off eachother. The more talent we have on the roster now, the more draft picks we can trade for later.

    Absolutely gut the team (eventually) and load up on picks for that 2-3 year span, hope we somehow get high picks, and if we don’t, we cant be afraid to trade our multitude of picks to move up.

    Then let that new team gel…

  • TSR3000

    Initially, I loved Gilbert’s letter. Now that guarantee just makes him look shortsighted and a bit foolish.

  • Jake

    I think the best thing to do for this franchise is to get a new face. There are two ways to do this. Free Agency is not an option because like we have read, the big free agents never come here. So that leaves us with trades or the draft. I believe that this team will be competitive and possibly as high as the 6 seed(call me crazy), which will not net us a “franchise player” in the draft.

    Which leaves the trading option. I hear that Danny Granger is available, same with Marc Gasol and OJ Mayo. We have more than enough pieces to make a move or even two, so why not ship out lets say West, Telfair, Moon and a pick or two for Granger. Indy wants him out(ala drafting Paul George) and Cleveland needs a face and a SF. Team him up with JJ and we might have something.

    Everyone except JJ and AV should be considered trade assets. I say we let Chris Grant go all in and try to obtain some young players like the ones mentioned above. We have players, we have picks, and now we finally have some money to make some trades.

    GO BROWNS!

  • Jackson

    Don’t assume tanking and getting high picks is the cure all. For every OKC, there is a LA Clippers/Minny Timberwolves/Indy Pacers/GSW that are perpetual lotto teams and always in re-build mode. Even the pre-LBJ Cavs had years of lotto picks (Mihm, Langdon, Miller, Wagner, Diop) that never panned out. Players like LBJ/Durrant/Howard only come around once every few years, there is not one to be found in each draft…

  • Jim

    @Jackson: the Clippers and Minny are perpetually terrible because they have horrible front offices who do things like trade Al Jefferson for a draft pick and Kosta Kofos. Ditto the Cavs pre-Lebron. Paxson was the same guy who let Carlos Boozer out of his contract early. The same guy who drafted players like Diop and Wagner, despite glaring weaknesses in their games. Winning in the NBA is about three things, (1) luck, (2) good management, and (3) talent. Since this is Cleveland, we can forget about luck. That means we need to rely even more on good management and talent. As has been previously discussed ad nauseum, historically the Cavs have struggled getting major free agents. That leaves trades and the draft. If past drafts are any indicators, nailing a top five pick can go along way to building a contender.

  • Architrance

    I guess all we can do is just hope this organization is run better than in the past? Not that we need reminding, but…

    From 1999-2004 we had 7 picks at #11 or higher. Trajan Langdon #11, Andre Miller #8, Jamal Crawford #8, Desgana Diop #8, Dajuan Wagner #6, Luke Jackson #10, and some other stiff, I cant remeber his name #1. And we drafted Brendan Haywood 20th overall.

  • Roosevelt

    Jim, i think everybody would like to have draft picks. But there are drafts that just don’t have the talent level to bring championships. If you didn’t get Dwight Howard in 2004, the next best player may have been Al Jefferson with the 15th pick. Tanking would have got you Emeka Okafor. In 2005, you could have picked Chris Paul or Deron Williams, but you also would have been just as likely to end up with Andrew Bogut or Marvin Williams. And without tanking, you could have had Danny Granger at 17, or David Lee at 30. Or how ’bout 2002? After Yao Ming, there was only one real game chnger (Stoudemire) in the top ten. I could keep browsing Wikipedia, but the point is that drafts such as the 2003 draft, where five out of the first six players are real stars, are the exception. Most years, tanking would give you possibilities, but wouldn’t guarantee a player better than even Mo Williams.

  • Architrance

    And compare that to the 1985-86 drafts when they netted Charles Oakley #9, Brad Daugherty #1, and Ron Harper #8, then traded for Mark Price in the second round.

  • MattyFos

    I don’t consider AV untradable. He has glaring weaknesses in his game, and without #6 those weaknesses will be seen by the entire NBA, not just Cleveland. If we can get a decent player for AV, I say pull the trigger. Andy is about to hit his ceiling, and he will hit it hard.

  • mgbode

    @24 – or AV will excel in a fast-paced offensive system that is all about getting easy transition buckets by beating your man down the floor.

    not saying it’s for sure (because it would sure help if Andy could hit a jump shot), but there’s at least a chance he can do that while continuing his defense, which could artificially inflate his numbers and we could get an even better player back in a trade :)

  • Gerry Nason

    Do we really want or need the Cavs to exceed expectations in 2010? The best thing that could happen to the Cavs is to trade the established players for young talent and/or high draft choices, then lose like crazy over the next two or three years.

    Think I am crazy? Just look at historical evidence.

    Every time the Cavs have been serious playoff contenders, it started by accumulating high draft choices. In 1986, the Cavs got Brad Daugherty with the first over all, Hot Rod Williams with the number three pick and traded for Mark Price who was Dallas’ first pick of the second round. They would go on to draft Ron Harper and bring Larry Nance and Craig Ehlo in by trade to round out the core.

    The only other time was when they drafted LeLoser first overall. There is a definite trend here. Going 41-41 gets you nothing but a D-league player. However, if you have a “Nets like” season, you get a player that will be a star. Two or three seasons like that and we are back headed for the top. Three season of 41-41, the Cavs won’t see another winner in my life time.

  • MattyFos

    I just want us to finalize the trade for Sessions and Koufos.

  • Alex

    Architrance, the vast majority of the time that a team hits a good pick in the lottery they don’t instantly jump to the playoffs – the difference is that in that one or two year window, you have to pick a good player every year.

    OKC had to hit Durant and still lost 62 games the next season. They drafted 10th in 06, 2nd in 07, and 4th in 08. The fact that they hit on lottery picks in the top 5 in consecutive years is why they’re so much better right now and for the future.

    On the other hand, we wasted the one and only decent pick after drafting the Akronite. Had we taken Al Jefferson or Josh Smith in 04, instead of garbage, this would be entirely different. Nobody can say what happens at that point.

  • Ike

    I EXPECT this current Cavs roster to get at least 35 wins, especially with a coach as competitive as Byron Scott. I agree with Andrew that anywhere from 38-43 is about the sweet spot.

    And I too want the Cavs to win as many games as possible next year. It’s true that the worst place to be in the NBA is the 7th-10th best team in your conference (not a contender, no decent picks), but I want the Cavs to show everyone it wasn’t all Lebron.

  • 5KMD

    Alex:

    On the other hand, we wasted the one and only decent pick after drafting the Akronite. Had we taken Al Jefferson or Josh Smith in 04, instead of garbage, this would be entirely different. Nobody can say what happens at that point.

    Right on. Add that to Boozer who obviously should have been kept and I think you end up with the makings of a very good team.