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.