I’ve certainly invested no shortage of words in trying to figure out just how much worse the Cavaliers will be this season compared to the last couple years. I’m hardly alone. This is the season of previews and predictions, and everyone seems to have trouble agreeing on what kind of record we should expect from the Cavaliers this season.
For most teams, it seems like most of the predictions are in a general state of agreement with the range of predicted wins often fitting within about a 5 win window, although it extends to 8-10 wins for some teams. The Cavaliers, however, have a much larger window of expected wins across the different sources I’ve read.
Vegas lists the Cavaliers’ over/under at 30.5 wins, with the under paying anywhere from (-130) to (-140) while the over is at an even +100. Yahoo!’s Kelly Dwyer gave his now infamous prediction of 12 wins for this team, setting the floor, while the Plain Dealer’s Terry Pluto posted the ceiling with a prediction of 46 wins. That’s a swing of 34 wins. Heck, even among just the staff of the Plain Dealer there’s a swing of 16 wins, from Bill Livingston’s prediction of 30 wins to Pluto’s 46.
In terms of seeding in the East, predictions again range as far as imaginable. Terry Pluto has the Cavaliers at a 6 seed in the East, which is definitely the most optimistic I’ve seen, but he’s not the only one who has the Cavaliers making the playoffs. I’ve seen a small handful of predictions having the Cavaliers sneak in as the 8 seed. For their part, though, ESPN’s NBA writers have the Cavaliers finishing anywhere from 9th in the East (Chris Broussard) to dead last in the East (JA Adande).
For his part, Adande says of the Cavaliers “Since 2007 the Cavaliers have lost 13 of the 14 games they’ve played without LeBron, so I’m afraid to do the projections of them playing 82 games without him.” I’m sure this is just Adande’s attempt at humor, but in case it’s not, I’ll do the math for him and let him know that works out to a projection of 6 wins for the Cavaliers.
Chad Ford says the Cavaliers will “struggle to win 30”. Chris Sheridan writes “From 61-21 to 21-61? Yep, I could see that. I know 21 wins may seem high, but have you seen how weak some of the other dregs of the East are?”. Marc Stein has a little more optimism saying, “I also won’t be surprised to see the Cavs exceed the widely morose expectations that lead to the sort of suggestions — like we just witnessed on the “NBA Tonight Roundtable” — that 30.5 wins is a suitable over/under.”
Meanwhile, in his preview of the Cavaliers, ESPN’s basketball metric-centric guru John Hollinger projects a total of 29 wins for the Cavaliers while Basketball Prospectus uses their own metrics to come up with a SCHOENE Projection of a 39-48 record, good for the 8 seed in the East. So even the NBA stat experts can’t seem to closely agree on what the Cavaliers are going to look like without LeBron James.
So why is it so hard for everyone to figure out this Cavaliers team? How is it that this team is perhaps the single biggest mystery team in the league as we head into the 2010-11 NBA season? Presumably there are several reasons for this disparity in public opinion.
Perhaps the biggest issue is that even after all these years, it’s still not totally clear to anyone how to precisely gauge the impact of a superstar on the team as a whole. Whereas football is the ultimate team sport and baseball operates as a bunch of singular spores operating independent of one another (generally speaking, that is), the NBA is the league of the superstar. No other major sports has fewer active players on the playing field at one time as you see in basketball. With just 5 active players at any given time, that means that each player accounts for 20% of the team’s productivity. Therefore, any noticeable increase or decrease in production beyond the league average at any given roster spot sees an exponential increase in impact.
In other words, if a basketball team has an average 2 guard, and then goes out and acquires a well above average 2 guard to take this player’s spot, that increase in production at the 2 guard makes a bigger impact on the team as a whole as compared to say making an equivalent upgrade at any 1 position in baseball (1 out of 9) or football (1 out of 11). Of course the converse is true. Removing a player of LeBron’s impact and replacing him with an average player like Jamario Moon should cause a catastrophic collapse in performance.
However, because one superstar can have such a significant impact on a team, the area where basketball stat heads sometimes have a hard time quantifying impact is the degree to which a superstar affects the way role players around them perform. In other words, LeBron’s production had an unquestionable positive impact on the team at a whole, but to what degree did his style of standing around dribbling out the shot clock and asking teammates to stand around waiting for him to kick out to them for wide open shots affect said role players’ abilities to play the style that best suits them. It’s not unimaginable to think that some of the Cavaliers role players throughout the years took a back seat to LeBron’s dominance and let their own game sag as a result.
We can debate the role LeBron may or may not have had in the decline of these players, but just look at the list of players brought in to support LeBron over the years. Larry Hughes had 4 straight seasons of +15 PER before joining the Cavaliers. His last year with the Wizards he had a 21.6 efficiency rating and put up 22 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. In his first year with the Cavs, he had a 14.0 PER and averaged 15.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.6 assists. His production declined across the board. For Donyell Marshall, in the 5 years prior to joining the Cavaliers he had efficiency ratings of 19.9, 19.2, 18.4, 18.9, and 19.9. In total he had 9 consecutive seasons of +15 PER’s. His first year with LeBron saw his efficiency dive to a mere 13.4, his lowest total since the 1995-96 season, his 2nd year in the league.
Wally Szczerbiak had only 1 career season of below average efficiency before coming to Cleveland. He had averaged double digit scoring every season of his career prior to joining LeBron. After being traded to Cleveland, he had pathetic 10.3 efficiency rating in the rest of the 2008 season and then had a 12.1 PER in his final season. He never again averaged double digit scoring once he came to Cleveland. In that same trade, Ben Wallace came to Cleveland to see his efficiency numbers drop to 12.4 and 12.2 in his 2 seasons with the Cavs. Last year upon his return to Detroit, his efficiency jumped back up to 15.8.
Now, before this starts to sound like I’m saying that LeBron actually makes his teammates worse, let me just point out that there are plenty of players who were able to thrive with LeBron. Certainly Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ efficiency was never hurt in the least by LeBron. Mo Williams’ level of efficiency didn’t change at all from Milwaukee to Cleveland. Anderson Varejao has been right around a 15.0 PER every year except one down year. And certainly one could argue that some of the decline of these players was simply the impact of time and age. The point, though, is that it can be unpredictable how different players will fit in with a superstar. So when you simply remove a superstar like LeBron James from the Cavaliers, it can be hard to guess what the end result will be.
To complicate matters further, the Cavaliers have a new head coach in Byron Scott and a whole new style of basketball that they are implementing. This makes it even more difficult to guess just how well this core group of players can play in this system when all we know about them is how they played in relation to LeBron James’ isolation style of basketball.
Basketball Prospectus uses a WARP statistic (Wins Above Replacement Player) similar to the one baseball uses to try to gauge the impact a player has on his team. Last year, LeBron’s WARP was 25.3 wins. So if we accept that Jamario Moon is an average player (and his 0.7 WARP would seem to suggest he is about as average as it gets), then the theory is that losing LeBron alone would knock the Cavaliers down from 61 wins to 36 wins. So that’s your baseline for any prediction. From there, you have to weigh the impact of losing Shaq, Delonte, and Big Z along with the additions of Ryan Hollins, Ramon Sessions, Samardo Samuels, Joey Graham, and Manny Harris. Then, on top of that, you have to guess how these players will respond to LeBron’s absence. Will players like Daniel Gibson continue to thrive in their opportunity? Will JJ Hickson be able to continue his development without LeBron around to draw defenders away? How will Anderson Varejao’s game be impacted by not having LeBron around for the first time in his career?
The amount of guess work that goes into prognosticating this Cavaliers team is numbing. The truth is, nobody knows what’s about to happen. It’s no coincidence that people who saw how the Cavaliers played and matched up with teams in the preseason are more optimistic about this team than those who haven’t seen them. It’s encouraging to know that this team’s mentality is strong going into the season and confidence is high. There’s no moping and no feeling sorry for themselves. The general malaise that some predicted isn’t here…..yet. But until the regular season starts on Wednesday and we get our first real look at how this team responds to live regular season action, then all anyone is doing is guessing. Until this season plays out, nobody knows for sure what kind of impact LeBron’s absence will truly have on this team, and that’s a beautiful thing.
We may not have Championships to hope for this season anymore, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to look forward to. This season is going to be a journey of discovery and I can’t wait to go along for the ride. I’m eager to discover the answers to these questions and so many more. I’m hopeful for how this team will respond to the adversity given to them. In 2 days, we can stop all the insane guessing and find out for ourselves exactly what these Cleveland Cavaliers are made of.