Last week in The Diff, I brought you inside the numbers of the Sweet 16. With no more March and no more college basketball for Ohio sports fans, it’s time to move back to the pros. Although the current excitement surrounds the Tribe’s Opening Day win, I’m back for Cavs talk today.
During the Cleveland Cavaliers’ ongoing season-high eight-game losing streak, much of the media talk has been directed toward head coach Byron Scott’s future with the organization. I covered the beginning of the talk about 10 days ago. Anonymous players then shared their frustrations with the Akron Beacon Journal’s Jason Lloyd over the weekend. And our very own Scott threw his hat into the ring on Monday. But looming large in these murmurs is this largely unreported fact: The 2012-13 Cavaliers are currently the worst third-quarter and second-half team in the National Basketball Association. By far.
In the usual narrative of the Cavs recent rebuild, a solid chapter or two is spent on the much-hyped, high-drama heroics of a certain Mr. Fourth Quarter. In just 101 (out of 144 possible) career games, Kyrie Irving has proven that he deserves to be on the elite short list of the best young talents in the NBA. He’s shocked a lot of folks that might not have expected him to be this good this early. And he’s single-handedly brought the team back from countless deficits in his short career. That’s certainly true.
But in these two seasons, for every one Cavs victory, on average, there have been about 2.3 Cavs losses. So for as many spectacular, incredible and incomprehensible fourth-quarter comebacks by Irving company, there have usually been at least 2.3 times as many bone-headed third quarter miscues, confusing rotation patterns or just downright awful second-half play — in other words, lots and lots of blown leads. A near-historic amount this season, in fact.
As you likely can tell, I’ve got some statistics to back up these lofty claims. For years and years, NBA.com has kept track of team records based on leads at different intervals of the game. So, without further posturing, here’s your 2012-13 leaderboard in winning percentage when ahead at halftime and when ahead at the end of the third quarter:
|AHEAD AT HALFTIME||AHEAD AT END OF 3RD|
|NBA SINCE ’05||28.5||10.8||0.725||NBA SINCE ’05||32.4||7.2||0.819|
Take a look at my footnote for source information and a notable caveat1. But there’s one thing that should be most glaring to anyone from this chart: The Cleveland Cavaliers rank dead-last in both categories.
At some point, your mind likely will then wander to consider the effects of an already good team on these categories. Inherently, a very good team2 is great at maintaining a lead — or evaporating an opponent’s lead — while bad teams suffer the consequences. Indeed, the correlation r-values support that hypothesis too3.
The next question you might ask: How do the ’12-’13 Cavaliers compare to the rest of this data set over the last eight years? Well, not so good. And in a way, a bit too poorly compared to their overall record. Here are the bottom 13 teams in both categories:
|AHEAD AT HALFTIME||AHEAD AT END OF 3RD|
Overall, the Cavs’ 19 losses when ahead at halftime are the fourth-most since the 2005-06 season. The record is 21. Additionally, the Cavs’ record when ahead after three quarters is proportionally worse, but 19 teams have had 12+ losses in this category over the past eight seasons. The record is 15.
For this historical data, it was now intriguing to compare the team’s split percentage to their per-82-game overall success. So yes, over the course of the last eight seasons, the current Cavaliers have been one of the worst in each of these categories. Only four other teams — the 2007-08 Miami Heat and three separate iterations of the Minnesota Timberwolves4 — place on both of these bottom 13 lists. Only that one Miami team is worse than Cleveland in both splits.
As I teased above, it does appear that per the overall team success, Cleveland’s ability to blow leads is a bit unprecedented. In the “Ahead at Halftime” list, only one other team had a winning percentage projected to over 24 wins in an 82-game season. In the “Ahead at end of Third Quarter” list, there were five such other teams along with the Cavs. In essence, I propose that the Cavs’ second-half failure is a bit strange considering they’re not that awful overall.
That hunch then led me to another data portal via NBA.com/stats: efficiency differentials by quarter and by half. As a quick primer for those unfamiliar again with efficiency differentials, it measures the net points of a team compared to its opponent per 100 possessions on the court. Splitting the Cavs season into three distinct periods, I present this next table5:
Fairly accurately, this chart above epitomizes the current Cavaliers season. In the first split, the Cavs were a very awful team, despite the health of Anderson Varejao. There was no bench to speak of during this 5-23 start to the season — players such as Samardo Samuels, Jon Leuer and Donald Sloan were receiving meaningful playing time. That’s certainly why, when Varejao, Irving and the other starters sat more in the second or fourth quarters, the bench struggled mightily. Overall, second halves were atrocious. This was a sign of a bad trend.
In the second split of the season, post-Varejao’s season-ending injury, the season started to turn around. The main highlight was the Leuer trade that brought a more complete bench to Cleveland in the form of Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington, plus the signing of Shaun Livingston. This is also where the quarter-by-quarter efficiency flip-flopped: Now, the Cavs were most successful in the second and fourth quarters with this cohesive bench. The team was much more exciting to the tune of a 15-15 stretch and showcasing a top-10 offensive efficiency.
Since March 1st, however, the season has suddenly gotten ugly again. Just as many fans were truly starting to enjoy the year, the team fell apart again. And where has this destruction been most noticeable? In the third quarter and second half overall. Shockingly, the Cavs are not the worst third-quarter team since the start of March — that belongs to the recently-awful Detroit Pistons with a -32.5 mark. But they are the worst second-half team overall and it’s a stark contrast to the perfectly mediocre success (0.0 net rating) in the first halves of the last 15 games.
On the season, this is where the Cavaliers rank in the NBA by quarter and half in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency and net efficiency differential:
|Split||O Eff||Rk||D Eff||Rk||Net||Rk|
All of the storylines above again fit this narrative. Now it’s spelled out in black-and-white for all to see: Cleveland is the worst third-quarter and second-half team in the league. The defects are seen both offensively and defensively. And for more perspective, keep in mind that the average NBA efficiency is about 103.0, per HoopData. So while the Cavs offense is still fairly bad overall, it’s the defense that is most off-putting6.
As one final topic, last month, the 7th annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference took place at MIT. Our very own Craig attended the conference this year. Although Craig wrote a few articles (this and this) about how the math overload relates to the future of the Cleveland Browns, the bulk of Sloan still relates to basketball statistics. Guys like Daryl Morey are superstars at the conference and, as the NBA is the best sport to follow on social media, there were tons of other great commentators and writers at the conference.
One of the most hyped research papers out of Sloan this year was one untitled “Live by the Three, Die by the Three? The Price of Risk in the NBA“, written by Matthew Goldman and Justin M. Rao. The paper dealt with the risk-friendly or risk-averse nature (as measured by percentage of three-point attempts to overall field goal attempts) of NBA teams when leading and when trailing. Thus, there’s potential for a slight overlap with the current Cavs situation. It’s not a perfect fit, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
To a certain extent, perhaps the Cavaliers — and Byron Scott — aren’t making proper risk adjustments in the second half of games this season. The team is playing a slightly slower pace in the second half. Three-point frequency and other aspects of the Four Factors didn’t appear to change drastically, but it’s the entire mindset of the franchise that potentially needs to feel more comfortable to be risk-friendly when games are still within reach — and especially when the lead is actually in hand heading into the final 24 minutes.
Eventually, Byron Scott’s future will depend upon the team’s ability to hold onto leads and sustain its success throughout the second halves of contests. What is happening this season, and especially since the start of March, could be characterized as either extremely poor in-game coaching, fatigue or maybe just plain tanking. It’s not fair to make a one-sided judgement call and label it one without considering the other But this near-historic failure in the second half is a missing component of what is turning out to be another dark and dreary season at the Q.
- Source: 2012-13 NBA data, 2011-12 NBA data. You can then use last year’s to look at the previous years as well (replace 2011 with 2010, etc.). For the historical average, I’ve started with the 2005-06 season since the data from the season before that appears to be incomplete on the NBA website. Also for complete statistical accuracy: I’ve averaged the historical NBA records under these two splits to be per an 82-game season. Obviously, last year there were only 66 games and we’re not done yet this season, so this was a necessary adjustment. [↩]
- Miami, Oklahoma City and the LA Clippers both appear in the top four of these categories. Those first two teams certainly are the odds-on favorites to meet again in the NBA Finals this season [↩]
- R-values are .901 for when leading at halftime and .820 when leading at the end of the third. [↩]
- At one point, I started looking at three-year or longer intervals of success or failures in these categories. Here’s your Minnesota fact du jour: In the six-season stretch 2005-2011, the Timberwolves went 84-95 (.469) when ahead at halftime. Look at the chart above to place that in historical context. It’s ugly. Really, really ugly. [↩]
- The Cavaliers have only played in one overtime game this year so for the purpose of an easy table, that was generally overlooked below. [↩]
- I’ll get to this another day, but I think Scott was right on the money a few weeks ago: A defensive presence on the interior is a huge need long-term for this franchise. The Cavs just can’t stop anyone in the paint right now. And even with Anderson Varejao, things weren’t that different. [↩]