The Diff is your weekly Wednesday WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Last week, I provided an All-Star Break update of the top prospects in the Cleveland Indians system, This week, I’m talking about the Cavs’ offseason.
This NBA offseason seems like it has lasted quite a long time. The Cleveland Cavaliers last played a regular season game exactly three months ago on April 17. While one could point out it’s been even longer that since they played even a somewhat meaningful game, the team’s flurry of moves this offseason has passed by like a blur. Thus, today, we’ll review four Cavs facts that fans may have been forgetting of late. Feel free to chime in with your own as well.
Fact #1: The Cavs were 17-21 with the NBA’s seventh-best offense in a 38-game stretch last season
When discussing upside for the 2013-14 season, a lot of folks will like to point out how dreadful the Cavaliers were in their 24-win season that just occurred. Yes, they were dreadful. And yes, as I’ve done the research before, most 24-win teams usually only progress to being a 30-to-32-win team the next season.
But such a concept does ignore the peak of what Cleveland accomplished last season, when at one point there were some worthy comparisons to the jump that the Oklahoma City Thunder made half a decade ago.
Let’s take a look at a chart with all of the NBA statistics from Dec. 22 through March 16:
It’s a bit odd to figure out why the Cavs’ offense was so good. In essence, as I covered in the past as well, it was because of their outstanding turnover rate. But it goes to show how abysmal the Cavaliers were in order to finish 24-58 (just 7-37 in their other 44 games) as well as finish with the NBA’s 23rd-best offense overall (100.8).
According to ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton’s fascinating study from late April, he estimated the Cavs lost approximately 14.5 wins due to injuries in 2012-13. Anderson Varejao (10.5) was the bulk of those missing wins and followed by Kyrie Irving (3.3). Cleveland’s total was the fourth-most in the NBA, trailing only Minnesota, Philadelphia and Chicago.
Both of these facts go to show that this is not your normal 24-win team returning to the floor in 2013-14. Obviously, it’s fair to point out that Varejao hasn’t been healthy in three years and a 38-game stretch could have been against an easier schedule. Both are valid points. But the fact remains that this team has the ability already to be a top-10 offense, separate from the other exciting changes made this summer.
Fact #2: Byron Scott’s Cavaliers were either historically unlucky or just tanked really, really well
The last years of Cavs basketball have been loads of fun, haven’t they? According to plan, it was necessary for the franchise to tear itself all the way down to achieve the roster makeover that has occurred in the last three years.
And now, we can reflect on the legacy of the three years that Byron Scott spent monitoring the court at Quicken Loans Arena. These past three years featured a 64-166 (.278) record, which ranks as the third-worst three-season stretch in franchise history, trailing only the early 1980s. But there’s more to it than just that.
First, on April 3 in The Diff, I wrote about how the Cavs had been blowing second-half leads at an abnormal rate under Scott, especially this past season. Then, with his firing in hand, I closed the book on those stats in The Boots on April 20. Here was my final analysis:
Looking at the NBA over the last eight years, and then looking again at three-year splits. Here is how the Cavs’ Byron Scott era finished:
When ahead at halftime – No. 174/180 – 34-38 (.472)
When ahead at end of third – No. 173/180 – 41-23 (.641)
As I reported, the normal expected winning percentage for an NBA team with a lead at halftime is about .725 and when ahead at the end of the third is about .819. Obviously, better teams are better at converting such opportunities, while bad teams are worse, but it’s still a fascinating outlook.
In 2012-13 specifically, the Cavs finished with league-worst 14-21 (.400) and 15-14 (.517) marks. Those single-season winning percentages ranked as the T-5th and 2nd worst, respectively, among 240 teams over this eight-year span.
Dating back to available data, these are some of the worst numbers for any NBA team. Let that soak in: The Cavaliers lost more games than they won out of the 72 times they were leading at halftime under Byron Scott. I don’t think fans are giving enough credit or recognition for how difficult that was to accomplish.
Earlier, I also wrote how the Cavs were 17-21 with the NBA’s seventh-best offense from Dec. 22-March 16. So how did the team do over the final month of the season? They went 2-14 with a -10.8 efficiency differential. Yes, that was only third-worst in the NBA, behind the abysmal Orlando Magic and fading Portland Trailblazers. But it speaks wonders that a team with a 106.5 offensive efficiency suddenly slipped to 96.5 in their next 16-game stretch. That doesn’t happen normally.
Youth and health were at play, of course. But this final late-season collapse coupled with the historically futile records with a lead tends to lead to some other tragically unlucky or purposeful behavior. And such fluky statistical behavior could lead to a regression to the mean.
Fact #3: The last Mike Brown-involved NBA team to miss the playoffs was the 1999 Washington Wizards
Replacing Byron Scott, a noted offensive-minded head coach who initially installed the Princeton offense and had virtually no defensive plans, will be former Cavs coach Mike Brown. Remember this guy? In fact, let’s take a look at his NBA history to see where he has been over the last 15 years.
Brown’s career started as an unpaid video intern for the Denver Nuggets at the ripe age of 22 in 1992. Eventually, he became a scout and then Denver’s video coordinator. He earned his first job on the bench as an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards in 1997. He did that for one more season, then again was a scout for the Wizards. Those last two seasons in Washington were the last two times he ever was involved with a team that failed to make the playoffs.
Since that time, it’s been nothing short of phenomenal. Brown’s assistant coaching career features a .629 winning percentage (51.6-win season) along with 43 playoff wins in seven years. Brown’s head coaching career features a .653 winning percentage (53.5-win season) along with 47 playoff wins in just a tad over six years.
Am I necessarily inferring that the Cavs will suddenly become a 50-win team with Brown on the bench? No, not at all, as in fact I’m a statistical-minded analyst who believes coaches deserve much less credit than they usually receive.
My main point: Brown doesn’t know how to lose and is one of the best defensive-minded coaches in the NBA. In a 10-season stretch as an assistant and head coach, he orchestrated a top-4 defense six times and was above average every other year as well. His Lakers tenure was a near Hollywood circus, but Brown still worked them to finish 13th too.
On a team loaded with offensive options, Brown is as good a fit as anyone. He has familiarity with the team’s front office, promoting a consistent and healthy system for young players (unlike situations like Sacramento or Charlotte over the last few years). And Brown’s historic success is just staggering.
Fact #4: Oh hey, Cleveland drafted Canadian super scorer Anthony Bennett and Russian shooting prodigy Sergey Karasev
Speaking of offensive weapons, it’s easy to remember that the Cavaliers just signed Jarrett Jack and Andrew Bynum, but the draft was only a few weeks ago. In said draft, the Cavaliers selected Anthony Bennett at No. 1 and Sergey Karasev at No. 19.
From a statistical perspective, the preeminent guide to the draft is in ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton’s Wins Above Replacement Player projections. Here is what he wrote for the two eventual Cleveland first-round picks:
8. Anthony Bennett – 2.1 WARP: Bennett is the only player in the top 30 without any statistical weaknesses. If he can develop NBA 3-point range after shooting 37.5 percent on 3s at UNLV, Bennett will be the rare stretch 4 who also excels on the glass. But he’s as old as many sophomores, which hurts his rating slightly.
10. Sergey Karasev – 2.0 WARP: A productive player in the EuroCup at age 19, Karasev should be able to contribute immediately whenever he comes to the NBA. Karasev is an excellent outside shooter — he’s projected to shoot 37.9 percent beyond the arc — and a fine passer for a wing. Karasev is the last player with a WARP projection of 2.0 or better, which usually translates into an NBA starter.
No statistical weakness and the ability to be a “rare” specimen on the court as the No. 1 pick? An already productive overseas player and the draft’s last NBA starter-level WARP projection as the No. 19 pick? Yes, the Bennett move was widely criticized as being classically Cleveland and out-of-the-box. But according to the math, the Cavs just added two top-10 prep players with pretty high ceilings. It’s hard to complain about that.
Undoubtedly, rookies are never usually that productive in the NBA. It’s not fair for fans to expect Bennett and Karasev to even produce as legitimate starters from day one. But their presence adds to the offensive firepower, long-term potential and overall excitement for the 2013-14 Cavs. It should be a blast.
What are some other facts you keep forgetting about the Cavaliers this offseason? I’ll add in some of my favorite responses here at the end.
@davidzavac – “That Kyrie Irving is a budding superstar”
@kildawg – “We turned Mo Williams and Jamario Moon into a half-season of Baron Davis and some guy named Kyrie Irving (#1 OVR pick)”
@wfnykirk – “CJ Miles and Tyler Zeller, starters for stretches will struggle to find rotation minutes”