The Diff: Three intriguing stat-lines to watch for the Cavaliers

The Diff

The Diff is your weekly WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Last week, I answered some WFNY playoff questions for the Cleveland Indians. This week, it’s preseason basketball talk about the Cavaliers.

The Diff

Last night was the return of basketball to the Quicken Loans Arena. It was a fun atmosphere; albeit one prefaced with the damnation of “preseason.” Mike Brown’s defensive style was certainly in showcase, one first half defensive miscue-forced timeout at a time. With the regular season now just three weeks away, previews ablazing, today’s the perfect day to look at three underrated stat-lines to watch with regards to the hard-to-predict 2013-14 Cleveland Cavaliers.

My inspiration for this post was Jon’s “Four Stat-Lines to Watch on the 2013 Indians” back in late March. Of course, Jon wasn’t going to just write “run differential” or “improved starting pitching” and thus I won’t state some of the obvious stat-lines for the Cavs.

That means this list doesn’t include such items as: Kyrie Irving’s defense, Tristan Thompson’s right-handed shooting, the constantly unhealthy frontcourt’s health, the team’s defensive efficiency or overall field goal percentages. I’m digging a bit deeper for a few more obscure things you might not think of at first.

As another reference point for a similar topic, check out my edition of The Diff from mid-July on “Fun Cleveland Cavs facts fans keep forgetting.” That similarly covered four arbitrary points when I could have written dozens and dozens.

Stat #1: Turnover Rate

The Cavaliers ranked No. 3 in the NBA with a 13.8% turnover rate from Dec. 15 through the end of last season. Let that sink in. That’s a fantastic performance over a 58-game stretch for a team that still managed to lose 58 games. I wrote about turnover rate in The Diff back on Feb. 20 and March 13.

Of course, that rapid end-of-year improvement is countered by the fact the team’s 16.7% mark was No. 27 through the season’s first 24 games. During this span, the team was 5-19 with the No. 28 ranked offensive efficiency.

So the decreased turnover rate was a huge reason for the team’s eventual rise to offensive mediocrity. But there’s a possibility for skepticism in this regard, even with the health and expected improvement of a number of Cleveland’s young stars.

Among the 12 players with at least 600 minutes for the Cavaliers last season, here is the leaderboard in terms of the team’s turnover rate with that player on the court:

Wayne Ellington: 984 mins, 12.5%
Shaun Livingston: 1,135 mins, 13.1%
Luke Walton: 857 mins, 13.3%
Dion Waiters: 1,756 mins, 13.5%
Tristan Thompson: 2,564 mins, 13.5%
Kyrie Irving: 2,047 mins, 14.0%
C.J. Miles: 1,363 mins, 14.1%
Alonzo Gee: 2,540 mins, 14.2%
Tyler Zeller: 2,032 mins, 14.3%
Marreese Speights: 721 mins, 14.5%
Anderson Varejao: 900 mins, 15.8%
Daniel Gibson: 919 mins, 15.9%

It’s notable that all of the top three players are gone with little effort from the Cavs to re-sign them for this season. That’s fine, to a certain extent, as Walton is notable for not being with any NBA team even now. But could those three veterans – Ellington, Livingston and Walton – been under-appreciated for how they calmed down the Cavs offense?


Stat #2: Corner Three Ratios

Only 22.1% of the Cavaliers’ three-point attempts were from the corner last season. That ranked No. 27 in the NBA. And it has to improve this season under Mike Brown.

The NBA has become a major three-point shooting showdown1. And some of the best teams year after year are the ones innovating with sharpshooters in the corners.

Here are the differences in NBA field goal percentage between corner three-point attempts and other three-point attempts dating back over the last eight seasons:

2012-13 Season: 39.0% Corner, 35.1% Other
2011-12 Season: 37.6% Corner, 34.2% Other
2010-11 Season: 39.4% Corner, 34.9% Other
2009-10 Season: 39.1% Corner, 34.6% Other
2008-09 Season: 39.4% Corner, 36.1% Other
2007-08 Season: 39.5% Corner, 35.4% Other
2006-07 Season: 38.4% Corner, 35.2% Other
2005-06 Season: 38.9% Corner, 35.1% Other

Despite this overwhelming disparity, corner threes have stayed steady around 27-29% out of all NBA three-point attempts. The Cavaliers, however, were way under that mark in the abysmal Byron Scott era – nearing the 25% mark in his first two seasons before bottoming out this past year.

Last season, Alonzo Gee (58.5% of his threes from the corner) was the main corner chucker for the Cavs. Yet, he earned designation from Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry as the NBA’s worst right corner three shooter. Thus, Gee’s not good enough as the Cavs’ lone corner presence. Long-ball shooter C.J. Miles has to be trained to shoot from the corners exclusively, after only attempting 20.5% of his threes from those spots. Rookie Sergey Karasev also should be doing that too.

And finally, just like LeBron James for the Miami Heat – termed by Goldsberry as the “league’s most over-qualified spot-up shooter” – Cleveland’s backcourt stars have to lead by example from the corner. The 2012-13 corner three ratios for Kyrie Irving (5.8%), Jarrett Jack (17.6%) and Dion Waiters (19.2%) all should be higher in the future.


Stat #3: Bringing Varejao back in

Narrative: Anderson Varejao’s improved mid-range shooting has been a key reason for his impressive All-Star-esque development over the last two years. Going by PER, such a narrative might have some weight: After posting no better than a 15.8 mark for a six-season stretch, he was at 18.9 and 21.7 over the past two years while undoubtedly taking more jumpers.

But, Varejao’s PER jump is actually in spite of his mid-range shooting tendencies. As I’ve shared before in The Diff on Feb. 6, PER is flawed in one major aspect: It tends to be a counting statistic when it comes to scoring, not just serving as an efficiency-based statistic. Most significantly: A player with equal shooting ratios to another but with more field goal attempts per 36 minutes will have a much higher PER. This has been the case with Varejao of late. Take a look at this breakdown:

Through the 2010-11 season (seven seasons)
FGA/36: 7.7 (approx. 8th percentile)
Jumpers: 32.9% of FGAs; 31.6% efg
Non-Jumpers: 67.1% of FGAs; 61.4% efg
Total efg: 52.0%
PER: 14.7

In last two seasons
FGA/36: 10.9 (approx. 37th percentile)
Jumpers: 40.3% of FGAs; 33.5% efg
Non-Jumpers: 59.7% of FGAs; 60.0% efg
Total efg: 49.3%
PER: 20.4

Overall, Varejao is choosing to take a jump shot on 7.5% more of his overall field goal attempts during this span. That’s not a good thing – Varejao’s only barely improved his jump shot efficiency field goal percentage. Considering he shoots nearly double the percentage on non-jump shots, this practically mitigates this entire experiment.

Holding shooting efficiency at what actually occurred the last two years, but reverting shooting ratios to the previous norm, and Varejao actually would have scored 20 more points than he did in reality.

I’d much prefer for Varejao – and heck, even Tristan Thompson – to stay where they are most comfortable. They aren’t stretch forwards and never will be; that’s just not their strength2. The Cavs have surrounded them and new center Andrew Bynum with sufficient mid-range shooters. They should stick to their roles offensively, more often than not.

  1. As I shared with Fear The Sword’s David Zavac once via email in this chart, only 2.7% of all NBA shot attempts in 1983-84 were threes. That mark was then 21.2% by 1996-97. After a few years of regression, three-point shooting has now increased almost every season since the 2000s. This past season set a new plateau: 24.3% of all shot attempts were threes. []
  2. For even more on big man shooting tendencies, check out this chart I also sent out to FTS’ David Zavac previously. It shows Thompson’s rank among the most inside-shooting big men in the league. Considering his efficiency (not pretty in the past), it’s probably best for him to stay that way, even with the hand switch. []
  • Patrick Elder

    I thought Varejao’s drastic improvement in his mid-range shot was a development last year before he got injured, which coincides with his huge jump in PER. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to compare just last year’s mid-range efg% instead of the last two years?

  • Andrew Schnitkey

    I still think Ellington was a fairly significant loss. Not that he’s even a borderline star or anything, but he’s the type of gritty role player I like having on my teams. I was surprised the Cavaliers didn’t hang on to him.

  • mgbode

    Mike Brown attempts to implement aspects from the SA offense, which relies heavily on the corner-3. Guys like Donyell & Damon Jones were chucking plenty of corner 3’s in their time here, so I would expect an increase in the % of corner 3s taken.

    Andy – sometimes the threat of doing something opens up other things. This threat is what appeared to help in the pick-n-roll and pick-n-pop sets with Kyrie last season. Also, with Bynum clogging up the paint (we hope) that will leave more outside the paint opportunities for Andy.

  • WFNYJacob

    Yup, you’re right. I admittedly was a bit one-sided on the Varejao argument. He was indeed above average from mid-range this past season.

    For more stats: