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 wrote about “ace” Justin Masterson’s future with the Cleveland Indians. This week, it’s back to basketball to talk Cavaliers big men.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have suddenly won four of their last five games. During these contests, the triumvirate of Andrew Bynum, Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson has averaged a combined 37.6 points and 32.0 rebounds on 54.9% true shooting. The resurgence of these three has been a huge reason for the recent streak. Now that they’re all (currently) healthy, they might be one of the best frontcourts in the very weak Eastern Conference and perhaps in the entire NBA. Let’s dive into their recent success and look at their possible future together in leading the Cavs.
Andrew Bynum’s interior play
Among the three, the 26-year-old Bynum has the biggest potential for the franchise’s future. A near-MVP candidate for Mike Brown in Los Angeles in 2011-12, he didn’t play a single game last year or in the preseason. But over the last week, he’s looked like an All-Star after a rough start to the season.
In his first 12 games through Nov. 29, the 7-footer was rusty to say the least. He wasn’t able to handle consistent minutes, but even in those opportunities, he wasn’t finishing his offensive looks. He shot just 37.0% from the field in his first 81 field goal attempts, including a terrible 7-for-24 (29.2%) mark from the restricted area. For comparison, his previous career shooting percentage from that area was exactly 40% higher – all the way at 69.2%. He was one of the NBA’s most unstoppable big men.
Now, over these last five games, Bynum’s been back to his forceful ways in the paint, converting on 17-of-23 (73.9%) of those signature restricted area opportunities. With that success, he’s been attacking more frequently, not settling for those awkward eight-footers as often. He’s averaging 15 points and 8.8 rebounds over this stretch in an average of 25 minutes per contest. Hardly anyone could have predicted Bynum to be this healthy and effective this early in the season.
Anderson Varejao’s mid-range game
Trivia question: Who is the current NBA leader in mid-range shooting efficiency1? No, it’s not LaMarcus Aldridge, who astoundingly has attempted 70 more such shots than anyone else this year. The correct answer is actually none other than Anderson Varejao at 55.2%. He’s converted on 32-of-58 such shots this season, a remarkable percentage for a guy oft-regarded with little natural offensive game.
During the preseason, in a season-long storylines post and an article about Kirk Goldsberry’s ShotScore statistic, I openly criticized Varejao’s mid-range game. Last season, a career-high 29% of his shots came from this range at a solid 41.4% clip. It was above the league average – established at about 40% – but I felt the notoriously inefficient mid-range shots shouldn’t have to be part of his game. These shots had only been about 17% of his offensive game in the past, so why the sudden urge to step back?
Well, he’s proven why this season with his very impressive rate. With Bynum clogging the paint and the need for Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters to attack the rim, Varejao’s been knocking down open jumpers left and right. Mid-range opportunities have ballooned to 40% of his shots – and rightfully so. Kudos to Fear The Sword’s David Zavac for rightfully calling me out on this topic. Varejao’s suddenly elite floor spacing has been a huge reason the Cavs aren’t even worse than they are offensively.
Tristan Thompson’s defensive rebounding
In his brief NBA career, the 23-year-old Tristan Thompson already has proven to be an elite offensive rebounder. He’s always averaged at least 4 such boards per 36 minutes. Over the past three seasons, his 13.4% offensive rebounding percentage ranks eighth in the league among players with 2,000 minutes. He has a knack for that side of the game, enabling lots of his trademark easy looks at the rim.
But also after a slow start, Thompson has emerged with one of his finest stretches on the defensive boards2. In his first 12 games, he had a 19.3% defensive rebounding percentage. That was way lower than last year’s far improved 22.2% mark. But in the last nine contests, Thompson is all the way up to 26.3%. That ranks among the top 20 in the NBA, along with a certain shaggy-haired teammate.3
Some of the knocks against the Canadian’s game have been his slowly developing touch with his right-hand shooting, his lack of assists and, for a long time, his below-average defensive rebounding. The free-throw shooting is up to a very respectable 72.2%. His assists are up a modest amount of late. And the defensive rebounding is showing signs of dominance as well. With this added facet, he nearly already is one of the best rebounding bigs in the game.
The trio’s future
The biggest caveat with the success of Bynum-Varejao-Thompson (and the success of the Cavaliers as a whole) is the illustriously small sample size. We’re talking about only a dominant five-game stretch. The Cavs started the year 4-12. That sample is larger, although also still quite small. The season is one-fourth over, but we really don’t know everything we eventually will about this roster.
But the production from this frontcourt trio has been as good as any such grouping in the league. All three are rebounding at least 8.8 per night during this stretch. All three are scoring at least 8.2 per night. They’ve been efficient offensively from a variety of spaces on the court. The defense has remained consistent. That frontcourt production largely hasn’t been seen since another trio involving Bynum and Mike Brown — the 2011-12 Lakers with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom.
Most importantly, these Bynum-Varejao-Thompson are averaging a total of 85 minutes per game of late. During the first 16 games of the season, that average was only 75 minutes, most notably as Bynum missed four of the contests. The Cavs are actually staying close in games and all three have delivered with their steady time on the court.
Specifically with the rotation, I dug into some stats on exactly how these three players have been used on the court for the first 16 games and the last five. The chart below shows minutes played, +/- and +/- per 48 minutes. The usual caveats apply with +/- analysis and small sample sizes, but it’s at least intriguing to put this out for consideration.
Bynum has had the worst+/- numbers of the three, with him struggling especially while playing alongisde either Varejao or Thompson. Of late, the starting lineup of Thompson-Bynum has received heavy minutes, while Varejao continues to receive a decent amount of minutes as the lone member of the trio on the court with the team’s struggling bench. I won’t dive more into the +/- numbers, but the stats on the rotation certainly are fun to absorb.
Going forward, it will be fascinating to track how these three continue to perform. Bynum is a former All-Star on his way back. Varejao is an aging do-it-all energy big. Thompson is an up-and-coming former No. 4 pick. All three could be starters on most teams in the NBA, but it’s just a matter of how they can come together for possible Eastern Conference playoff appearance in 2013-14 for the Cavaliers.
Trade murmurs will certainly continue to swirl around Varejao. Because of his injury concerns, there’s no knowing what the market might be. And for Bynum, the team has a massive 2014-15 contract decision looming this summer that could affect its ability to engage in talks with other free agents. Thompson looks to be the future, but who knows how he otherwise could be bundled into some franchise-altering move.
For now, I’m enjoying the ride as the Cavaliers employ one of the biggest and most dominant big men rotations in the NBA. It’s certainly a pleasing transition from the days of Tyler Zeller, Ryan Hollins, Samardo Samuels, et al receiving heavy minutes.
and overall. Because of a 17-21 game and a 20-13 game, plus other solid performances, he’s been the statistical leader during this stretch, averaging 14.4 and 13.6. In his previous five games, that was just 5.0 and 7.8. Tripled the scoring and doubled the rebounding. [↩]
A quick note that Varejao has an even better 31.4% defensive rebounding mark during this nine-game stretch. But Varejao has established himself previously as above average in this light – he had a 30.4% stat last season. [↩]
Jacob Rosen is a long-time contributor to WaitingForNextYear. He's also a writer online at SportsAnalyticsBlog and Nylon Calculus . An Akron native, Jacob is a current MBA student at the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. You can follow him on Twitter @WFNYJacob or e-mail him at udjrosen(at)gmail(dot)com.