The Diff is your (usually) weekly WFNY look into the amazing world of sport statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Two weeks ago, I recapped all of the Cleveland Indians pitching moves this offseason. Today, I’m writing about an unheralded Cleveland Cavaliers hero.
C.J. Miles is an inconsistent NBA player, generally regarded as a near-average shooting guard. He’s been around the block and has a decent amount of career minutes for only being 26 years old. This season, he played fairly miserably for a solid six-week stretch. The season is exactly halfway over so that’s a pretty large chunk of the total games played. But yet, somehow, he’s numerically been the Cavs’ biggest difference-maker on the court. This post will attempt to show how exactly that’s happened.
A flashback to three weeks ago
Back on Dec. 29, I wrote a WFNY Stats & Info post on C.J. Miles. It was the day after a three-point road loss in Boston, one of this year’s many heart-breaking narrow defeats where a Cavs rally came up too little and too late. Miles finished 0-for-5 from the field in 11 minutes of play that afternoon. He had zero points. My post addressed his recent struggles with some pretty harsh language.
Amidst the gory statistics, I used the following words: “he is what he is” and most damningly, “replaceable.” I noted whether his 2012-13 efficiency was sustainable in the face of his career shooting numbers in seven seasons with the Utah Jazz. Was this the beginning of the end? Sure, this included the time when he was out for 10 days with a calf injury. But the 19-game slump was seemingly much more similar to the past than it should have been.
Boy oh boy, did I have apparently have it all wrong.
The glowing plus-minus data
For the year, the Cavaliers have not been a very good basketball team. That much is evident in their 15-26 record. Per efficiency data, they look maybe even a bit worse. Their 98.5 offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) ranks No. 25 and actually is an improvement from the darkest days. Their defensive rating of 104.0 is No. 17, a respectable but still un-noteworthy accomplishment. And thus, their net efficiency differential of –5.5 ranks No. 26, a mark perhaps resembling a team two or three games worse in the standings.
Keep in mind those team-wide offensive and defensive numbers. Now, here are the estimated offensive and defensive ratings for when every Cavs regular has been on and off the court this season. This provides a decent – albeit not perfect – outlook of their impact on the court.
Well then, C.J. Miles flies to the top, albeit while playing only about 38% of the team minutes this season. Spectacularly, the offense has scored 9.4 more points and the defense has allowed 6.1 fewer points per 100 possessions. It’s kind of unbelievable, actually. The trend has been even more outrageous in the team’s 13 games played since the Andrew Bynum suspension on Dec. 28, immediately preceding that loss in Boston.
Now, with Miles playing nearly exactly 50% of the possible minutes, the Cavs have been two opposite teams with him on and off the court. When Miles plays, their +9.8 net would just be a few ticks behind the Indiana Pacers for the best in the NBA. When Miles doesn’t play, their -17.2 net is nearly double as bad as the NBA’s worst team, Milwaukee. That 27.0 points per 100 possession gap is enormous. And 23.1 comes from the offensive jump alone.
Before diving further into Miles’ on-court contributions, it’s necessary to address the usual caveats with NBA plus-minus data. It’s not perfect. There’s a whole lot of other noise going on. There are some great plus-minus resources out there on the Internet (such as GotBuckets.com, a site made by some great fellow Cavs writers) and some possible great coaching strategy benefits from the statistics of various combinations of lineups. But overall, they can’t be trusted blindly. There are a ton of outside factors outside of a single player’s control.
Miles’ difference on the court
So why have the Cavs played so well with Miles of late? Clearly, the offensive improvement should be the first thing that jumps to mind. Let’s dive a bit further into the intricacies of the offensive data.
At first, I theorized: Maybe the Cavs’ offensive improvement is primarily because of Miles’ hot shooting of late? In these 13 games, he has a .591 efficiency field goal percentage. In the previous 19 games that I highly criticized, he had a dreadful .402 efg. The NBA average is right about in the middle of those two. Talk about streakiness.
But in fact, the rest of the Cavs are indeed far better with Miles out there. Perhaps, again, this is because he’s playing primarily with the starters and not the struggling bench. The data: .415 efg for the Cavs in lineups without Miles and .497 efg for non-Miles Cavs with him on the floor. That’s still a similarly hefty jump from terrible to at least mediocre. For this offense, mediocre is a grand accomplishment.
The other noteworthy data: The team actually is far more active at getting to the free throw line without Miles. That’s about the only positive. Turnover rate is down, meaning they have a chance to score on four more possessions out of every 100. Assist rate is up, although that’s not necessarily that highly correlated with better offense. And fast-break points are fairly better too.
Again, it’s just important to note: C.J. Miles presents legitimate floor-spacing. With the awkward roster construction of this Cleveland team, that’s beautiful. When it’s clicking for Miles, things can perhaps go very well. Things are certainly clicking right now: 47.5% three-point shooting shows that quite blatantly.
Two other lineup trends
Going back to the on-off court data presented initially, I’d be remiss if I didn’t directly mention the Cavs’ biggest difference maker all season: Anderson Varejao. He’s been playing at an All-Star level since Luol Deng’s debut: 10.5 points, 15.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game. Those are numbers that hardly anyone has ever produced. In the last two weeks, he’s been the NBA’s best rebounder. All season, he’s been the second-best mid-range shooter. He’s a vital facilitator for the halfcourt offense. Go read yesterday’s article from my friend Fear The Sword’s David Zavac.
In 403 minutes that have both Miles and Varejao on the court, the Cavs have a +9.4 mark per 48 minutes. In all other 1,605 minutes for the Cavaliers this year, they have a -8.9 such mark. That obviously is a factor of both players’ hot streaks together while in the starting lineup of late. But it goes to show how valuable both have been, especially offensively.
Another interesting point that I started to make on Twitter last week: Miles actually hasn’t had that much success without either Dion Waiters or Irving. I later expanded the results to include all possible combinations of Irving-Miles-Waiters on the court, then excluded the duplicates. The results show some possible coaching strategies that Mike Brown could note for the future.
In 13 games since the Bynum suspension, all Cavs lineups with at least two of those three players have a +5.9 mark per 48 minutes. Lineups with one or fewer of those three: -22.7 per 48 minutes. The Cavs offense changes by 28 points per 48 minutes, just about the entirety of the difference.
The issue: Only two-thirds of Cavaliers minutes have been with at least two of Irving-Miles-Waiters. This is a continued issue, similar to the frontcourt lineup combination I addressed in a WFNY Stats & Info post after the Deng trade. For optimal success, it appears the Cavs need at least one of Tristan Thompson-Varejao on the court and also at least two of Irving-Miles-Waiters.
The important part: Will it last?
This is the tricky question. C.J. Miles is essentially a journeyman swingman. He had an unguaranteed contract for this season, meaning the GM Chris Grant could have simply not retained him this offseason. Free markets can be quite accurate at times. The Cavs probably were one of few teams to show serious interest in Miles in the summer of 2012. Three months shy of his 27th birthday, is he suddenly in the midst of a career renaissance? Likely not.
In the long-run, Miles means relatively to this franchise. Sure, his floor-spacing has been mighty helpful and he’s in the middle of a very impressive month, but the Cavs aren’t making any gigantic splashes because of his potential impact. In an ideal world, where this franchise was still thinking about the future and not just a middling playoff run this year, Miles would be trade bait. Same with Varejao. But currently, they’re both insanely valuable to this roster.
I’d like to see Miles get even more playing time. He’s deserved it. There’s been a minutes crunch since the Deng acquisition with Waiters, Jarrett Jack and Matthew Dellavedova all finding it tough to get 20 minutes per night like they used to. Yet Miles’ 38 minutes against Denver on Friday were a new season high. He should be closer to 30 than his average of 24. He should be paired with at least Irving or Waiters as often as possible in order to maximize his shooting with the most important ballhandlers. That’s how this hot streak can hopefully continue on further and further.