The Diff is your (usually) weekly WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Welcome to 2014. Two weeks ago, I wrote about Omer Asik trade rumors and the Cavaliers. Today, I’m writing about the Cavs’ no good, very bad offense.
The Cleveland Cavaliers somehow won last night to improve to 11-21. Within this disappointing season, there have already been a number of issues on and off the court. The most troubling aspect of this year’s terrible start might just have to be the team’s abysmal offense. Overall, the Cavs now sport the NBA’s 27th-best offensive efficiency rating at 97.0 points per 100 possessions. That might surprise you a bit based on the presence of All-Star Kyrie Irving. But 2013-14 has proved to be a collective offensive mess of epic proportions.
Outside of a nine-game stretch, the Cavs have simply been terrible offensively.
Remember that nice run the Cavs had last month? That included narrow losses to Miami and Portland? During that glorious 6-3 record in a nine-game stretch from Nov. 30 through Dec. 20, the Cavs had a 106.4 efficiency rating that ranked ninth in the NBA in that span. Thus, besides that streak, this team has been terrible overall (5-18 in the other 23 games) and spectacularly so on offense. Here are the details:
First six games: 91.3 offensive rating (29th in NBA) Next ten games: 94.6 offensive rating (28th) That nine-game stretch: 106.4 offensive rating (9th) Last seven games: 93.5 offensive rating (28th)
Milwaukee and Chicago are currently tied for the NBA’s worst offensive efficiency at 96.0, one point per 100 possessions worse than Cleveland. The NBA average is usually around 102, per nba.com/stats1. Yes, for nearly three-quarters of this 32-game NBA season, the Cavs have played far worse than the NBA’s worst offenses. It’s been that bad.
Last night’s game against Orlando is a great example. With 5:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Cavs had scored just 62 points. The Magic entered the game with an identical 10-21 record. That’s just terrible. Without Kyrie Irving on the court, the Cavs had nothing working at all offensively. Only by a stroke of tanking “magic” did the Cavs somehow pull out an 87-81 victory. They out-scored Orlando 16-2 down the stretch and 25-9 in that final 10:30 including overtime, yet still finished with a very poor 85.7 offensive rating for the game.
The top eight Cavs shooters have been average at best at shooting the basketball.
Efficiency field goal percentage is a statistic that provides a necessary boost to three-pointers. Those makes are worth an extra point, so this field goal percentage shows their worth. Average NBA efg has hovered around .495 for the last two seasons. That baseline is then a good barometer for a player that is at least average with making points count on his respective field goal attempts.
Let’s take a look at the Cavs’ top eight shooters this season, as sorted by shot attempts:
1. Kyrie Irving – 591 shots and .475 efg
2. Dion Waiters – 361 shots and .458 efg
3. Tristan Thompson – 325 shots and .452 efg
4. Jarrett Jack – 297 shots and .466 efg
5. Anderson Varejao – 225 shots and .484 efg
6. C.J. Miles – 214 shots and .495 efg
7. Andrew Bynum – 203 shots and .419 efg
8. Earl Clark – 172 shots and .491 efg
Only C.J. Miles and Earl Clark are even close to average thanks to their three-point dependence. After that, it’s a nightmare-ish scene of drawn-out slumps and a single castaway. It’s certainly fair to point out that that a team employing the player with the NBA’s second-most shot attempts (Irving) who is doing so at an inefficient rate could have difficulty having a good offense. But nobody else has helped the cause at all. The bigs aren’t scoring well down low, the others aren’t good enough.
The Cavs are on pace for the NBA’s worst restricted area shooting percentage in recent memory.
As I broke down in an October article on Kirk Goldsberry’s infantile ShotScore statistic, the average NBA team shoots about 60% from the restricted area. This context allows for rigorous analysis of the data easily available on nba.com/stats based on shooting zones.
This season, the Cleveland Cavaliers are shooting a horrific 51.1% from the restricted area. If it lasts, that mark would be the worst in at least 17 years per that site’s data2. The Bulls are second-worst this year at 56.0%. If you want a single telling sign of this Cleveland team’s terrible offense, this might be it. None of the Cavs most active such shooters have been good inside:
1. Irving – 172 shots and 53.5%
2. Thompson – 138 shots and 47.8%
3. Waiters – 122 shots and 46.7%
4. Varejao – 93 shots and 49.5%
5. Bynum – 66 shots and 47.0%
One part of the problem could be that after Irving, Thompson, Waiters and Varejao, the active player with the next most restricted area shots is Miles at 38. The Cavs only have a few players that usually drive to the basket, thus allowing teams to collapse on the elite players exclusively.
Particularly, this statistic has gotten even worse over the past few weeks: In the last 10 games, the Cavs are shooting 117-262 (44.7%) from the restricted area. That’s incomprehensibly bad. The poor spacing and poor finishing is moving players to a cycle of long two-pointers. This team is at least average in that realm, but it’s tough to build a consistent offense with no inside threat and little structure whatsoever. They took a prayer on Andrew Bynum’s low post offense and that flamed out miserably.
Do we all remember the good offense from last season? That was fun while it lasted.
“The Cavs were 17-21 with the NBA’s seventh-best offense in a 38-game stretch last season.”
It’s hard to exactly explain why that was the case. An astonishingly low turnover ratio – 13.4 percent of possessions, second-best in the NBA – was the standout statistic. Unheralded former players like Luke Walton, Shaun Livingston and Wayne Ellington were great at limiting their turnovers and keeping the ball moving.
The Cavs have a 15.5 turnover rate thus far this season, slightly better than average again. Much of the credit there belongs to undrafted rookie Matthew Dellavedova, as the team has posted a 13.7 turnover rate in his minutes this season.
During that 38-game stretch last year, the Cavs were still below average in efficiency field goal percentage at .489. This season, they’re at .464 so far. But somehow, that very different roster posted a 105.3 offensive rating from Dec. 22, 2012, to March 16, 2013. That begs one final analysis point. …
There are no exact clear-cut answer for how this offense can get better.
The only hope I can see: The Cavs somehow find a way to live without Andrew Bynum’s presence on the court. Their offense notably has been better, efficiency-wise, without him, but the restricted area shooting continues to get worse. Another hope would just be for plain old regression, as one would think they can’t be this bad for this long. Here’s a look at the team’s efficiency with every regular on/off the court:
Dellavedova shines again as the team actually plays well above average offensively in his limited minutes thus far. It’ll be fascinating to see if he can get more minutes than veteran Jarrett Jack in the rotation. The signing of Jack could be perhaps the worst move of the past offseason, as Jack has struggled to provide much on the court and the youngster Dellavedova provides instant hustle.
New backup center Tyler Zeller is the victim of even smaller sample size: the team actually had a 59.6 offensive rating in his 14 minutes last night. That dropped him to the bottom of this list by far. He’s usually been solid, so I wouldn’t be too concerned here alone. He’ll be getting minutes from here on out.
Among other shooting highlights: Anderson Varejao has been terrific from mid-range (50%), Dion Waiters has been good in his limited corner three opportunities (.833 efg) and Clark/Miles should only be allowed to shoot from three (.582 combined efg), never ever from mid-range (32%).
In the end, outside of perhaps some of those slight changes, it’s just not easy to see what will happen next for this squad offensively. Surprisingly perhaps, they actually shoot an above-average ratio of their three-pointers from the more desirable corner three zone. They could always take more threes as a team, again shying away from those undesirable long twos.
For most of the season, the Cleveland Cavaliers have seemingly lacked any offensive strategy and the numbers back that up. Their inability to finish inside is at a historic level and they’ve managed to waste away another season of Kyrie Irving with terrible support and abysmal team offense. Yes, Irving is to blame somewhat, but nobody else looks like a worthwhile No. 2 or even No. 3 efficient scoring option.
A trade for Pau Gasol seems less likely today than earlier in the week. But as I shared previously, the 33-year-old has struggled of late. He’s not the same player he used to be. His passing could help, but his shooting ratios are mid-range heavy as well. There likely aren’t too many other moves the Cavs could make to immediately improve this club. Heck, they probably shouldn’t even be focusing on 2013-14 at all anyway and just give the youngsters move playing time.
Terrifyingly, this team still could easily make the playoffs with some .500 play in the final 50 games of this season. They certainly don’t deserve to with the way they’ve played offensively thus far. But they sure as hell didn’t deserve to win last night’s game either.
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.