Cleveland as a city hasn’t won a major sports championship in half a century. But LeBron’s back. He’s somehow made Cleveland a top destination. As tough as his title runs were in Miami, this will be his most interesting test. He’s been on a mythic journey so far as a hometown hero and so-called “chosen one” who was defeated again and again, then left for Miami and found his strength and remade his game. He’s coming back to Cleveland, having changed and with new companions, and will try to write his own history and bring back the luster of the ring to his own people. He was painted as a villain in Miami, and that could change here with a fun, beautiful offense. Don’t root against him because of his corporate legacy and all the branding. Watch him for the basketball. Watch him for the myths coming to life. Watch him while he’s still the incredible legend he is now, a physical force with innate skills. All eyes turn back to Cleveland.
2014 in review
Last season will be quietly swept under a rug, but it was a disaster and nearly declared a brownfield site. It featured another year of stalled development from their number one pick and franchise guy Kyrie Irving, still a defensive liability and a guy who made barely a dent in the team’s offensive efficiency. They acquired Luol Deng and Hawes during the season and still couldn’t get close to the 0.500 level. Their old consolation prize for being terrible, Anthony Bennett, had one of the worst rookie seasons ever filled with some embarrassing moments. They won 33 games with both a below average defense and offense.
But then they had a good summer….
Exit: Jarrett Jack, Luol Deng, Tyler Zeller, Alonzo Gee, C.J. Miles, Spencer Hawes, Earl Clark, Anthony Bennett, Andrew Bynum, Henry Sims, Sergey Karasev, Carrick Felix, Shane Edwards, Seth Curry, Scotty Hopson, Arinze Onuaku.
Enter: LeBron James, Kevin Love, Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, A.J. Price, Brendan Haywood, James Jones, Lou Amundson, Alex Kirk, Joe Harris.
The Cavaliers are only returning five players, though they were all major rotation players and arguably four of the five best. LeBron and Love are the obvious. Marion was once an athletic all-star who many thought wouldn’t last once he got to his 30’s because of his skillset, but he’s hung around for a while because of his defense and surprisingly nimble feet. Miller’s their designated sharpshooter. A.J. Price will battle for backup point guard minutes with Dellavedova. Haywood didn’t even play last season, but he’s an enormous human being who could be useful versus certain teams. James Jones is a deep bench reserve for the wings and provides more shooting. Amundson is the typical undersized energy big, and he may only play significant minutes if there are injuries. Kirk and Harris are both rookies and their playing time, since it’s a team with title aspirations, is partly uncertain but will probably be low.
The honor for fifth Beatle will probably be given to Dion Waiters, the weakest starter on the team. Since few games were shown nationally and people know Irving as he’s an all-star and Varejao from back in the first LeBron-era, Dion is due for a spotlight. Referencing the bar chart, Waiters acts like a star shooting guard, shooting at an extremely high volume, pulling-up for nearly 10 shots per 100 possessions off the dribble, and driving to the basket as often as a lead point guard. Unfortunately, he was a poor shooter overall, forcing the issue too much, and he generates too few free throws for someone who drives as much as he does. With LeBron and Love on the team, look for his pull-up shot attempts and usage rate to drop while he becomes more of a spot-up three-pointer shooter. Consequently, he should have his most efficient season by far.
As a non-star on a contending team, ideally you’re a good defender so you can do all the dirty work that Irving and LeBron won’t over the full course of the season. But this is where Waiters fails and it aligns with Cleveland’s weakness. He collects a low number of blocks, steals, and rebounds. One may dismiss those simple stats, but his more advanced defensive numbers are even worse. He has a low eFG% defense score and his defensive plus/minus stats are usually that poor. Finally, I can reference more tangible evidence: according to VantageSports, Waiters led all guards in points allowed per shot at 1.24. The new defense tab from SportVU is a little rosier in calling him merely below average, not horribly so: perhaps Waiters has to take a few tougher defensive assignments inflating his points allowed per shot, but his poor team defense pulls him down further. Cleveland has been a mess the past two seasons, Waiters is young, and his role will change, so there’s a chance he’ll make massive improvements. But he’s starting from a low rung.
Thankfully, Dion is a good outside shooter and has several high-percentage areas despite taking a lot of difficult shots for a pressed offense in need of help. On average, your field-goal percentage rises by about 7 points on catch-and-shoot opportunities. This is pertinent because last year 62 percent of his shots were coded as pull-up attempts. As a guidepost Mario Chalmers’ proportion was 30 percent. If Dion’s proportions changed by 30%, his raw field-goal percentage should increase by a little over two percent and would get him a lot closer to a league average shooting efficiency. One limiting factor though is his problem at converting shots in the restricted area. For two years in a row he’s rated as far below average. Perhaps with more off-ball action, cutting, and fast breaks coupled with less pressure from the defense, he can hit somewhere closer to 60% inside.
There’s a set of six videos below to display Dion’s offensive game versus the Bulls. The first video has him pulling-up for a typical two-pointer in transition — he has a quick trigger. The second video shows how much attention he gets from opponents and the level of difficulty on his shots. With the weak talent at small forward and the backup wings, opponents could send their best defenders at him. Using a quick screen, he throws up another hero shot off the dribble in video three. He’s probably best off driving and attacking the basket. Although he veers out of the paint in the fourth clip, he kicks it out to Jack who then draws a defender away creating an open shot for Waiters. The fifth video is technically a kick-out from Irving, but Dion hangs onto the ball for a second before firing away — he’ll get more of those shots this season. Finally, he makes a strong drive to the basket and hits a reverse layup around Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah in the last minute of the fourth quarter down 8 points.
The play-by-play tab is working again so I can insert a couple interesting defensive plays. In the first embedded video, Waiters defends Harden about as badly as possible for a professional. First he weakly fights through a screen and then he basically gives up on the play and barely moves. He jogs back casually to defend Harden in the paint after the ball is moved back outside, but by the time Dion goes into the paint Harden has already popped out to the three-point line for an open shot. To make it worse, Waiters fouls him on the made three after rushing back to the line, giving up four points on the possession. Since Waiters is the typical combo guard who’s small for a 2, his size has led to issues and puts a ceiling on how effective he can be as a defender. The second video shows Iguodala bullying him in the post and nailing a turnaround jump shot that Waiters doesn’t even get close to contesting.
Dion Waiters had one of the largest usage rates in the league surpassed only by 22 players, suggesting a high level of involvement on offense — Dirk had a similar usage rate, for example. He’ll have a substantially different role now, and how he adapts will be critical for a team looking for a title — and it’ll be critical for Dion in staying with Cleveland long-term. He’s a good shooter overall whose efficiency was submarined by a questionable shot selection, part of which is explained by the lack of options. He could feast on a huge number of catch-and-shoot jumpers from downtown. Defensively, he has issues and may never be a real 3/D player expected to slow down the best players: he’s too small and doesn’t have the mindset. It remains to be seen how his defense will be seen with a new environment, but at age 22 with scoring chops he’ll at least have a long career as an “instant scorer” sixth man type in the mold of Jarrett Jack and Ben Gordon.
You were born with greatness.
You were born with wings.
You are not meant for crawling, so don’t.
You have wings.
Learn to use them and fly.”
This team has a decent chance at becoming the greatest offense ever even with some regression to the mean. And it shouldn’t be ludicrous. You have a walking one-man offense, LeBron, coming back from Miami after posting absurd offensive ratings for years. He’s flanked by shooters, including a legitimate power forward who’s an excellent shooter too, not a midrange shooter like Bosh who slowly developed his range. But the Cavs have a secret combination to hit a historic offensive rating: shooting efficiency and offensive rebounding. Typically, great offenses don’t crash the glass well. They’re too busy on the perimeter and/or too small inside. Miami was awful at picking up offensive rebounds and it blunted the impact of some truly absurd shooting seasons. Last year Miami had the greatest effective field-goal percentage ever for a team breaking their own record from 2013. They also have one of three team seasons with a true-shooting percentage of 59 — the other two are from the 2007 and 2008 Suns. (The Lakers hit 58.9 in 1985 and the Celtics 58.8 in 1988.)
You add that kind of power with the offensive rebounding of Love, Varejao, and Thompson, and you get a historic offense. Whether or not they’ll break the unofficial record for best relative offensive rating will depend on how long they need to compete for the top seed and how much their top players will play. They also have a great ability to draw fouls not just with Irving and LeBron but with Love too.
Given the failures of super-teams like the Howard-Lakers and the problems that cropped up with LeBron’s Heat, the issue of fit is usually discussed. However, this team unarguably fits better than Miami did. Irving’s a great shooter overall and doesn’t have Wade’s problem shooting from outside (or his age.) Love won’t have to go through a long period trying to add a three-point shot to create spacing as he’s already a great outside shooter and fantastic at playing off another ballhandler popping out for shots. This isn’t exactly a rigorous scientific feat, but both Irving and Love have won three-point shooting contests.
One Miami issue will be alleviated: they won’t get killed on the boards when trying to space the floor because of Love. There’s some real synergy with the team already — they were the most efficient offense in the preseason, for what it’s worth, at about 10 points better per 100 possessions — and the Love-to-LeBron outlet passes will be a true basketball joy. You have the best transition scorer in the league joining forces with the best outlet passer since … the 80’s? Wes Unseld? This is a super-team like no other, some unholy hybrid of high-powered, fast-paced offense with one-on-one scorers and big men who can kill you on the boards.
One common refrain from people setting low win totals for the Cavaliers is that they’ll need time to “gel” as if it’s a real, rigorously tested theorem in the NBA. While you obviously can’t go out onto the court with completely new players and expect to excel, there’s a reason why training camp, practices, and preseason exist. These guys are professional athletes who have spent years playing basketball, and they are not going into the season unprepared. Plus one could argue opponents need adjustment periods to figuring out how to exploit or defend the team.
In the databall age, an old-school aphorism like that (the gel theorem) shouldn’t pass muster and we shouldn’t rely on it without any hard evidence. Thus, I started a basic exploratory study on super-teams and how they do in their first seasons. To find teams similar to the Cavs, I first started with players who had a career MVP share (proportion of the MVP votes) over 1 and then looked for instances where they joined a new team with other stars in the off-season. The results are below. The first thing I’ll note is that people have been burned recently by super-teams like the Lakers and the Heat in the finals, but historically they’re high-performing. Out of the nine qualifying teams, three won titles and four lost in the finals. You also have three of the greatest teams ever: the ’71 Bucks, the ’83 “fo fo fo” 76ers, and the ’08 Celtics. (Another note on those Celtics: they started the year really well and then cooled off, displaying no adjustment period.) To state that a new super-team can’t win right away is just plain incorrect.
Looking more at the trends, age is an important factor. The two “failures” were the Rockets with three guys entering their mid-30’s and the nightmare Laker team with Kobe and Pau going into their mid-30’s and Nash a couple years away from 40. Two teams that almost made the cut — the 2014 Nets, who I felt were not bringing in a young enough superstar for an apt comparison; and the 2004 Lakers, since Karl was too old and Payton had under 1 MVP share — were also unsuccessful and old. If a “gel time” exists, then we should see better records in the second year, but the opposite is true: ignoring the two Laker teams ruined by injuries and free agents, these super-teams win an average of 5.4 fewer games. Some of this is age, but there’s no evidence here they need time to develop chemistry. If it’s successful, it’s usually right away.
I’ll throw in a couple more from rookies: Bill Russell helped Cousy win a title in 1957 and Magic did as well with Kareem. We can also study mid-season super-teams. There are a few duds here, but no one’s comparing this team to the Nuggets in 2007 or the Knicks with McAdoo in 1978. The Rockets traded for Drexler in 1995 and won a title; Lakers added Pau and played much better, reaching the finals and losing to another new super-team. This Cleveland team has two young guys in Love and Irving and one of the greatest players ever who’s still in his prime — these facts bode well for their season. Guys of LeBron’s caliber rarely switch teams and the star talent is usually developed on the team. Jordan retired and came back, and after a few rusty game in 1995 he led the greatest NBA team ever the next season. Kareem worked well immediately with Robertson and Magic. Hakeem won that title in 1995, as mentioned before, and Shaq had good chemistry early with the young Wade. LeBron’s a versatile, unselfish phenom and should have no trouble fitting in with his teammates, some of whom he’s already played with.
However, this team could go as far as Varejao lets them, the bellwether for the team. They rate as a league average defense now, and could be a little better with progression from their young guys. But there’s a hole at center, relying on Thompson’s questionable defense and Haywood as the backups, and Varejao regularly missed long stretches of time. But even a mediocre defense shouldn’t stop from going further. It’s rare for a team to rate out of the top ten in defense and win a title, but that’s because if you rate lower than that you’d need a crazy-good offense for a point differential strong enough — and that’s how they project. So toss aside that little myth too. We don’t have a long list of average defenses with titles, sure, but the list of offenses that rate higher than 8 points better than average is a short one: Dallas Mavericks in 2004 when the team used Dirk as the center and the Suns in 2005. The Mavs were a lot worse than what Cleveland should be on defense, and the Suns lost to a better team in the playoffs. Defense might be a more useful in the playoffs, but even so we still shouldn’t write off the team’s chances so dramatically.
The biggest advantage Cleveland has, and why I think they’re the most likely title winner, is geography. The only other team with the kind of power to stop them is Chicago and they have a lot of question marks like Rose’s health, Pau’s poor recent NBA seasons, and Chicago’s tendency to burn out in the playoffs. LeBron’s beat them before. It’s just sheer probability: throw in a western team like the Clippers into the east and they’ll have increased odds to win a title too.
LeBron improbably returned to Cleveland, the team had 1.7% odds of winning the number one pick and did so anyway, and they traded that draft pick in a package for Kevin Love. Whatever’s happening here, it will never be replicated. Superstars of LeBron’s caliber rarely change teams, and the most similar instance I could find of a guy even close to LeBron’s level who came back home to his team is Nash going back to Phoenix in 2005, but no one expected him to be an MVP, injury issues made him a softer target, and Nash isn’t from Phoenix. LeBron’s a one-man offense who acts like a point guard, deft at corner passes, and his combination of efficiency and volume is absurd. Kevin Love was the best power forward last season by objective standards and, as I busted the myths a few months ago, he’s a legitimately great and unique player who works well fitting on this team. Then you have Irving who at the very least will be useful for his outside shooting and exquisite ballhandling skills. Irving’s also had some crazy clutch stats — check out his 50 to 60 points per 100 possessions rate in 2013 — and keeping this team contained with a smart offensive system like what Blatt has will be a Sisyphean task.
Any notion of them being a few wins under what we project due to an adjustment period is misguided. What will stop them is their defense and the health of Varejao. Super-teams often play excellently right away and the pieces fit. We could mention diminishing returns, but you can factor that in and most of their incoming players are coming from good teams like LeBron and some guys like Waiters could be better in reduced rules. At the very least, it’ll be a breathtaking offense — and we get a reprise of the age old “defense wins championships” argument as Cleveland will fights for the side of offense first. With Nash heading off into the sunset, a title would be fitting.
Conference rank: 1st
League offense rank: 1
League defense rank: 16th