At the beginning of the season, the Cleveland Cavaliers had a problem.
Their starting unit was quite competitive. Anderson Varejao was putting up phenomenal numbers, easily the best of his career. Kyrie Irving was his normal unstoppable self. Dion Waiters was hitting contested jumpers and threes at a high rate. The starters could play with anybody.
But once the starters had to sit down, everything when to hell. We wrote about how terrible the bench was and made Yo Mama! jokes about it. At the beginning of the season, the bench unit was led by Donald Sloan, Jeremy Pargo, Daniel Gibson, Tyler Zeller (a much worse version of Tyler Zeller, mind you), and some others. The on/off splits were horrific and by looking at Boobie's numbers, you can still see how bad they were (since Boobie hasn't had a very big role since the beginning of the year, most of that data is from that early stretch).
The Jon Leuer Trade.
Since January 23rd, it has been a different story. On that day in January, the Cavaliers made a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies which will forever be known as "The Jon Leuer Trade." If you remember (you all remember), Chris Grant gave up Jon Leuer for Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington, Josh Selby, and a conditional first round pick (which will likely turn into a lottery pick somewhere down the road). It was a salary dump for the Grizzlies, something that the Cavaliers could easily facilitate with all of their cap room. But it turned into something much more substantial for the Cavs. Many Cleveland fans have lamented trades involving future draft picks because they're impatient or believe that the protections are so strict that we'll never see those deals come to fruition. In the case of The Jon Leuer Trade, fans are able to be satisfied in the short term as well as in the long term. The first round pick from Memphis will eventually make its way over to the Cavs and Byron Scott got some much needed bench help for at least the rest of the 2012-13 NBA season.
The obvious question is that if this was such a salary dump for Memphis, how good could these players be? How are the Cavs actually getting positive contributions from players that the Grizzlies felt they needed to bribe Cleveland with a first round pick in order to take them off their hands? And unfortunately, I can't answer that question. Maybe the players' strengths weren't utilized in a way that optimized their value in Memphis. Or more likely, they just weren't significant enough upgrades over the other players that the Grizzlies had to warrant paying them so much money (and spilling over into the luxury tax). Regardless of why it happened, it happened. And it's continuing to happen. The Cavaliers have gone from one of the worst benches in the league to one of the most productive. Here's some statistical breakdown of just how much better the Cavaliers are now that they have an actual rotation of 8 or 9 NBA players instead of just 5 or 6.
Shaun Livingston joined the Cavs.
The Washington Wizards gave Livingston a chance to rebuild his career at the beginning of the season. But after his short stint with the Wiz, he soon found himself on the waiver wire once again. That caused the Cavaliers to pounce and sign Livingston on Christmas Day. Unfortunately, that meant that they had to waive Donald Sloan on that same day. It was apparent that Livingston's 6-7 size would prove valuable, but beyond that, it was difficult to see him making any real difference. But after just a few months, it is clear that Livingston's veteran leadership (seriously!) and knowledge of the game prove to be important aspects of the second unit as well.
Improved bench, improved team.
From the beginning of the season until The Jon Leuer Trade, the Cavaliers had an offensive rating of 98.9 points per 100 possessions and a defensive rating of 106.5 points per 100 possessions. Those two ratings combined to give Cleveland a net rating of -7.6 points per 100 possessions. Now, some of that involved injuries to Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters and that doesn't necessarily involve the bench. But we can start to account for that by looking at more specific lineup combinations.
During that time span, the Cavaliers' most used 3-man lineup combination was Alonzo Gee - Kyrie Irving - Tristan Thompson. Those three shared 692 minutes and had a net rating of +1.2 points per 100 possessions (offense: 105.9, defense: 104.7).In other words, when the Cavaliers used those three starters are the same time (and likely two other starters as well), they were an average team. The positive net rating means that they were actually outscoring their opponents when Kyrie, Alonzo, and Tristan were all on the court at once. But we've already seen that the overall net rating for this time frame drops to -7.6. So where is that drop off coming from? The bench, of course.
It's hard to find large chunks of data from this portion of the season for the bench due to injuries and Byron Scott's reasonable tendency to keep a few starters on the court at all times, but I think we can get a good idea from a couple of numbers. Looking at the most frequently used 3-man lineup combination that had at least two non-starters, we can see the drastic difference between the bench and the starters. That particular lineup happened to be Kyrie - CJ Miles - Zeller. Those three shared the court for 298 minutes during that portion of the season. In those minutes, they had an offensive rating of 101.0 and a defensive rating of 108.8, producing a net rating of -7.8 points per 100 possessions. That's not good. The second most frequently used 3-man lineup combination featuring at least two non-starters was Gee - Gibson - Zeller. Those three produced an offensive rating of 100.3 and a defensive rating of 112.1. They shared the court for 176 minutes and were outscored by 11.8 points per 100 possessions.
So how did this change once The Jon Leuer Trade happened? Let's take a look.
As a team, the Cavaliers have an offensive rating of 110.0 and a defensive rating of 108.2 since the trade that brought in reinforcements for the bench. That's a net rating of +1.8 points per 100 possessions, a marked improvement over the -7.6 that we saw in the first part of the season. Here's why.
From January 23rd until today (March 3rd), the Cavaliers' most used 3-man lineup combination has been Kyrie-Tristan-Dion. Those three played 294 minutes together and put up an offensive rating of 109.9 but also had a defensive rating of 112.9. That means the Cavs' most used 3-man lineup of starters was actually being outscored by 3.0 points per 100 possessions during this time since The Jon Leuer Trade. You'll remember that the most used 3-man lineup prior to the trade had a positive net rating of 1.2 points per 100 possessions. That's a drop-off of 4.2 points per 100 possessions. Obviously, some of this has to do with the fact that Tyler Zeller is now in the starting lineup instead of Anderson Varejao, but the point remains.
Looking at the most used 3-man lineup combination of at least two non-starters since the trade, we see that Shaun Livingston - Wayne Ellington - Marreese Speights have shared the court for 173 minutes in those 16 games. In their time on the court together, they produced an offensive rating of 112.5 and a defensive rating of 104.2. The bench unit outscored opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions. The rest of the bench unit have also been quite good, but a couple of high usage units stand out. The 3-man lineup combination of Ellington - Miles - Walton has played 127 minutes together. And they produced an offensive rating of 121.9 and a defensive rating of 108.6. That's a net rating of +13.3 points per 100 possessions. If you replace Miles with Livingston, they outscore opponents by a staggering 18.1 points per 100 possessions. For comparison's sake, LeBron James - Dwyane Wade - Chris Bosh have posted a net rating of +18.4 in that same time frame.
The big difference.
So looking at the numbers, we can see that the starters' production has decreased since the trade, but the team's overall net rating has increased substantially. The overall rating went from -7.6 to +1.2 for a total change of +8.8. The most used 3-man lineup combination of starters went from +1.2 to -3.0 for a total change of -4.2. But the most used bench unit underwent improvements to go from -7.8 to +8.3 for a total change of +16.1. That's an absolutely monstrous upgrade. And if these numbers seem a bit abstract, you can simply look at the win-loss record. The Cavs went 11-32 before trading away Jon Leuer and have gone 9-7 since then.
Of course, there are other things that contributed to the Cavaliers' improvement as a team, so it's not totally fair to attribute everything to the bench additions. Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters have made obvious strides towards being very solid NBA players and CJ Miles seems to have found his shooting stroke. But the bench numbers are hard to ignore. The Cavs' front office will have some interesting decisions to make during the offseason. Is this bench production for real? Are they just playing over their heads or should Chris Grant make a legitimate effort to bring everybody back? And if they do want to bring Speights, Ellington, and Livingston back -- how much are you willing to pay them? Regardless, I think we can all agree that Jon Leuer ended up being a very valuable member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Jon Leuer, we salute you. And John Hollinger, we thank you.