Bradley Doolittle is one of the most respected NBA writers in the advanced statistics crowd. Writing for ESPN Insider, he also helps co-write the NBA Basketball Prospectus, an essential read for serious basketball fans complete with preseason projections of every player on every team. His most recent piece at ESPN projects teams that he thinks are the most improved, as well as the ones who regressed the most. Surprise! He thinks the Cavaliers are the most improved.
With so many quality young players on hand, the Cavaliers would have been poised for improvement even if they brought back the exact same roster as last season. Instead, Cleveland buoyed its talent with the top overall draft pick in Anthony Bennett, one of the top incoming rookie shooters in Sergey Karasev, one of the league's top reserve guards in Jarrett Jack and the ultimate low-risk, high-reward free agent in Andrew Bynum. Anderson Varejao is due back from injury, and up-and-coming combo forward Earl Clark was signed to further bolster the Cavs' depth.
His first point is important. Even without new additions, the Cavaliers were probably going to improve next season as Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, and Tyler Zeller improve. Last season the Cavaliers had a negative point differential of 4.7 per game. In other words, the Cavaliers were outscored by an average of 4.7 points per game. On the other end of the spectrum, the Oklahoma City Thunder had a positive point differential of 9.2. So Cleveland has a long ways to go. Still, Doolittle projects the Cavs to be 5.7 points per game better than they were last season, which would lead to a positive differential overall. No team with a positive point differential finished with a losing record last season. The Lakers finished with a positive points differential of 1.2 and won 45 games in the tough Western Conference.
Now, there are some caveats. Doolittle is assuming Andrew Bynum plays 40 games. We don't know how likely that is. Doolittle assumes relative health from Varejao (I recall Kevin Pelton, who does similar analysis, saying that the projections would give Varejao about 65 games next season, but it wasn't in this context so I can't be sure. If Doolittle feels that Varejao is going to play 82 games, well, we know better than to expect that. He also is giving a lot of weight to Mike Brown's ability to coach defense. He has the Cavaliers projected as the 9th best defense in the NBA next year. While Earl Clark, Alonzo Gee, Thompson and Varejao are all capable defenders, that is a jump of 18 spots. Seems like a lot to ask.
The good news here is that as Cavaliers fans start to get excited about this upcoming season, the advanced statistical models are providing some encouraging backup. Something to keep in mind though: last season, these same projection models loved the Minnesota Timberwolves. As we know, injuries can derail any season.