The battle between advanced statistics and the eye test isn't a battle at all, at least, not in the minds of the well-rounded basketball fan. The two ought to be taken in tandem, carefully considered and weighed against one another. There's a lot to learn from descriptive statistics, but to study numbers isn't to "understand" or "solve" basketball; matchups, confidence, hot or cold spells, and understanding the psyche of a team must also be considered.
But every now and then, it's fun to lose yourself in the numbers, to see if they challenge or confirm our general feelings or attitudes about how the team as a whole, or a specific player, might be performing. Thanks to the NBA's stats site, the average fan (and writer) is able to examine in stunning detail how their favorite squad stacks up against the rest of the league.
Sample sizes are still relatively small, so keep that in mind, but with the season nearly a quarter of the way done already, it's time to take stock of how the Cavaliers are playing, and areas they can improve. All the numbers below were current through Saturday, November 28th. Let's begin, shall we?
1. The Basics
The Cavs are one of just three teams who rank in the top-10 in the NBA in both threes attempted per game and three point percentage (the others being the Warriors and the Suns). Also important: while their defensive three point percentage is very middle-of-the-road, only three teams have been better at limiting the total number of threes attempted, which is intelligent strategy (or mere fortune, but I'm going to err on the side of Blatt genius). Cleveland's poor free throw percentage isn't really a cause for concern yet, but come playoff time, it'll be on the back of everyone's mind. No Kyrie, and the Cavs still have the third-best offense in the NBA.
2. Shot Locations
The Cavaliers are above average at shooting from pretty much anywhere on the floor, and above average at defending shots from pretty much anywhere on the floor. That's, uh, pretty good. The low number of midrange shots is a good sign. It'd be nice if they were able to get to the hoop a bit more regularly. If only there were someone coming back from injury soon who could help with that. Oh, yeah, that's right, Kyrie.
3. Play Type - Team Statistics
There's a whole lot to unpack with this one. The first thing that jumps out is the Cavs' offensive efficiency at a bunch of different things: they're great spotting up, in transition, posting up, and coming off of screens, and perfectly decent at virtually everything else. The exception being putbacks. It seems counter-intuitive that a team employing Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov would be so bad at scoring on those, but there they are, dead-last in the league in that category.. Elsewhere, while the team still runs an above-average amount of isolation plays, that figure is actually down significantly from this time last season, which is a good sign.
On the other side of the ball, no real surprises. Cleveland is average or above-average at defending virtually every play type, the most notable exception being closing out on spot up shooters. Iman Shumpert ought to help alleviate those troubles when he returns from injury . Spot ups are the most sought-after shots in the NBA, and if you believe the Cavs are on a collision course with the you-know-who's in the Finals, that's an area they'll need to tighten up.
4. Individual Player Advanced Statistics
How about Timofey Mozgov having the fourth-highest usage rate on the team? How about Delly leading the team in Net Rating? How about Mo Williams being tops in effective field goal percentage? How about the team playing well when Andy is on the floor? How about Richard Jefferson being just a tad worse than you'd like him to be? How about James Jones, bless his heart, and the fact that the team gets smoked when he checks in? How about Jared Cunningham's broken shot? How about I move on to the next section and stop asking rhetorical questions?
5. Play Type - Individual Offensive Statistics
Now, THIS is when things get fun.
First of all, HOLY CRAP, Kevin Love. Look at those post up numbers. Hot damn, son. I mean, LOOK at these:
That's insane. That's unreasonable. Only 11 players in the league have posted up more often than Love has, and he's still been far and away the best at it.
Elsewhere, Delly's development as a shooter has been a welcome sign; he's in the 91st percentile in the league at catching and shooting the ball in spot up situations. Richard Jefferson hasn't exactly been great, but remarkably enough, he's still finishing well in transition at age 35. Mo's been pretty efficient scoring out of pick and rolls. and Delly has improved leaps and bounds over where he was at this time a year ago. LeBron has been fine isolating, but it'll be interesting to see what happens to the team's numbers when Kyrie comes back. He was one of the best one-on-one scorers in the league last season. Timofey shouldn't shoot jumpers, Delly shouldn't attempt shots in transition, J.R. shouldn't go ISO, and efferson shouldn't run a pick and roll. Mozgov's offensive numbers are pretty weak in every category.
6. Rim Protection Statistics
However, Mozgov is still the best guy on the team at defending the rim. After Tristan Thompson's hot start, he's regressed to the mean a little bit, but Timofey remains as steady as ever. As long as he's healthy, the Cavs should be able to count on him as the anchor of their interior defense. 52.2 percent allowed at the rim is actually pretty good for Love. It's not, like, ACTUALLY good, but for him, it's a small improvement on the norm.. Andy, Andy, Andy.
7. Play Type - Individual Defensive Statistics
I'll close with this. I chose to highlight these three defensive play types because they're the easiest to tell who is "responsible" for the man with the ball. For instance: on a pick and roll, it's difficult for Synergy Sports to track who "allowed" a basket. Is the man closest to the shooter to be blamed? Perhaps, but sometimes a switch occurred too slowly, or a guard failed to fight through as screen he was supposed to, or there are gameplans in place to focus on helping away from the shooter in question. Thus, it's tough to use Synergy's play type data for defensive purposes...
... except in the case of post ups, spot up shots and isolation plays.
The real hero of this defensive section is LeBron. Look at those numbers - 97th percentile at closing out on spot up shooters, 99th percentile defending post ups, 69th percentile in ISO situations. The guy is pretty good at basketball... Kevin Love can score out of post ups, but can't seem to stop allowing his man to score out of them. Delly being one of the best ISO defenders in the league (last night's difficulty with John Wall notwithstanding) is, well, unexpected.
8. In Conclusion
Despite the loss last night, the Cavs are in great shape overall. The areas where they're a little weak should be addressed by the returns of Irving and Shumpert. Delly is worlds better than he was last season, Mo's been very good, Mozgov has been struggled on offense but has been his usual steady self on defense, Love is a god in the post, and LeBron has been incredible defensively thus far.
If all those highfalutin numbers aren't your thing and you just want the shorthand:
The Cavs are pretty good, and if you are a Cavs fan, you should be happy.