If you're a hardcore NBA fan, there's probably never been a better time to follow the sport. With basketball-reference.com, nba.com/stats, shot charts, nbawowy.com, etc., there are never-ending sources for new-age basketball statistics. You can bend them in all kinds of ways to explain why your team is or isn't good, or why individual players are successful or not.
At the start of the season I outlined five advanced statistics I thought would help explain the Cavs performance, and provide hints at just how good they might be come May and June. As the new year is rung in, the Cavs are over 1/3 of the way into their season. Seems like as good a time as any to check in with our five barometers.
How is LeBron James playing with and without Kyrie Irving?
Last season, LeBron James used a ridiculous 40% of the Cavs possessions without Kyrie Irving, and his true shooting percentage (which accounts for free throws and three point shooting) plummeted to a league-average 53.3%. Not great. A lot has been made this season about James' usage rate actually increasing from last season, and it's true. It's gone up a little bit. Simply making that observation though, without the context of Kyrie Irving's injury, and you'll be missing quite a bit.
I was hoping that James' usage when Kyrie Irving sat out would go down, and that his true shooting rates would go up. Both of those things have absolutely happened. His usage rate without Kyrie Irving is 34.4%, which is still high, but not something that is likely unsustainable. His true shooting rate is a healthy 56.3 without Irving.
It's been a very small sample, but there are encouraging results when James plays with Irving this season. James' usage rate with Irving is all the way down at 22.8%, and the Cavs are scoring 116.8 points per 100 possessions. The Cavs will take that. Hopefully the trend continues, and James' usage rate for the season ends up around 30%.
How are the Cavs defending relative to the rest of the league?
Well, the Spurs are in a different stratosphere from everyone else. Allowing just 92.9 points per 100 possessions, the Spurs would break the season long record if they kept it up. The hope was that the Cavs could put together a top 10 defense and they've done that and more thus far. As of this writing, the Cavs are 3rd in the NBA in defensive rating. Given the limited minutes of Iman Shumpert, that's incredible.
How is happening? Tristan Thompson, LeBron James, and Matthew Dellavedova have been pretty darn good.
How is Tristan Thompson protecting the rim?
Well! We've done a bit of writing on Tristan recently, as he's been made a starter and the Cavs are playing excellent defense when he plays and not very good defense at all when he sits. It's not all him, as Delly and LeBron find themselves in that boat as well, but he's made serious strides as a rim protector. From my piece on December 22:
The question, of course, was what type of rim protector Thompson could be. It's been a small sample, but the results this season have to be encouraging. According to Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus' rim protection metrics (updated through 12/20), he's 7th among power forwards and centers who play more than 19.8 minutes per game in position adjusted points saved per 36 minutes. That's a mouthful, but it's also pretty fantastic. He's affecting more shots at the rim, and it's paying off. We will see if it continues moving forward.
It's worth noting that Seth cautions against solely looking at the position-adjusted number. If you look purely at the raw points saved/36 minutes, again with players logging more than 19.8 minutes a night, Thompson rates 7th in that measure as well.
The Cavs made a huge financial commitment to Tristan Thompson before the season. If he's a defensive difference maker, he has a much bigger chance of being worth it. He's been hugely important to the Cavs putting together a very good defense thus far. We will see how it holds up.
Kevin Love's usage rate
Is Kevin Love fitting in or fitting out? Are the Cavs horribly misusing Kevin Love? Last season the Cavs scored like crazy and no one thought the team was using Kevin Love correctly. This year the Cavs are still scoring, but it's been a bit more inconsistent. The team is currently 7th in the NBA in scoring efficiency, per nba.com/stats. There has been much less debate about Kevin Love's role. He's signed long-term, so that probably explains a lot of it. Still, it's a little strange.
In Love's last three seasons in Minnesota, he used 28.8% of the team's possessions. In Cleveland last season that number fell to 21.7%. This season, it's 23.8%. A modest bump, but it's occurred almost entirely with Kyrie Irving out. With him back, will it dip down again? I expected Love to try and put his mark on the Cavs offense with Irving out, and it didn't really happen. Yes, LeBron James' usage rate has ticked down sans Irving, but Kevin Love still isn't carrying the Cavs. That's okay, but it's at least interesting.
J.R. Smith's true shooting rate
This one is interesting. Here is what I wrote before the season:
With Iman Shumpert out for the first couple months of the season, J.R. Smith is likely to get a lot of minutes. Will he revert to his New York Knick days and fall in love with midrange jumpers? Or will he pick where he left off the with the Cavs Big 3 and make a hailstorm of threes that break opponents' will to live?
Smith's true shooting rate was a horrific 48.7% in New York, but a very solid 56.5% in Cleveland. If he stays within his role and lets others create offense for him, he'll be in great shape. And so will the Cavs.
Well, Smith's true shooting rate is just 48.2%. He probably missed Kyrie Irving. That being said, his usage rate is still low (he's not hijacking the offense) and he's still taking a lot of threes. I think he's played alright. We will see if this goes up a bit as he continues to stay within himself.