With more and better ways to analyze the NBA, and with the stakes ever higher for the Cleveland Cavaliers, how do we understand their progress? How will we know if they are on track to successfully defend their NBA championship? The Cavs don’t enter the season as title favorites, but everyone understands that they will be in championship contention.
Advanced statistics are intimidating. On more than one occasion this summer I’d interpret what I saw as an interesting statistic and have an NBA executive come into my DM’s to tell me that I was using the metric wrong. I follow this stuff fairly closely, so it can be discouraging. In the meantime, keeping your head in the sand about their importance leaves you in the dark. There simply aren’t successful NBA franchises that ignore numbers at this point.
This column is becoming a fun tradition. Here are a few metrics I’ll be keeping an eye on this season.
The Cavs net rating when LeBron James is off the floor
If you need more evidence of LeBron James’ greatness (you don’t), consider that the world champion Cleveland Cavaliers were outscored by 5.4 points per 100 possessions when James sat in the 2015-16 regular season, per NBA.com/stats. Per nbawowy.com, which calculates possessions a bit differently than the NBA site, the Cavs were outscored by 9.5 points per 100 possessions when both James and Kyrie Irving weren’t on the floor.
Things got considerably better for the Cavs in weathering LeBron-less minutes once Irving came back, but the team should continue to find ways to limit the load placed on James. If Irving and Kevin Love could build some real chemistry, either against 2nd units, or in 1st quarters when James leaves early to get some rest, it would be incredibly helpful. The Cavs don’t need to dominate minutes that LeBron James rests. But it sure would help to break even.
Reason for optimism: the Cavs did outscore opponents by 1.8 points per 100 possessions with Irving on the floor, and LeBron James off.
Kyrie Irving’s true shooting rate
There’s a ton of variance in shooting, and for a high-usage guard that takes a lot of jump shots, the line between very good and unhelpful can be pretty thin. Some nights you might end up with 24 points on 15 shots, others, 16 points on 18 shots. Irving’s true shooting rate fell from 58.3 in 2014-15, which was very good on his high usage, to 54 a year ago coming off knee surgery.
It’s unlikely that Irving will take his foot off the pedal as a scoring point guard, so the more efficient he can be the better the Cavs offense is. The midrange jump shot, not known for its favor among the analytically inclined, is a huge part of Irving’s game. It opens things up for him at the rim, and he makes a lot of them. But the more threes he attempts, and the more he gets to the free throw line, the higher his ceiling rises.
Tristan Thompson’s usage rate
Tristan Thompson had the highest individual offensive rating in the NBA a season ago, per basketball-reference.com. Ask an NBA fan off the street who would lead a category like that, and Tristan Thompson wouldn’t be in the first 100 guesses you’d get. But Thompson doesn’t use very many of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ possessions, and when he does he usually dunks or get fouled. He doesn’t turn the ball over very often because it’s pretty rare that he passes out of anything other than offensive rebound or handoff. And he almost never creates for himself.
This is all well and good. The Cavs don’t have enough possessions to go around for James, Irving, and Kevin Love as is. But Thompson does make a lot of money, and he has upped his efficiency every year that he’s been in the league. His true shooting rate in 2015-16 was a full 14.2 points higher than what he put together as a rookie five years ago. This can be attributed almost entirely to taking less shots overall, and more shots off passes from LeBron James. His usage rate has gone down each season he’s been in the league, down to a paltry 11.7% a year ago.
Is this the year Thompson wants to do a little bit more? Do we start to see him flash a bit of a midrange jumper? The Cavs don’t necessarily need it, but it’d give opponents one more way to lose.
The Cavaliers defensive rating as a whole
I’m stealing this one from last year. LeBron James has never won Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s running out of time. What if he found ways to lobby for it this year, while exerting himself on that end while Irving and Love ran the show offensively? What if the Cavs became a top defensive squad on the strength of his effort and attention to detail?
I don’t think it’s all that likely, but the Cavs do have a bit of room to grow on that end. Tristan Thompson still isn’t a great rim protector, and Kyrie Irving is largely indifferent. Despite J.R. Smith’s recent defensive intensity, his improvement on that end may be overstated. The Cavs finished 10th in defensive rating last year. If they somehow transformed themselves into a top 5 defensive team, they’d have a much easier time racking up regular season wins. And maybe one more individual trophy for LeBron James.
Kevin Love’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER)
There aren’t many fans of PER left out there, and for valid reasons. It’s not particularly helpful when it comes to measuring defensive impact, and it overvalues high-usage players. If you work backwards, though, it can be fairly interesting. Take, for example, Kevin Love’s last season in Minnesota. He balled out, and had a huge role in their offense. He scored, he got offensive boards, he handed out dimes from the high post. He was everywhere, and he soaked up possessions in an efficient manner.
In Cleveland, his individual numbers have gone down, but the Cavs have pretty consistently been very good with him on the floor. It’s unlikely that that will change this season. Irving, James, Love and Tristan Thompson has been an incredible effective group for Cleveland ever since James and Love arrived. But the manner in which the Cavs excel with Love could change. Love’s PER in Minnesota before the trade? 26.9. Two years in Cleveland? 18.9.
The Cavs won a title, and everyone swears they are happy now. But get Kevin Love’s PER up a bit higher, give him a few more possessions and let him operate how he feels most comfortable, and questions about his fit might finally go away.