LeBron James doesn't seem to be in the MVP race this season, and it's perfectly reasonable that he is mostly left out of the discussion. Stephen Curry is having a historic year, and Russell Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard have been similarly insane. There's Kevin Durant, too. But this isn't to say that LeBron James hasn't been indispensable to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Off the court drama aside, the team leads the Eastern Conference and is fourth in the NBA in net rating. They've withstood injuries to Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov has not found his stride with consistency. They have the league's fourth best offense, and ninth best defense. It's not up to the lofty standards many envisioned after the Cavs blitzed the league in the second half of last season, but it's a very good team. LeBron James has clearly been the most important part of that.
James is using 31.3 percent of the Cavs possessions when he plays, and has cut his turnovers from a year ago. Even though his usage is a bit down from last season (which the Cavs would surely say is a good thing), his player efficiency rating has increased. His true shooting rate is down from the heights he reached in Miami, but is a very good 57.1 percent.
It has paid off for the Cavs. When James is on the court, the Cavs are outscoring opponents by 10.5 pts/100 possessions. Per nbawowy.com, the numbers get even better when Timofey Mozgov is off the court, and James is on it. Over a 1474 minute sample, the Cavs are scoring 118.7 points/100 possessions in these situations, and giving up 103.2/100. That's an insanely good offense, and a fairly average defense. It's an elite net rating of 15.5 that outpaces what the Spurs and Warriors have done over the course of the year. It doesn't work like that, of course, but the Cavs have lineups that have been really good with James.
It's when LeBron James has left the court that the Cavs have had problems. Over the year, the Cavs have actually been outscored by 5.4 pts/100 possessions in the 875 minutes that James has been on the bench. He's likely to play 38+ minutes in the playoffs, but it's an ominous sign for a team that theoretically has as much talent as the Cavs. So what can the Cavs do to reverse this? Have they already found the solution?
It's possible they have. Kyrie Irving has been tremendous since the end of January, and it's lifted the Cavs up when James sits.
Since February 1st Kyrie has averaged 23.56 ppg, 5.4 assists on 50.64/38.54/88.75 shooting pic.twitter.com/VREGLaNehQ— Justin Rowan (@Cavsanada) March 11, 2016
Over his last 20 games, Irving has put together a true shooting rate of 60.9 on 28.9 percent usage per basketball-reference.com. For the season, Irving has played exactly 300 minutes without James. In that time, the Cavs are actually outscoring opponents by 7.4 pts/100 possessions per nbawowy.com. Irving is running the offense just fine without James, and the Cavs are holding onto and actually building leads while James sits.
In a way, this makes sense. Kyrie Irving is really good, and it stands to reason that the Cavs would function well when he plays, even if James sits. Last season the Cavs relied on bench units led by James and surrounded him with Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, and Tristan Thompson. It stands to reason that this could work with Irving as well. Irving is not James, especially defensively when the former MVP wants to lock in, but you're talking about second units. The addition of Channing Frye to give Irving a legitimate pick and pop guy to work with should give it an even greater chance of success.
Moving forward, the Cavs should continue to experiment with Irving, Delly, Shump, Frye and Tristan lineups. It's a solid combination of shooting and defense. Maybe it won't work. It seems like it could, though, and more data would be useful. In general, though, if Irving continues to play this way a major concern for the Cavs - what happens to the team when LeBron James sits - might have an internal remedy.
Stats courtesy of nba.com/stats unless otherwise mentioned.