Analyzing the Surprise Teams Part I: Cleveland Cavaliers

 by Jon Nichols

December 20, 2008

This will be the first of a series of entries that take a look at some teams that are surpassing expectations this season.  Who would be better to start with than the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have the second best record in the league and the best expected win percentage based on point differential?

Compared to last year, Cleveland has made improvements on offense and defense.  Through Friday, the Cavs are ranked first in the NBA in offensive efficiency at 114.2 points per 100 possessions and second in defense, allowing 99.4 points per 100 possessions.  Last season, Boston was far and away the best defense in the league, but not anymore.  They’re facing some stiff competition from the Cavs.

The front office has made it its mission to surround LeBron James with as much talent as possible in order to convince him not to leave in 2010 (why does an organization need to have the fear of its best player leaving to decide to improve its team?), and they’ve done a good job.  Individually, none of the new additions have played spectacularly well.  In terms of PER, Mo Williams is at 16, Delonte West at 14.7, Wally Szczerbiak at 11.8, and Ben Wallace at 13.1.  Although those numbers aren’t terrible, the real reason for the improvement is the way the parts fit together.

Williams and West are great shooters, posting true shot percentages of 56.7% and 57.6%, respectively.  This makes them perfect compliments for James.  With any star that takes it to the basket a lot, the more shooters you can surround him with, the better.  Don’t forget that Cleveland has Szczerbiak, Sasha Pavlovic, and Daniel Gibson coming off the bench as well.

Now on to my favorite part: defense.  Wallace is a talented defender, but he has his flaws.  He’s very weak offensively and has limited range.  That’s why the Cavs are a perfect fit.  Zydrunas Ilgauskas has tremendous range and forces big men to guard him on the outside.  He’s also a great defender.  Wallace’s and Ilgauskas’ 07-08 Defensive Composite Scores were 15.93 and 32.77, respectively.  Both of those indicate great defenders, and even though I haven’t calculated Composite Score for this season yet, I would bet those numbers are even higher now.  James has also stepped up his defense, perhaps because of the offensive support he’s gotten.

That brings me to my last point.  Cleveland’s additions have been nice, but their two long-term guys have stepped up their games.  James and Ilgauskas are standout performers on both ends, even more so than last season.  James will likely win the MVP this season (it’ll be his first but he’s deserved it in the past), and Big Z is one of the best centers in the game.

I have a model that I think every team interested in winning a championship should follow.  The first part, the hardest part, is getting two or three stars that can carry the offensive load.  Cleveland’s done this with James and Ilgauskas.  The second part is shoring up interior defense.  The Cavs have done this with Ilgauskas, Wallace, and Anderson Varejao.  Finally, surround those stars with players willing to give their all on defense and make the open long-range shot on offense when called upon.  Cleveland’s done this with Williams, West, Gibson, Pavlovic, and Szczerbiak.  Look at the Celtics from last year, and you’ll see they followed this model as well, as have many other previous champions.

Information from the stats page was used in this report.

L.A. Lakers at Orlando: Magic
Golden State at Charlotte: Warriors
Indiana at Philadelphia: 76ers
Sacramento at New Orleans: Hornets
Houston at Minnesota: Rockets
Miami at New Jersey: Nets
Utah at Chicago: Jazz
L.A. Clippers at Milwaukee: Bucks
Toronto at San Antonio: Spurs
Denver at Phoenix: Suns

Prediction Record: 233-104






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