Last week the New York Knicks officially entered the LeBron James sweepstakes. This sweepstakes exists because many think LeBron is likely to leave Cleveland when his contract expires in 2010. Why would LeBron depart Cleveland? At this point, King James and Cleveland have yet to surpass 50 wins in a season. Last year the Cavaliers only won 45 games, a mark that was 21 games behind the Boston Celtics. Given such a gap, it seems unlikely LeBron can contend for a title in Cleveland. And if LeBron is not going to contend with the Cavaliers, why would he stay in such a small market?
Lebron’s Motivation to Leave
Well, something appears to have happened since the end of the 2007-08 season. Cleveland – after 13 games – has the third best won-loss record in the NBA. And there is reason to think they should be ranked just a bit higher.
To see this point, let’s briefly look at Boston. Last year the Celtics finished with a 10.95 efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency). This year Boston – after 15 games – has slipped to a 7.65 mark. This is still quite good, but not quite what we saw from the Celtics in 2007-08.
Although Boston has declined a bit, they are still far ahead of what Cleveland did last year. In 2007-08 the Cavaliers had a differential of -0.38. So although Cleveland finished above 0.500 last year, their efficiency differential was consistent with a losing team.
When look at Wins Produced, we see why this team was so poor. Essentially the Cavaliers had LeBron James, and then not much else. As I noted last July…
What did the Cavaliers have without LeBron? LeBron’s Wins Produced was 20.2 last season. The rest of the Cavs produced 20.0 wins. Given the minutes everyone played, everyone not named King James posted a 0.057 WP48. This is not the worst mark in the league for a supporting cast, but it’s clearly below average.
The lack of a supporting cast in Cleveland suggested that LeBron had little reason to stay. And it didn’t look like Cleveland was trying hard to change the supporting cast this summer. In the off-season the Cavaliers primary move was adding Maurice Williams. Williams posted a 0.122 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] last year. Although this is an above average mark, it didn’t look like this move was going to dramatically change the quality of LeBron’s teammates.
But clearly something has happened to the LeBronettes (is that a term yet?). After 13 games in 2008-09, Cleveland has an efficiency differential of 8.89. Yes, Cleveland has completely closed the gap with Boston and currently ranks ahead of the defending champs.
So how was this possible? For an answer we turn to Table Two, which reports both the Cavaliers Wins Produced in 2008-09 and what this team could have expected had its players performed as they did in the past.
As Table Two reports, the Cavaliers are on pace to win about 63 games. And if their players did as they did in the past, Cleveland would be on pace to win 62 games.
Okay, that seems odd. The team’s efficiency differential – and Wins Produced – suggests that Cleveland should have won only 40 or 41 games last season. So where did the extra 20 wins come from? Here are some possible answers.
- Last season Anderson Varejao only played 1,319 minutes, posting a 0.136 WP48. This year he is on pace to play 2,113 minutes. Plus he has improved, posting a 0.199 WP48. Actually, if we look back at 2006-07 – where Varejao’s WP48 stood at 0.188 WP48 – we see that “improved” is not the word. After a season characterized by a contract dispute and some health issues, Varejao has actually just reverted to form.
- The same story can be told about Ben Wallace. Last year Big Ben – in a season characterized by a trade and health issues – posted a 0.177 WP48. This year he has “improved” to 0.287, a mark that is remarkably similar to the 0.281 WP48 Wallace recorded in 2006-07.
- And then there is Delonte West. West’s WP48 last season was 0.150. This year his WP48 stands at 0.153. Although his per-minute production is about the same, West is offering more simply because he is playing more minutes. Last year he was acquired in midseason, so he only played 806 minutes. This year he is on pace to play 2,807 minutes, so his Wins Production will increase dramatically.
The changes in production (and/or minutes) from these three players explains virtually the entire 20 win gap.
One should note that one player is left off the list. Maurice Williams – Cleveland’s major offseason acquisition — has really not made much difference. His current WP48 of 0.071 is below average, and not much different from what the Cavaliers were getting from guard Devin Brown last season [WP48 of 0.080 in 2007-08].
M. Williams is not the only Cavalier player to decline. Daniel Gibson is also offering less. The declines of M. Williams and Gibson, though, are offset by improvements in the play of Sasha Pavlovic, Wally Szczerbiak, and LeBron James. Pavlovic and Szczerbiak have gone from very, very bad to just bad. LeBron, though, has gone from amazing to… well, something beyond amazing. Last year LeBron’s WP48 was a career high. This year, despite a small decline in shooting efficiency, LeBron is offering even more. After thirteen games – primarily due to an improvement in rebounding — his WP48 stands at 0.378.
The Reward to Losing
Such a high level of productivity, at such a young age, clearly causes NBA executives to act goofy. The Knicks have just given up on two seasons of basketball in the hopes of landing LeBron. But if James is already playing on one of the best teams in the NBA – and thus far it looks like that is the case – why would he want to leave the Cavaliers? After all, as he learned the first few years of his career, he is going to need help to win. Right now he has that help in Cleveland. It’s not clear that the teams clearing cap space to acquire his services can offer him a better shot at a title.
All this means that the Knicks might be losing now in an effort to acquire… Chris Bosh? Dwayne Wade? Amare Stoudemire? All of these are good players. But they are not LeBron. And at this point, it looks like Cleveland is the frontrunner to keep King James.
Let me close by noting that even if Cleveland can maintain its small advantage over Boston, and it’s Cleveland that ultimately makes it to the NBA Finals, I don’t think the Cavaliers can defeat the LA Lakers in a seven game series. Yes, LeBron is more productive than Kobe (do we need a post on that topic?). But Kobe’s supporting cast is better than the LeBronettes. And given the age of Kobe’s team, this might still be true even if LeBron acquires new LeBronettes in a new destination.
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Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.
Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:
Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.