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Thursday, July 07, 2011

Analyzing the Collapse of the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cleveland Cavaliers finished with the worst record in the Eastern Conference (19-63) and the second worst record in the NBA behind the 17-65 Minnesota Timberwolves; the Cleveland Cavaliers also won the 2011 NBA championship. I am not delusional, nor am I referring to the way that Cleveland fans rooted for the "Mavaliers" to defeat the hated Miami Heat; the ironic thing about "The Decision" is that LeBron James fled an allegedly inadequate supporting cast in Cleveland to go to Miami only to ultimately lose to a team using the same template that formed the basis for the roster that Dan Gilbert, Danny Ferry and Mike Brown had been building around James for the past several years: a squad with one dominant MVP level player surrounded by former All-Stars and gritty role players who collectively bought into playing unselfish offense and tenacious defense. The Dallas Mavericks refuted the idea that it is impossible to win an NBA championship with the kind of team that the Cavaliers had put together around James--and the Mavericks also refuted two other ideas: that a LeBron James-Dwyane Wade duo would be an unstoppable juggernaut and that LeBron James would have been more successful with the Lakers of recent vintage than Kobe Bryant has been: James not only partnered with Wade but he also had his own Pau Gasol in Chris Bosh and yet it is far from certain that the Heat will match the Lakers' recent run of three straight conference championships/two consecutive NBA titles. The "stat gurus" sold the world a bill of goods when they contended that switching LeBron James for Kobe Bryant circa 2008 would have resulted in more wins and/or more championships for the L.A. Lakers.

James is obviously a very valuable basketball player but it is absurd to say that his departure alone is responsible for the Cavs' collapse--and listening to such nonsense during the 2011 season was a fingernails on the chalkboard experience for any rational-thinking NBA observer, so let's set the record straight once and for all about exactly what happened to the Cavaliers in the 2010-11 season. The Cavs not only lost their best player but they also essentially rebooted their entire franchise from top to bottom: the Cavs fired Coach Mike Brown (the 2009 NBA Coach of the Year) and shortly afterward General Manager Danny Ferry (the 2009 NBA Executive of the Year) resigned. For a combination of reasons, the Cavs did not retain the services of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Shaquille O'Neal and Delonte West, three key players in the team's eight man rotation: Ilgauskas and O'Neal had split most of the minutes in the middle and the Cavs have yet to make up for the significant loss of size in the paint; I mentioned this factor in my season preview and yet I have to confess that even I underestimated just how damaging this would be. West had been the team's most versatile player (and best wing defender) other than James. Some might argue that Ilgauskas, O'Neal and West did not have much impact during the 2011 season and thus the Cavs would have declined anyway even if James had re-signed with Cleveland but that misses the point on two counts: one, those guys played a key role in Cleveland's success (and thus needed to either be retained or adequately replaced); two, if James had re-signed with Cleveland and recruited players the way that he did when he joined the Heat then the Cavs would have been able to put viable players around James much the way that they had done in previous years. The fact that Ilgauskas, O'Neal and West were not top level players in 2011 does not change the reality that they played key roles in Cleveland's success the previous two seasons and thus their collective absences were keenly felt by the 2011 Cavs.

The Cavs had been a very deep team prior to the 2011 season but they began the season with a decent starting lineup and very little bench strength; their margin of error for injuries (or even foul trouble) was quite slim and that is another factor that I should have emphasized more in my season preview: it would have been more precise for me to say that the Cavs could win 35-40 games if everything went right but that a key injury or two would reduce that total to the 25-30 game range. No one could have rationally foreseen that the Cavs would fail to win even 20 games (the yahoo who made that prediction also said that James would lead the Heat to 70-plus wins and a championship, so he was clearly making his picks based not on rational logic but rather on being a biased James fan).

The Cavs' key players were never completely healthy at the same time in 2010-11; Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams began the season with nagging injuries but then the death blow to any hope for the Cavs arrived when Anderson Varejao--the team's only credible inside player--suffered a season-ending injury. Near the end of the season, Coach Byron Scott remarked, "I remember telling my assistants that the one player we couldn't afford to lose was Andy (Varejao). A week later, he was out for the season."

Scott did a solid job coaching the patchwork team that remained after the roster was gutted by the departures of James, Ilgauskas, O'Neal and West plus the various injuries that sidelined key players but he made a strategic error by trying to use the Princeton Offense despite having a roster ill-equipped to run it effectively. Specifically, even if the Cavs had been at full strength they did not have a center who could pass well out of the high post, a deficiency that Princeton Offense guru Pete Carril noted when he was asked about the Cavs late in the season: "When he (Scott) was in New Jersey, they went to the Finals two times and he had the right kind of players for that offense--they were unselfish and they passed the ball. That's not the same kind of team as this. I'm hopeful he'll see he better go in a different direction. If you can't run a high pick-and-roll, you're done for. That's the only thing nobody stops. The Princeton offense has been around for such a long time that I think it may have worn out its usefulness. If he had a center that could pass the ball better, it'd be better." Scott eventually gave up trying to run the Princeton offense but only after the Cavs had already suffered a devastating 26 game losing streak.

After Cleveland lost 99-96 to Dallas--tying the NBA record for consecutive defeats (25)--Jamison said, "Let's be honest. One guy did a lot for this organization, for the city of Cleveland, for the game in general. [But] before the season we had Andy, Mo, myself, a couple veterans here and there. You think this is still a unit that can win and compete. We believed that. And still believe that. [Now] we've just got to keep competing." ESPN's Marc Stein added, "As one Eastern Conference scout colorfully explained in a recent Weekend Dime, Cleveland minus the injured Anderson Varejao and Mo Williams is 'a summer-league team and Antawn Jamison.'"

The depleted lineup that the Cavs trotted out for most of the season bore no resemblance to the deep squad that surrounded James the preceding two years. In case Rick Kamla and others still believe that losing LeBron James was the only significant change for the Cavaliers during the 2010-11 season, here are the facts regarding the Cavaliers' rotation during the past three seasons:

The 2009 Cavs went 66-16 with an eight man rotation (based on total minutes played) of LeBron James (3054), Mo Williams (2834), Anderson Varejao (2306), Delonte West (2152), Daniel Gibson (1795), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (1765), Wally Szczerbiak (1527) and Ben Wallace (1314); the same players (in slightly different order) also led the team in minutes per game.

The 2010 Cavs went 61-21 with an eight man rotation (based on total minutes played) of LeBron James (2966), Mo Williams (2359), Anthony Parker (2289), Anderson Varejao (2166), J.J. Hickson (1691), Delonte West (1500), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (1339) and Shaquille O'Neal (1240); the same players (in slightly different order) led the team in minutes per game, with Antawn Jamison (32.4 mpg in 25 games) joining the team down the stretch and Hickson and Ilgauskas each averaging 20.9 mpg overall as the eighth/ninth men in a very deep frontcourt rotation.

The 2011 Cavs went 19-63 with an eight man rotation (based on total minutes played) of J.J. Hickson (2256), Ramon Sessions (2133), Anthony Parker (2091), Daniel Gibson (1865), Antawn Jamison (1842), Ryan Hollins (1182), Mo Williams (1065) and Anderson Varejao (994). Williams played in just 36 games before being traded for Baron Davis (who ranked eighth on the team in minutes per game but only played in 15 games as a Cav), while Varejao played in just 31 games. That roster has no quality legitimate big men (other than the injured Varejao) and bears little resemblance to the previous two rosters.

For those who cannot be bothered to compare/contrast the data in the previous three paragraphs, the 2011 Cavs' eight man rotation contained just three players from the 2010 squad's eight man rotation: the inconsistent Hickson--now thrust into the role as the team's leader in minutes played--plus the injured Varejao and Williams, who was limited by nagging injuries before being traded to the Clippers. The 2011 Cavs' eight man rotation also included just three players from the 2009 squad's eight man rotation: Gibson (a non-starting three point specialist in 2009 who started 15 games in 2011) plus the aforementioned Williams and Varejao. If Jamison, Williams and Varejao had been the 2011 Cavs' top three players in minutes played (instead of fifth, seventh and eighth respectively) the Cavs would have posted a much better record. James' departure probably cost the Cavs about 20 wins but the rest of the decline stemmed from the upheaval involved with changing the team's front office/coaching staff combined with the injuries and roster moves that drastically changed the eight man rotation.

It is fine to rhapsodize about LeBron James' greatness as a regular season performer--I picked him as the 2011 MVP--but James' abilities are proven by what he accomplished in Miami, not by the sagging fortunes of a rebooted franchise plagued by injuries, bereft of depth and lacking a legit big man. I fully realize that the Cavs' 2011 season will likely be used indefinitely as an easy punchline to "confirm" James' value but I sincerely hope that at some point people will eventually come to their senses and appreciate the logical points stated in the preceding paragraphs; the discussion of NBA basketball should not forever be dominated by wrongheaded "stat gurus," misinformed media members and amateur writers plucked out of nowhere for 15 minutes of fame as part of the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader's" blogging network. The sport--and the writing profession--both deserve much better than that.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:21 PM

15 comments

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15 Comments:

At Thursday, July 07, 2011 6:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you think Shaq would have made that much of a difference? Assuming he never got injured, I'd see him averaging 10 and 5 playing at most 20 minutes. That's also a pretty big assumption.
Also, I wouldn't say this years Mavs were essentially the same as last years Cavs. The Mavs had a Hall of Famer and superb leader in Jason Kidd. I don't remember much of the Cavs' bench but was it as deep as the Mavs'?

 
At Friday, July 08, 2011 11:37:00 AM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

Based on what I've seen from the media, I don't think you'll have to worry about them using the Cavaliers' collapse to affirm the greatness of Lebron James. They are still dogpiling on him for failing to win the championship this season, and I'm afraid it will be open season on Lebron until he finally wins a title.

As for the general public, they're still making Lebron jokes about his fourth quarter failures in the last NBA finals and his failure to win a championship. They're no longer making excuses for him and they'll continue to call him a choke artist until Lebron finally wins a championship.

Once he wins one, then I'm sure the cry will be that he won one riding on Wade's coattails. It may be harsh, but that's the fallout he faces in the aftermath of the "Decision".

 
At Friday, July 08, 2011 12:03:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

Great article as usual and so true. The casual fan, and probably most true NBA fans just don't get it about lebron and his supporting casts, and most of the media sloppily take the easy way part as usual, stating one little fact: 61 wins with lebron to 19 wins without lebron, without any other context.

The way lebron prances around and thinks he entitles to whatever he wants and the way most of the media cater to him is so off-putting, to say the least. I'm happy to say for no given year, yet, that he can stake claim as the best player in the world, with reg. season and playoffs combined.

I know in some of your past articles, you talk about the 09 and 10 cavs being the deepest teams in the league, and now the 11heat being the most talented team in the league. I'm kind of confused as to why many think and blame lebron's cast this year. Sure, there were some injuries, just like any team, but 2 other top 10-15 players on your team, a decent enough PG combo, miller, haslem, etc. What more does he need?

It's so ironic that the year that lebron leaves the cavs, that the mavs with virtually an identical team as the 09 and 10 cavs' teams not only win the title, but beats lebron's supposedly amazing team, and without probably their 2nd best player, butler, plus injuries to other key players in their rotation: beaubois and haywood. Just imagine all the additional excuses that would've occurred if jamison and big Z go down last year, and aren't available.

This was one of the easiest years for a team like the heat to win the title, I just don't think it will be as easy next year, but hard to say, as we don't even know if there will be a next season.

 
At Friday, July 08, 2011 1:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

As I made very clear in the article, the point is not how much difference Shaq might have made for the Cavs in 2010-11 but rather that the Cavs did not replace the two centers (Shaq and Z) who played the bulk of the minutes for a squad that posted the best record in the NBA. Obviously, there was little chance that Shaq was going to stay in Cleveland after LeBron left but it is foolish to simply say that the Cavs declined solely because of LeBron's absence; as I documented, the 2011 Cavs were a vastly different team than the 2010 Cavs and the 2009 Cavs.

Jason Kidd is a future Hall of Famer who I greatly respect and about whom I wrote a feature article right after the Finals concluded--but he is not in his prime anymore. The 2009 and 2010 Cavs had multiple former All-Stars plus future HoFer Shaq.

The Cavs were so deep during LeBron's years with the team that Shannon Brown, who became a key rotation player for the two-time champion L.A. Lakers, could hardly even get on the court when he was a Cav.

 
At Friday, July 08, 2011 1:05:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

The media kept emphasizing LeBron's role in the Cavs' collapse all season long and I fully expect for that to continue indefinitely.

Also, I don't consider it "dogpiling" to rightly criticize a healthy LeBron James for playing far below his normal level in the NBA Finals.

 
At Friday, July 08, 2011 1:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

After LeBron left Cleveland I asked how much help does he need to win a championship; he failed to win one in Cleveland with the deepest team in the NBA and last season he failed to win one despite being part of the NBA's most talented trio. I agree with you that many things fell into place for Miami last season--Boston's injuries/questionable Perkins trade, Orlando's suicidal trades, the Spurs' first round collapse, Pau Gasol's mysterious indifference--and the Heat still failed to win the title; it will likely only become more difficult for Miami to win a championship, particularly if the lockout wipes out an entire season of James/Wade/Bosh in the prime of their careers.

 
At Friday, July 08, 2011 10:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

terry better than anyone on cleveland. and they had better bench more shooter. id take chandler over shaq for impact and marion over hickson. lebron cost his own team. cleveland collapse wasnt all lebron but he played a major part in it no doubt about that. cleveland wont be relevant for quite sum tyme.

 
At Saturday, July 09, 2011 8:29:00 PM, Anonymous Blizzard said...

What's fascinating to me is that many writers, mostly the Lebron sycophants like Henry Abbott, persist in laying blame on the role players. "Chalmers isn't an NBA quality starter." They conveniently forget the whole point (according to them) was that Lebron, Wade and Bosh were so good they could beat anyone by themselves. According to David Berri, the Heat should have won 125 out of a possible 82 games, right? It's bootlickers like Abbot who then turn around and weepily lament what our "hatred" of "a guy who just wants to play basketball with his friends" says about "us as a society".

Thanks for not only providing quality analysis, but for calling out (with caustic humor) the tools in the mainstream sports media.

 
At Sunday, July 10, 2011 12:28:00 PM, Anonymous Neos Marmaras said...

Cavs lost their momentum and focus once LBJames departure. It seams that they even had good excuse not to be on the same level like in previous years. But to get second worst NBA record, nobody believed that.

They need to be off the radar and try to play relaxed.

 
At Sunday, July 10, 2011 11:56:00 PM, Anonymous khandor said...

David:

re: " ...it will likely only become more difficult for Miami to win a championship, particularly if the lockout wipes out an entire season of James/Wade/Bosh in the prime of their careers."

If someone was inclined to make you the following wager:

=================================

During the course of the next 10 seasons, I say that the Miami Heat will, in fact, win at least 1 NBA Championship with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James on their team.

In contrast, you say that this will not happen.

=================================

might you be inclined to accept it?

 
At Monday, July 11, 2011 4:56:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

During the two seasons that the Cavs posted the best record in the NBA their roster was at least 10 deep with players who had started for playoff teams--and even prior to that the Cavs were so deep that Shannon Brown, who later became a rotation player for the two-time champion Lakers, could hardly get on the court.

In theory, LeBron left Cleveland because it supposedly takes a trio of All-Stars to win an NBA title--but Miami's All-Star trio just lost in the NBA Finals to a team with one All-Star who is surrounded by former All-Stars and solid role players, the same kind of roster that surrounded James in Cleveland. That is incredibly ironic.

 
At Monday, July 11, 2011 5:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Blizzard:

It is hilarious to look back at the overheated predictions (pun intended) about how dominant the Heat would be. The Heat ended up having a good regular season--which should be expected when you have three of the top 15-20 players in the NBA on the same team--but the only thing historic about their team was how many times their superstars put their feet in their mouths and then failed to back up their words on the court, from LeBron promising "Not one, not two, etc." championships to LeBron saying that everything would be easy once they got on the court to Wade crumbling to the sidelines like he had been shot and then having the nerve to mock Nowitzki's coughing. This was the perfect team for Abbott and Berri to fall in love with, a team long on style but short on substance.

 
At Monday, July 11, 2011 5:03:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Neos:

The Cavs and the media should have never hyped up the first game between Cleveland and Miami; Cleveland had an almost totally remade roster (as documented in this article) and it should have been obvious that the game would not be very competitive. The aftereffects of that loss--and the way that the media covered it--really seemed to linger with the Cavs for quite some time; they had been playing decent basketball prior to that game but then they went into a historic tailspin.

 
At Monday, July 11, 2011 5:05:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Khandor:

I said exactly what I intended to say on the subject and I am not foolish enough to wager about hypothetical happenings 10 years from now. We don't even know if there will be a 2012 season, let alone what the salary cap/financial structure will look like when the NBA lockout eventually ends: there could even be a scenario in which the Heat have to break up the "Big Three" to get under the salary cap, so it is possible that the Heat may never win a championship with the nucleus that they had last season.

 
At Monday, July 11, 2011 11:46:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

oh david i missed wat u said i get u he went to play wit a trio cause he thought he needed other stars to win. and end up getting beat by a team like he had in cleveland u was rite.

 

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