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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