LeBron James announced his decision to join the Cleveland Cavaliers last week, and in doing so, managed to (once again) break a few hearts (mine) and induce mass hysteria (almost everyone else). I use the term hysteria, because there are few other words that so accurately describe what has recently taken place.
The Cavaliers are a terrible team. They won only 33 games in a beleaguered Eastern Conference last year, and then proceeded to lose five of their top-ten players this off-season. Despite that, LeBron’s arrival has some NBA “analysts” crowning the Cavs Conference Champs, while Vegas rates Cleveland as the odds-on-favorite to win the title. Therefore, I decided to take an early look at LeBron’s Cavaliers, and determine if these sensational claims have some merit.
The above table is an offensive breakdown of each Cavalier expected to play major minutes this upcoming season. According to ESPN’s Real-Plus-Minus, Cleveland is projected to field five above-average offensive players (disregarding Wiggins, for whom there is no RPM data). Conversely, the Cavs have only three proficient spot-up shooters LeBron can rely on, which could make spacing the floor a difficult task.
On balance however, the situation facing the Cavaliers on the offensive side of the ball is encouraging. Though many of the above players were underwhelming last year, LeBron’s arrival will likely give them a “boost” of sorts, as articulated (clumsily) by this 538 article. Furthermore, many of Cleveland’s players are quite young, and as (correctly) asserted by Jacob Rosen, age is an important factor to consider when projecting future performance.
In short, these Cavs were young and kind of terrible last year, but LeBron’s arrival and some extra seasoning could lead to marked improvement. Unfortunately however, the outlook for Cleveland’s defense is considerably less bright.
According to Real-Plus-Minus, the Cavaliers will have only one above-average defender next year, and that’s the oft-injured soon to be 32-year-old Anderson Varejao. To make matters worse, while LeBron’s ability to draw defensive attention makes the game easier for his teammates on the offensive side of the floor, it counts for little on defense, meaning no “LeBron boost” this time.
The “young players get better” adage still holds in this situation, though via APM age curves, a player’s defensive peak is closer to age 30 then 25; not ideal for a young Cleveland team that is expected to contend immediately.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are going to be a good team next year. With some significant improvement, a rejuvenated LeBron, and an impressive Wiggins debut, they could even make the NBA Finals. Based on what we know now however, it is simply absurd to consider them anything more then a contender in the East. Their offense is a question mark, and their defense is almost guaranteed to be poor. Kyrie’s ball-dominant style could clash with LeBron, while LeBron himself is on the decline.
So while the prodigal son returning is a great story-line and all, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. LeBron and his Cavs have a long way to go.
Spot-Up data provided by Synergy Sports