The NBA Nearing Mid-Season Version of The Boots
Boot Up: Why the Cleveland Cavaliers are #1 – The Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the defending NBA champions from Boston on Friday night at the Quicken Loans Arena by the convincing final score of 98-83. The game was never really that close, as the Celtics never had the lead, and the Cavaliers were up by 11 at the end of the first quarter. LeBron James had arguably the most impressive all-around performance of his career, posting 38 points, seven rebounds, six assists, four steals, and three blocks, shooting 9-9 from the free throw line, all while holding Paul Pierce to only 11 points on 4-15 shooting from the field. In fact, however, those numbers from Pierce are somewhat deceiving as Pierce scored 4 points in a matter of 2:37 to start the fourth quarter against Wally Szczerbiak while LeBron James sat on the bench. LeBron was as good as he has ever been last night, and he could do seemingly anything he wanted on both sides of the ball. The loss also was the seventh in nine games for the struggling Celtics, who fell to 29-9 and behind both the Cavaliers and the rising Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference standings.
Away from last night’s phenomenal performance, I am here to investigate why exactly the Cavaliers have taken such a jump this season from last year’s mediocre regular season. Of course, the Cavaliers had a lot of chemistry, injury and all-around issues last year when they stumbled to a 45-37 finish and the #4 seed in the East. This past off-season, everyone remained healthy and the Cavaliers added Maurice Williams in a trade with the Milwaukee Bucks, along with rookie forward J.J. Hickson out of North Carolina State. Still, I was not too optimistic on the Cavaliers in 2008-2009 (exhibit A and exhibit B), and neither were the supposed experts over at ESPN. Currently however, the Cavaliers are 29-6, and on pace for somewhere around 63-68 wins by the end of the season (John Hollinger of ESPN predicts 64). Why are the Cavaliers on pace for such a historic season? The answer may surprise you, as it is not just the addition of guard Mo Williams.
Last month I reported on an enlightening article by Dave Berri on his Wages of Wins blog. I took his analysis for granted back then, but just today, I started to crunch some number and truly pinpoint the reasons for the Cavaliers improvement in 2008-2009. I concluded that the Cavaliers have by far the most productive frontcourt in the NBA. Here is a look at some of the production of the Cavaliers forwards:
LeBron James: NBA leading 62.334 rating per 48 minutes while being less involved in offense
Zydrunas Ilgauskas: 25.2 points and 13.9 rebounds per 48 minutes
Ben Wallace: 13.5 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per 48 minutes
Anderson Varejao: shooting 56.3% from the field, and 2.75 fouls drawn per 48 minutes
J.J. Hickson: still needs to limit fouls and turnovers, typical rookie problems
Hickson has been a pleasant surprise as a twenty-year-old rookie while Wallace and Varejao, especially, have been much better than last season when trades and holdouts kept them from playing at their best level all season long. Only the Los Angeles Lakers with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, Vladimir Radmonovic and versatile Trevor Ariza come even close to the Cavaliers in frontcourt production this season. The Cavaliers have also shored up their backcourt, as the combination of Williams and Delonte West is a decent starting duo, and the sharp shooters off the bench in the form of Szczerbiak, Gibson and Pavlovic are great ways to keep the Cavaliers offense moving.
I really like what I have seen thus far from the Cavaliers this season, and last night’s game enabled them to keep pace with the Lakers for the best record in the NBA this season. It was just a regular season game, but last night’s match-up was “oozing” with playoff aura and emotion. I only hope that the Cavaliers can continue their hot streak in the coming weeks as they head to the West Coast and then take on the Orlando Magic on the road. Furthermore, hopefully Zydrunas Ilgauskas will come back soon as well, and enable the Cavaliers to keep up with the Celtics and Lakers during this tough stretch. It should be a great rest of the season and as a born and raised Cleveland fan, I am already holding my breath for the playoff run in April.
Boot Up: The intriguing storylines are popping up everywhere – From interesting free agent pick-ups to trade rumors and odd undrafted rookie sensations, this NBA season certainly has been one for the record books. Here is a rundown of all of the different news stories that have struck my attention over the course of this year thus far:
Rob Kurz is a phenomenal story. I strongly recommend this story from Draft Express to everyone, as it details the path Kurz took from being a decent Notre Dame starter to sensational Golden State rookie.
Trading Chauncey Billups was a bonehead move by the Detroit Pistons. Well, it was stupid when you think about their contention for the playoffs this season… On the other hand, the move could easily clear up some cap space for big spot in the free agent race in 2010.
The Boston Celtics are not as good as their 27-2 start indicated. I think the C’s have made that clear to everyone, with their recent 2-7 skid. I never expected this team to win more than 65 games this season, and even 60 might be a stretch with their current pace. Expect them to get some wins in the near future however, as their upcoming schedule is not too difficult.
As of right now, the Cavaliers should hold on to Wally Szczerbiak. His contract might be massive ($13 million and expiring after this season,) but the chemistry on the team is too good to mess with right now. Any trade made must help the Cavaliers add more young bodies to their frontcourt, and that might be too much of a demand in the trade market right now.
The Antonio McDyess debacle should not have happened. I completely disagree with the current NBA ruling that enables players to resign with teams that just traded them… I thought the Cavaliers had a decent chance of resigning McDyess until he decided to return to Detroit.
Who is the fifth best team in the NBA this season? That is really the only legitimate question to ask anymore about the top teams in the league. Orlando proved in convincing fashion last night that they belong with Boston, Cleveland and the Lakers in the argument of the best teams in the NBA. After that, however, it gets murky as only three and a half games separate San Antonio (the team with the fifth best record at 24-11) and Utah (the #14 team at 21-15.)
It looks like the Nets won’t be moving to Brooklyn anytime soon. RealGM reports that the supposed move for the New Jersey franchise is hitting some troubled waters. I doubt it ever happens, as if the media needed any more reasons to think LeBron would actually leave Cleveland…
Boot Down: Anybody but LeBron James for MVP – So as I mentioned above, LeBron James leads the NBA with a rating per 48 minutes of 62.334, which is nearly four full points ahead of second-place Chris Paul. In addition, he is also second in the NBA in Floor Index Counter per 48 Minutes, just barely behind Paul, and is first in Game Score per 48 minutes, a statistic I recently started tracking with the formula available here. LeBron is doing this all while leading the best team in the NBA to a surprising jump in the standings after a 45-37 finish last season. He is posting some of the most mind-boggling averages in recent memory, so just for the dramatic effect, I will post them here alongside the averages for NBA players height 6-6 to 6-10 last season:
Points per 48 Minutes: LeBron 36.272, Average 16.936
Assists per 48 Minutes: LeBron 8.618, Average 3.562
Rebounds per 48 Minutes: LeBron 8.656, Average 7.491
Floor Index Counter: LeBron 27.83, Average 12.02
Rating per 48 Minutes: LeBron 63.354, Average 30.853
Game Score: LeBron 25.923, Average 9.84
Efficiency Field Goal Percentage: LeBron 1.083, Average 0.976
Free Throw Percentage: LeBron 78.8%, Average 75.5%
Blocks and Steals per 48 Minutes: LeBron 4.31, Average 2.28
Assist to Turnover Ratio: LeBron 2.255, Average 1.442
Fouls per 48 Minutes: LeBron 2.55, Average 4.35
Rating / Usage per 48 Minutes: LeBron 5.34, Average 3.00
There is hardly a thing that LeBron does anymore that is below average. In the past, his free throw shooting and on-ball defense were two of things most people brought up when talking about his negative characteristics as a basketball player. This season, as evidenced both in the game against Boston the other night, and all year long, he has vastly improved in both categories. As can be seen in the statistics above, he is now an above average free throw shooter and is way above average when it comes to steals and blocks per 48 minutes. This shows his progression as a team basketball player, at the ripe young age of only 24.
Last year, LeBron James was right behind Kobe Bryant in the claim for the most talented player in the NBA. This year, with the LA Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers tied at the top of the league standings, it is no doubt that LeBron James wins over the claim to be this year’s MVP. In order to understand his true value, think of the two supporting rosters for the two teams. I showed above how the Cavaliers have the best frontcourt in the league, but that is only because of LeBron. The Lakers have the second best frontcourt, and arguably the most explosive backcourt alongside one of the best players in the league.
The reason why the Lakers were so good last season, and are so good again this season, is not Kobe Bryant: it is his fantastic supporting cast, including two players good enough to be perennial All-Stars in Bynum and Gasol. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, have only one player that has ever been an All-Star and that is 33-year-old Zydrunas Ilgauskas who has already missed ten games this season. This year will forever be remembered for the season that LeBron James took over the crown as the most talented and valuable basketball player in the world.
(Note: This final Boot Down was written late, and the numbers here are as of games on Sunday, January 11, 2009. At this exact point in the NBA season, the average team has played 36.8 games, meaning that the NBA season is approximately 45% completed.)
Boot Down: Playoffs?!?! Talking about playoffs?!? –Well there is the established big three teams in the Eastern Conference with Cleveland, Orlando and Boston leading the pace by far… Out in the Western Conference, the playoff race has been down to nine teams for about a month now, as #9 Dallas already leads #10 Minnesota by an astounding 10.5 games. In the East however, there is currently a very similar distance between #3 Boston to #4 Detroit (six games), and the difference from #6 Miami to #14 Indiana (6.5 games). It has been a mumbo jumbo kind of year in the NBA thus far, and without further ado, here are my playoff predictions in both conferences:
Top Teams in the East:
#1 Cleveland Cavaliers – will finish with between 62-66 wins and will win the NBA Championship. They are the most efficient team on both sides of the ball this season, as evidenced by their 12.4-point differential per game.
#2 Orlando Magic – will finish with between 59-63 wins and will lose in the Eastern Semifinals. It is just too bad that they are peaking this year… Celtics will still beat them in the playoffs. Their three-point shooting still makes them a very legitimate contender for the NBA Finals.
#3 Boston Celtics – will finish with between 58-62 wins and will lose in the Eastern Finals. Cavaliers proved the other night that they are simply better this season. KG is no longer a truly elite player in the NBA, and that is why the Celtics will be unable to repeat.
#4 Atlanta Hawks – will finish with between 46-50 wins and will lose in the Eastern Semifinals. Hawks get a horrible match-up in the first round, but survive just one round before losing to the eventual NBA Champions for the second year in a row.
Rest of the Eastern Conference:
#5 Detroit Pistons – will finish with between 44-48 wins.
#6 Milwaukee Bucks – will finish with between 40-44 wins.
#7 Miami Heat – will finish with between 40-44 wins.
#8 Philadelphia 76ers – will finish with between 38-42 wins.
#9 New Jersey Nets – will finish with between 36-40 wins.
#10 Toronto Raptors – will finish with between 35-39 wins.
#11 Chicago Bulls – will finish with between 33-37 wins.
#12 New York Knicks – will finish with between 32-36 wins.
#13 Indiana Pacers – will finish with between 28-32 wins.
#14 Charlotte Bobcats – will finish with between 26-30 wins.
#15 Washington Wizards – will finish with between 22-26 wins.
Top Teams in the West:
#1 LA Lakers – will finish with between 60-64 wins and will lose in the NBA Finals. This was supposed to be their crowning season (exhibit A, exhibit B and exhibit C), and you can practically hand them the Western Conference title already. The only thing up for grabs is whether they can handle Cleveland or Orlando in the East, and we will learn just a little bit more about that in the coming weeks.
#2 New Orleans Hornets – will finish with between 51-55 wins and will lose in the Western Semifinals. Chris Paul is arguably one of the finest point guards to enter the league in decades, but I think this is the year of the Trailblazers in the playoffs. New Orleans will lose somewhat early this May, but I am considering them the early favorite out in the West for 2009-2010 (assuming something happens to the Lakers).
#3 Portland Trailblazers – will finish with between 49-53 wins and will lose in the Western Finals. I really, really like this time, as Greg Oden has been quite the pleasant surprise as a “rookie.” I think that come April, this team will finally be gelling and all those years of suffering will result in a solid playoff run.
#4 Denver Nuggets – will finish with between 48-52 wins and will lose in the First Round. Chauncey Billups and company have had quite the surprising regular season, but I think their lack of playoff experience as a unit will hurt them come April/May. Utah, San Antonio or Phoenix will take care of them in the first round.
Rest of the Western Conference:
#5 Utah Jazz – will finish with between 46-50 wins.
#6 San Antonio Spurs – will finish with between 46-50 wins.
#7 Phoenix Suns – will finish with between 46-50 wins.
#8 Houston Rockets – will finish with between 45-49 wins.
#9 Dallas Mavericks – will finish with between 44-48 wins.
#10 Minnesota Timberwolves – will finish with between 29-33 wins.
#11 Memphis Grizzlies – will finish with between 26-30 wins.
#12 Golden State Warriors – will finish with between 24-28 wins.
#13 LA Clippers – will finish with between 23-27 wins.
#14 Sacramento Kings – will finish with between 20-24 wins.
#15 Oklahoma City Thunder – will finish with between 14-18 wins.