If you want an argument for why LeBron James ought to be the NBA's Most Valuable Player now and for the foreseeable future, look no further than the opposition at American Airlines Arena Wednesday night. That would be the Cleveland Cavaliers, James' former team, and while the Cavaliers gave the Miami Heat a good run on Wednesday, this season has been nothing short of disastrous for the Wine and Gold.
With more or less the same cast that James led to a league-best 61 wins a year ago, Cleveland has been perhaps the NBA's worst team to date. Even the Cavaliers' 7-17 record overstates how well the team has played. Cleveland's last-place point differential (-9.5 points per game) gives a more accurate picture of the vortex of suck that has engulfed Quicken Loans Arena.
Before the season begun, SCHOENE offered about the most optimistic forecast available for the Cavaliers, projecting 40.1 wins and a spot in the playoffs. Part of the reason SCHOENE was so far off appears to stem from the inherent difficulty in disconnecting a player's performance from that of his teammates. The statistics of Cleveland's returning players apparently overstated their ability and understated James' role in their success.
Compare SCHOENE's projections for the Cavaliers' key players with their actual performance to date in terms of True Shooting Percentage.
Player pro act
Gibson .575 .549
Hickson .566 .498
Jamison .518 .505
Moon .524 .480
Parker .540 .506
Sessions .517 .501
Varejao .553 .548
Williams .574 .494
Of the top eight guys in the Cleveland rotation, every one is shooting a lower TS% than projected. While the differences aren't always significant, two players in particular have collapsed: J.J. Hickson and Mo Williams, who happen to be two of the team's top three options on offense. The fact that their True Shooting Percentages are below 50 percent goes a long way toward explaining why the Cavaliers are the NBA's worst offense south of Milwaukee.
Williams at least has the excuse that he's been banged up, missing time due to a groin injury. Hickson, who was supposed to be the centerpiece of a new post-James Cleveland core, has been an unmitigated disappointment. A quick glance at Hoopdata.com shows how much both players are missing James in terms of setting up scoring opportunities. Williams was assisted on 46.0 percent of his field goals a year ago. That's down to 30.7 percent thus far this season. Hickson's rate of being assisted has also plunged from 77.5 percent to 63.8 percent. Forced to create for themselves, Williams and Hickson are having to settle for worse shots. Williams is shooting more threes off the dribble, while Hickson's game has drifted to the perimeter after he was able to feast on a steady diet of dunks the last two seasons.
To a lesser extent, most other Cavaliers have undergone the same transition. Spot-up shooters Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker have been far less effective. Of the other returning Cleveland players (and Antawn Jamison doesn't really count, since he barely played with James), just two have been able to sustain their effectiveness. Anderson Varejao has been more or less the same offensive player, compensating for a slight drop-off in easy scores by shooting better on long twos. Daniel Gibson might be the most interesting case study, since he is the exception that proves this rule. Gibson's True Shooting Percentage is down, yes, but he has more than offset that decline by ramping up his usage from 14.3 percent of the Cavaliers' plays to 21.8 percent. As it turned out, the role of spot-up shooter Gibson inhabited the last two-plus seasons was keeping him from showcasing more of his game.
Ordinarily, we'd count on SCHOENE's adjustment for usage to catch this kind of issue, as it did with last year's Houston Rockets. Even with this adjustment, however, Cleveland was overestimated because James played such a critical role in everything the Cavaliers did on offense. As it turned out, the best indicator of how Cleveland would score without James was the team's performance when he was off the floor. The Cavaliers' Offensive Rating declined by 15.5 points per 100 possessions when James rested last year, per BasketballValue.com. The margin was 13.7 points per 100 possessions in 2008-09 and 12.3 in 2007-08.
Despite those insane numbers, even net plus-minus failed to capture quite how poorly Cleveland would play this season. The Cavaliers were outscored by 5.2 points per 100 possessions last year without James, a number that looks terrific by comparison to Cleveland's 2010-11 efficiency margin (-11.3). To explain that discrepancy, we have to turn to the defensive end of the floor. The Cavaliers lost little on defense when James rested in the past because he was backed up by solid defenders and because of their strong team defense.
The biggest problem for Cleveland this year might actually be the team's decline from seventh in Defensive Rating to 27th, a drop-off that cannot entirely be attributed to James. The need to find offense has forced Byron Scott to deploy defensively challenged units at times (most notably pairing Williams and Ramon Sessions in undersized backcourts) and the Cavaliers are lacking size in the middle. Still, Scott's schemes have not been nearly as sound as those of his predecessor, Mike Brown. Consider Brown--the 2008-09 NBA Coach of the Year--another individual whose value to Cleveland has most conclusively been demonstrated after his departure.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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