On Monday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers made history. When the Cavaliers were unable to tie the Dallas Mavericks on their final possession, down by three points, they secured the longest winning streak in NBA history at 25 games. Despite the fact that Cleveland played one of the league's better teams nearly to a draw on the road, the historic loss was still appropriately futile. The game ended with the ball in the Cavaliers' hands as they failed to get off a follow attempt after Jamario Moon came with an offensive rebound of Anthony Parker's miss in the closing seconds.
There are signs of hope as Cleveland seeks to record just the team's second victory since the month of November. Just as the Cavaliers' streak has reached record proportions, the team has been playing better basketball. The last four losses have all come by single-digits in games Cleveland had a chance to win before snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Even a team as bad as the Cavaliers--and they are one of the worst teams of all time--is bound to win eventually. As forward J.J. Hickson put it after Friday's loss in Memphis, "They say you can't win 'em all, but in the same light, you can't lose 'em all either."
Cleveland's season, it has been observed, turned for the worst during the much-anticipated return of LeBron James to Quicken Loans Arena on December 2. The Cavaliers brought a respectable 7-10 record into that game, but by the team James and his Miami Heat teammates had finished a 28-point stomping, it was clear that Cleveland was a pretender.
Certainly, there were signs before then that the Cavaliers were due for trouble. They had played 5.5 points worse than an average team given their schedule to date, and their record owed largely to multiple close victories (Cleveland still has yet to win by a double-figure margin all season). Given average luck, the Cavaliers should have been 5-12 or 6-11 at the time. Still, those records gave no indication of the misery that lay ahead for Cleveland fans. Since the start of December, the Cavaliers have been both terrible and unlucky, a record-setting combination.
There is some indication of a legitimate James hangover. Over a seven-game stretch starting with the Miami game, Cleveland was an incredible 18.0 points worse than average when adjusted for schedule. Then the Cavaliers showed signs of recovery, playing three close games, including a six-point road loss to the Heat. The stretch culminated with an overtime victory over the New York Knicks that is the only thing separating Cleveland from a 36-game losing streak.
It looked like the worst was over, but with injuries sidelining key players like Anderson Varejao and Mo Williams, the Cavaliers quickly resumed getting beat down on a nightly basis. Amazingly, Cleveland did not play a single above-average game (adjusted for opponent and location) between the win over the Knicks and Monday night.
That said, the Cavaliers should have lucked into a win somewhere. During the course of their losing streak, they have lost by an average of 13.8 points per game. Using Pythagorean expectation, that translates into an expected .128 winning percentage. On average, that is, a team playing like Cleveland would have won 2.2 games out of the last 25. So while the actual 25-game losing streak that has transpired is hardly unthinkable, it is still against the odds. There's about a 1 in 30 chance a team playing like the Cavaliers would lose all 25 games. Naturally, such a streak has to be pretty improbable, given it has never happened before in NBA history.
The good news from Cleveland's perspective is that the team banked enough early wins that there is little chance of the Cavaliers' final record making history. Cleveland would have to lose every remaining game to finish behind the 9-73 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers and needs only to find a pair of wins the rest of the way to safely reach double-figures. Should the Cavaliers continue to play at this level, we'd expect them to win somewhere in the neighborhood of three games over their final 30, which would match the 1992-93 Dallas Mavericks for the worst record in post-merger NBA history at 11-71.
More likely, Cleveland will be somewhat more respectable the rest of the way. As John Hollinger recently pointed out, regression to the mean alone should take care of that. In addition, barring a fire sale at the deadline, the Cavaliers should run out better lineups as players like Williams and Daniel Gibson get healthy. Cleveland also could benefit as other also-ran teams begin turning to their young players and shutting down veterans with injuries late in the season.
For now, all that matters is the Cavaliers getting a single victory. Starting Wednesday, they are at home for their next seven games, with winnable matchups against Detroit, the L.A. Clippers and the epic showdown circled on everyone's calendar with the Washington Wizards and their 0-25 road record on Saturday night.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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