Thursday, December 02, 2010

Quick Note on the LeBron-Era Cavs

On this DEFCON 1 Day in Cleveland, I'd just like to offer a brief opinion on what I believe to be an incorrect piece of revisionist history. I was catching up on my NBA Today podcasts recently, when I heard the NBA Blogfather himself, Mr. Henry Abbott, casually voice this opinion, which seems to have become NBA conventional wisdom: a significant part of the reason that LeBron James left Cleveland was because the Cavaliers organization was unable to build a championship contender around him.

I'm not writing this to pick on Henry; he is but one of many who've expressed this opinion and, geez, he's probably the reason you've found our humble little corner of the basketball blogosphere. But I very strongly disagree with this reasoning.

Let's review quickly:
2006-07: Cavs go 50-32, lose NBA Finals to San Antonio, 4-0
So, the Cavaliers made the 2007 NBA Finals, but they weren't championship contenders? You know what: I'm actually going to cede this one, and say that they were NOT championship contenders in '06-07. Cleveland was lucky to get past a better Detroit team, thanks to LeBron's stunning Game 5 performance, and they were so thoroughly outclassed in the Finals that they weren't even in the same universe as the Spurs. As many as four other teams in the West - Dallas, Phoenix, Utah, Houston - were probably better than Cleveland as well. So I'll say it again: lucky more than contenders.

2007-08: Cavs go 45-37, lose Eastern Conference Semifinals to Boston, 4-3
In 2008, the Cavaliers took the eventual NBA champions perilously close to the brink, closer to defeat than any other playoff opponent, thanks in no small part to LeBron's 45 points in Game 7. But again, I'm going to say that they were NOT championship contenders in '07-08. Not with 45 wins in a league with eight teams at 54 wins or better, including six teams in the West.

2008-09: Cavs go 66-16, lose Eastern Conference Finals to Orlando, 4-2
OK, now we start to diverge. The 2008-09 Cavaliers won 66 games. SIXTY-SIX! LXVI!!! Only nine teams in NBA history have won more than 66 games. Of the 14 other teams which have won 65+ games, 12 have won the NBA championship. These Cavs swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs, and then lost a six-game series with several back-and-forth close games to a team which was two plays away from being up 3-2 in the Finals. This was absolutely, unequivocally, inarguably a championship-contending team. Of course, LeBron had to carry a disproportionate share of the load. I will grant that his teammates let him down vs. Orlando, as they were unable to knock down shots around him, while he turned in one of the most incredible individual playoff runs in NBA history. Still, there is no question in my mind that this was a team which could have won the championship, and was certainly in contention to do so.

2009-10: Cavs go 61-21, lose Eastern Conference Semifinals to Boston, 4-2
First of all, let's note that the 2009-10 Cavaliers had the best record in the league with 61 wins. In my book, any team that wins 60+ games is a championship contender. I will always believe that these Cavs were a better team than the Celtics team which missed a championship by a whisker. All the credit in the world to the Celtics for their superior heart, but I think they beat a better team. If the supporting cast was to blame in 2009, there was no one to blame in 2010 other than LeBron James, after his mysterious no-show in Game 5. I thought that GM Danny Ferry made some solid moves in the summer of 2009 to beef up Cleveland's depth, and also its size, to be able to better compete with Orlando and Los Angeles. I very strongly believe that this team could have won the championship if LeBron had played up to his abilities.

By the most liberal interpretation, the Cavs were championship contenders all four of these seasons. By the most conservative interpretation, they were unquestionably contenders in the last two seasons.

Further, I would argue that a reason Cleveland may not have been even better was that LeBron never committed to the Cavs for the long term, and the front office may have felt the pressure to make short-term moves to win immediately and appease LeBron.

Listen, I don't begrudge LeBron's right to make The Decision one bit. I truly believe that pretty much any franchise he would have joined would have been on the brink of championship contention just by adding him.

But to suggest that he had to leave Cleveland because he couldn't win a championship there is complete, outright fiction. Cleveland conceivably could have won in 2009 if the bounces had gone their way, they could have won in 2010 if LeBron had played -- and led -- better, and they conceivably could have built a longer-term dynasty if LeBron had made a longer-term commitment there.

22 Comments:

At 10:15 AM, Blogger jonathan said...

Fantastic read.

 
At 1:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In 2010 you have a typo. They lost in the semis.

In the 2009 ECF they were very close games, but the Cavs might also have been swept without a last-second LeBron 3 pointer at home! It's hard to draw conclusions from limited sample sets like a single playoff series, but analysts and fans pretend like it holds the secrets of the universe.

 
At 2:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While discussing the "Who's the Best" argument with a friend, I pointed out that LeBron has yet to play with anyone as good as Lamar Odom, while Lamar Odom was the 4th-best player on one of Kobe's Championship teams. I think this is the part of the "LeBron can't win it alone" cry.

 
At 2:12 PM, Anonymous Buena said...

Spot-on analysis. The same thing applies, equally annoingly, to the SSOL Suns. People assume that because they DIDN'T win a title, that means they COULDN'T have won a title. In nerdy academic circles this is called "Hindsight Bias." It is a particular difficulty in medical malpractice suits, where the defense lawyer is tasked with convincing a jury that something was unlikely to happen even though it DID happen. Tough sell under the best of circumstances; nearly impossible with a sympathetic plaintiff.

 
At 2:19 PM, Blogger M. Haubs said...

Thanks, Anon - fixed. Sloppy cut-and-paste from '09 by me.

 
At 2:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't want to speak for anyone else, so this is only my opinion, but I've always taken the "couldn't build a championship contender" thing to not really mean that the Cavs weren't championship contenders, but rather to mean that the talent around Lebron wasn't enough. Both of these things can be true - they were championship contenders, as you point out, however it was because Lebron is the best player in the NBA. No other player would have made that team championship caliber in place of Lebron, and even with Lebron, they did not get it done (though maybe they would have had random variation smiled upon them more?).

So to me, the argument has to be one that demonstrates the talent around Lebron was sufficient to expect a championship, so arguments about what the team did because of Lebron aren't particularly relevant.

Here's what I see: this year, the Cavs have the third worst point differential in the East, and that's with a slightly easier than average schedule according to Hollinger's power rankings. That isn't good. Last year the team was -5.5 points per 48 minutes when Lebron wasn't on the court. Still not good (pretty close to what they've been doing this year). The year before that they were -7.3 with Lebron off the court, and -8.4 the year before that. To be blunt...that's bad. There were only 4 teams last year with a point differential of -5 or worse (one of them was -5.1, the others substantially worse than 5). When Lebron doesn't play, they're pretty darn bad, and of course, analyzing the team individually leads me to the same conclusion.

So overall, my interpretation of "they didn't create a contender" is that they did a very poor job surrounding Lebron with actual talent. I believe that to be true, and that's how I interpret a statement that they weren't title contenders anytime I read it. As Buena notes, just because they didn't win a title doesn't mean they weren't real contenders/wouldn't have done it had random variation played out differently, so I do buy your premise that they were real contenders...it's just Lebron James was THE reason for that. The rest of the team wasn't good, and not even in the same stratosphere as the kind of talent superstars that have won championships have had to support them. If you expect a superstar to win a championship, you have to give him more to work with than the Cavs gave Lebron.

 
At 2:44 PM, Anonymous Detroit said...

I think one of the most underrated issues and you brought it up, is that Lebron not committing to the Cavs really tied their hands in what they could do. Many forget but in free agent periods prior to his, the talk was that many top tier players were concerned about committing to the Cavs because Lebron wasn't. Also, the types of moves you make if you only have one or two years are totally different if you know you have more time.

It can't be argued that Lebron was THE reason for their contending status. But they did contend. The players were brought specifically to play with Lebron and to be able to do so quickly. Anything outside of tailor made pieces didn't fit so well. Like Shaq and even Antwan Jamison to a degree. They couldn't get talented players and hope that they would come together over time, because they didn't have time. And as you see in Miami right now even with top tier talent time is always necessary.

 
At 2:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a terrible article. Sorry to say. Its a testament to Lebrons ability that they were even in finals, let alone the playoffs. Who's the best player lebron has played with? Anyone on parkers, manus, gasol, bynum, odom, amare, garnett/allen, etc.

The argument everyone makes is, aside form lebron, the team wasn't good. It was only because he's the best basketball player in the league that they made it that far.

I remember someone compared jordans bulls without jordan (i guess you could say pippens bulls (or kukoch?)). They lost like 5-6 fewer games and made it to the conference finals. Thats how you know they were a championship contender. Take lebron off of the cavs and its just pathetic.

 
At 4:14 PM, Blogger Codysseus said...

This post is pretty spot on. The idea that Lebron single-handedly carried the Cavs to 60+ wins two years in a row is ridiculous. That team was one of, if not the deepest team in the NBA last year. I'm willing to grant that they didn't have a reliable number 2 option last year because Mo Williams is 1) not that great and 2) especially not great in the playoffs. However, given more time with a set rotation could only have helped.

JJ Hickson had a very nice year and was pretty much out of the rotation in the playoffs when Shaq was just returning from an injury and Z was just recently brought back. They clearly had very little chemistry, which is incredibly important (see: Miami Heat.) The team clearly had the size and depth to compete with the Lakers, as you could see by catching either of the two games in which they dominated them during the regular season.

I have a hard time buying that Lebron didn't have a single teammate better than Lamar Odom. Sure, Odom at his best is a beast, but it's not like that has ever happened on a remotely regular basis. There are several players on the Cavs who I would have kept alongside Lebron over Odom. For example, if the Lakers offered LO for Anderson Varejao, there's not a chance I would pull the trigger if I were running the Cavs. Varejao brought far too much on a consistent basis despite his lackluster offensive game. It'd be tough to even give up Hickson for Odom at that point, honestly. JJ was also consistent, is much younger, and had outstanding chemistry with Lebron.

His team surely did let him down against the Magic in '09 but in '10 the only people to blame are Lebron for inexplicably quitting in game 5 and the basketball gods for not allowing the Cavs more time to get a solid rotation and develop chemistry. If Lebron, Delonte, Shaq, and Z stayed with the Cavs, I'd wager between 5-8 "Chosen 1" tattoos that they'd have won more regular season games than least year and once again be a serious contender.

 
At 4:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i don't think any of us believe that the cavs werent good enough to win the last 2 or 3 years. i think for lebron it was about the next 5 years. cleveland left themselves in a horrible cap situation with no young talent at all. jamison is over hte hill, mo williams is getting older, anthony parker is over the hill, and z is wayyyyyyy over the hill. that team would certainly have been worse this year than last.

thats the real reason why lebron went to miami. the next 10 years, not hte last 3.

 
At 2:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course he could have won in Cleveland. That is the painful truth for Cleveland fans. But he didn't, and then he had to sign a contract.

Watching him over the years I think Lebron must be one of the best teammates you could have. He really *wanted* to believe in his guys (maybe up until game 5).

Anderson Varejao over Lamar Odom, tough call, but getting to work with (play with) someone as talented as Dwyane Wade? You can see it when they're sitting on the sidelines together, or at least imagine, that the level of conversation regarding basketball has just got to be much much higher than whatever Lebron and Mo Williams or whoever could have put together.

I'm just glad the Heat have come out playing badly so they get rid of the "too easy" stigma and they'll get to just play.

But the Cavs were great.

 
At 3:51 AM, Anonymous yogi said...

Spot on.

Only a fool would say that the Cavs were not legitimate championship contenders for at least the final two years.How can a team with the best record not be a contender? And what a defense! That defense was definitely championship level.The Cavs would have beat the Lakers last year, if only LeBron didn't give up on the team.

Also. I hate that everybody praised Lebron when the Cavs won so much, but every playoff loss is the supporting cast's fault. I'd like for a little more consistency.

 
At 8:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yogi, their defense was good, but let's not act like they were historically great or anything. They were tied for 6th best in the NBA last season. The defense was also 8.4 points per 48 minutes better when Lebron was on the court than when he was off it. So yes, a good defense, but Lebron was definitely a contributor, and it wasn't the kind of defense that can carry a team to a championship or anything.

And your statement that the Cavs could have beat the Lakers if Lebron didn't give up on his team is patently absurd on so many levels. They lost in the second round of the playoffs in a series where Lebron averaged 26.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game on 55.6% TS%. Lebron "gave up"? Are you serious? Why, because he didn't exhibit the body language you've decided someone has to exhibit to be trying? I'm sorry, but when a wing grabs 19 rebounds in a game (like Lebron did in game 6), there's simply no way to say said player "gave up". You don't put up that kind of performance by giving up. Just for some context, Kobe averaged 28.6 points, 8 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game on a meager 52.8% TS% against the Celtics in the Finals. Good thing he had good teammates to win it for him, huh?

And praising Lebron when the Cavs win and blaming the other players when they lose IS consistent. Lebron was the team. His teammates were not good. When they won, it was because Lebron was that awesome. When they lost, it was because not even the awesomeness of Lebron (as a player) was enough to overcome his teammates lack of talent. It is a very consistent storyline, that can be backed up by very strong evidence. For instance, the Cavs had a +11.1 points per 48 minute point differential with Lebron on the court last year. They were -4.6 when he wasn't on the court. Two years ago it was +15.1 on, -5.9 off. Essentially, when he was playing, they were pretty much the best team in the NBA. When he was on the bench, they were among the worst.

I'd also like to point out after last night's stomping, the Heat are now tied witht he Spurs for the best point differential in the NBA (while playing a slightly above average difficulty record), whereas the Cavs are sitting at 2nd worst in the Eastern Conference. And that championship caliber Cavs defense? Right now it's ranked #20 in the NBA.

 
At 10:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You don't pick on Henry Abbott.

Instead, you break Henry Abbott's hands.

And you shoot Colin Cowdung, Stuart Scott, and/or Kirk Herbstreet on sight.

 
At 1:03 AM, Blogger JTjarks said...

Is someone really trying to say they wouldn't trade JJ Hickson for Lamar Odom? That Andy Varejao is better than him? Yes, Odom is flighty and takes regular season games off ... that's because they do not matter!

In a seven-game series, LO is FAR more valuable than Andy V. C'mon. Are we really going to have to debate this?

 
At 4:25 PM, Anonymous Joel said...

Here's the thing about those Cavs teams: what made them successful was not the individual talent, but the way the pieces fit around LeBron. Ferry surrounded him with spot-up shooters (Williams, West, Gibson, Parker) and active cutters (Varejao, Hickson, Moon, Jamison) who could score efficiently while allowing LeBron to dominate the ball. Given the constant pressure to build a contender before LeBron bolted, I'm not sure they could have done a great deal more. Of course when your team is built around one player being a big-time scorer and the de facto PG, that team is going to struggle when that player is off the floor. That doesn't mean it was a poorly constructed team. Tim Duncan won a title in 2003 with a similar roster - before Parker and Ginobili became starts and long after Robinson's time at that level had passed. That team didn't have a player as good individually as Lamar Odom either.

 
At 7:52 AM, Blogger Codysseus said...

JTjarks:

I wasn't saying that Varejao is better than Odom, he obviously isn't as skilled or as athletic. What I'm saying is that Varejao provided the defense, cutting, and rebounding that anchored that Cavs defense. I wouldn't trade that for Lamar Odom. I also wouldn't give up what Odom brings to the Lakers for Varejao.

Trading Hickson for Odom is tough for me based largely on how well he and Lebron gelled last season and how young he is. If Lebron was sticking around, JJ would be a decent young player to have growing alongside him. With Lebron on his way out, Odom could have provided more rebounding, shooting, and playmaking immediately but it'd be tough for me to pull the trigger on that trade midseason due to how it'd affect team chemistry, something I feel was greatly lacking come playoff time. I might do it, but I might not. Weren't the Cavs hesitant to give up JJ and Z to get Amare last year or was that just some rumor I remember?

 
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At 12:20 AM, Blogger Colin Zvosec said...

Thank you! Finally someone who doesn't have short-term memory loss.

 
At 5:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As formerly mentioned the cavs were build around Lebron. He was the piece that made every other piece work. That's why they suck right now. The Miami experiment with three ball dominant player will never work

 
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