In his letter published on Sports Illustrated where he told the world that he was coming back to the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James didn’t pour too much optimism into the Cavs’ chances of winning a title next year or in the nearby future.
“I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach.”
Whether or not you believe in conspiracy theories about how LeBron knew the Cavaliers would be trading for Kevin Love, right now it would seem like LeBron’s view on the Cavaliers’ immediate title chances are a bit pessimistic. The Cavs added one of the top-10 players in the league – in addition to the very best one – and in the weaker Eastern Conference, that should give you a great chance of at least making the NBA Finals. At that point, anything can happen.
There are still some questions surrounding Love and how good he is. “Kevin Love has never even made the playoffs” and “Kevin Love chases his stats” are some of the most common things you hear. The simplest counter argument to that is: “Yes, but look at those stats. They are insane.”
Love is a terrific player, and plays a position (stretch big) that is insanely valuable to an NBA offense. We all know what Love can do, he’s a tenacious rebounder, versatile scorer and a great playmaker. Yet the question remains on whether or not he helps his team win. The Timberwolves’ on-off statistics from last season show just how valuable he is; when Love was on the court the Wolves were a +5.6 per 100 possessions compared to a -5.3 when he sat. The equivalent of which is going from the Houston Rockets to the Orlando Magic in net rating, just by subbing out one guy.
The point here isn’t to argue how good Love is, just that he’s really good. Based on that assumption, let’s look at how the Cavaliers are statistically expected to do with him on board.
There are a few statistics that try to count how many wins a particular players produces, but my favorite one is Win Shares due to its accuracy (average absolute error of only 2.74 wins). Based on last season’s performance, not accounting for yearly development or decline of players and assuming relative health, I calculated a projected win total for the Cavaliers next season (according to rumors the Cavs are likely to add Ray Allen, who would sway this calculation by two or three wins. For reference, last year the Cavs accumulated 34.1 win shares en route to 33 wins).
Estimated minute distribution:
This assumes LeBron will get some time as a power forward. You can tinker with the minutes a bit but this should at least give some direction.
Estimated Win Total: 55 wins
You can argue with the minutes distribution for Dion Waiters, for example, but he doesn’t actually move the needle at all here, providing only a plus 2.2 wins based on his performance last season. The numbers for him should go up, considering they are so poor right now and LeBron has a history of making his teammates better. 55 wins is probably in the lower echelon of projections, considering that the Cavs have at least two young players in Irving and Waiters who should improve next season.
55-win teams don’t usually win championships, as shown by the chart below which illustrates how your probability of winning a championship increases as your win total grows.
Statistically speaking at least, the Cavaliers look like they are right on the precipice of title contention, because right at the 55-win mark your odds of winning a title start to increase almost exponentially. The Cavs do have a few things going for them; as mentioned earlier, Irving and especially Waiters should improve. Second, they have LeBron James. Third, they play in the East, which cannot be overstated.
Even though the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race may have become more competitive, with the Indiana Pacers out of title contention due to Paul George‘s injury, only the Chicago Bulls look like a real championship caliber team right now. And that’s assuming Derrick Rose stays healthy and plays at a somewhat high level.
For the Cavs, it’ll take time to figure out how to play together. They have a rookie head coach and some questions regarding front line depth and rim protection if Anderson Varejao gets injured again, but generally speaking they are in a very good place and probably closer to winning a title than most people realize.
The point is that there’s a statistical argument that can be made for the Cavs and a realistic possibility that they could win the title already next season. It’s not that farfetched.
Now they probably won’t be able to build a championship caliber defense to go along with what should be a top-5 offense (based on history they would have to be around the 7-8 range at least), but if they can make it to the Finals who knows what can happen?
*Stats per Basketball-Reference.com.