Lakers and Cavs: Numbers for the NBA Finals

Lakers and Cavs; Who ya got?

Lakers and Cavs; Who ya got?

A question was proposed recently that got me thinking: did the Los Angeles Lakers really play a more difficult schedule than the Cleveland Cavaliers? The typical answer to this question would be yes, of course, especially when you consider that 8 of the teams with the 11 best records in the NBA played in the Western Conference. As is argued in this article here, some people out there believe that the Lakers’ 65-17 record in the West is more impressive and more praiseworthy than the Cavaliers’ 66-16 record in the East. My answer to this question is much different, however, as I would counter with the fact that 6 of the 7 teams with the worst records in the NBA also resided in the Western Conference.

This post will include tons of numbers and statistics that I recently posted on my Web site. As the numbers show, against these six incredibly bad teams that totaled a record of 136-356 at the cellar of the West, along with the Washington Wizards at the bottom of the East, the Lakers were 24-1 while the Cleveland Cavaliers were 14-2. This then puts both the two teams’ already impressive staggering end of season win-loss records in a little bit more perspective. The Lakers only went 41-16 against the rest of the NBA, while the Cavaliers still were an unbelievable 52-14.

Considering that most people would argue that the Western Conference was much more difficult to play in, you would then think that the Lakers would have no problem romping through the mediocre East. This is not what happened at all in real life, as the Lakers were only 21-9 against the entire Eastern Conference. The Cleveland Cavaliers, by comparison, went 40-12 against the teams in their own conference.

So when you really look at the facts, middle-of-the-order teams in the Western Conference really were not all that good. The Dallas Mavericks, who set an NBA record with their 9th consecutive 50-win season this year, went 18-6 against these bottom seven teams (meaning they were 32-26 against the rest of the NBA). The Houston Rockets, who are 53-29 and are hoping to win their first playoff series in 12 years as a #5 seed against the Portland Trailblazers, went 20-4 against these teams (meaning they were 33-25 against the rest of the NBA). Those records do not look as daunting now when you compare them to the middle-of-the-order teams in the East.

There were really only nine competitive teams at all in the Western Conference. Six teams were absolutely miserable, enabling teams such as the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, etc. to pad their win-loss record with easy victories every week or so. Against these eight legitimately competitive teams in the West, the Lakers had a record of 22-7 with an average differential of +6.83. Against these eight teams, the Cavaliers went 14-2, the best such record in the NBA, with an average differential of +9.44.

My point is that the Western Conference is as weak as it is strong, and in the end the Cleveland Cavaliers came out on top of the NBA with their 66 wins this season. I took a long look at the schedules for the two teams this season, and if you were to average everything out for the Lakers and Cavaliers playing every team in the NBA twice, the results are quite drastic. Since the Lakers were able to play the Clippers, Grizzlies, Timberwolves, Kings and Warriors a combined 20 times this season, their schedule was comparatively easier. Thus, going through all the math, I came up with the Lakers at 44.5-13.5 and the Cavaliers at 48-10.

The Lakers certainly had the Cavs number in the two match-ups between the teams this season, but when looking at the total math, there certainly is no doubt that on paper, the Cavaliers were the more impressive team. To highlight the differences between the West and the East, the Cavaliers went 40-7 with an average differential of +10.32 against teams with win totals between 30-49. The Lakers, on the other hand, only went 23-10 against these teams with an average differential of +5.33. The Eastern Conference was more competitive than the West this season, as from top to bottom every single team had the potential to beat any other team (for example, those pesky 15th place Wizards split the season series with the Cavs).

Many experts are already predicting that a Lakers-Cavs NBA Finals is already a foregone conclusion, and if this is the case many people will point out the Lakers two victories over the Cavaliers this season and their “tougher” schedule out in the West. What I will point out instead, is that the Lakers have had their inconsistencies this season, have not beaten the teams they should have beaten every single night, and really did not play in a much more difficult conference at all . It was easier to put up a 65-win season in the West than the East this year, and thus I think that the ability of the Cavaliers to win the East in such a convincing fashion proves a lot as we start out the long stretch of the NBA Playoffs.

For the detailed math, check out my blog:

  • AboutTime

    Thanks for this! The West hasn’t been the better of the two conferences all season. The East won more games head to head against the West, & as you pointed out the West has six of the seven bottom feeders in the league… Which translates into more wins for the Western playoff teams.

  • Eric

    Jacob you bring up great points throughout your article and I agree that the Cavs schedule was equally as difficult as the Lakers.

    That being said, this website took a stand recently about not discussing the Browns and their poor off-season moves. Now that movement wasn’t completely followed through and with good reason, as news about the Browns should carry weight no matter how disappointed, frustrating or unfortunate it is. With the nature of that movement in mind, from this point forward I personally, and I invite you all to carry this out with me, will not engage in any discussions nor read any articles regarding a Lakers-Cavs final until that event occurs.

    We have a game tomorrow. The Cavaliers are focused on that game and so am I. Beat Detroit.

    Again Jacob, I do not mean this as disrespect to you or your facts, I agree with your article. I just wanted to voice my opinion and think we should enjoy this one game at a time because none of us know when something like this is going to happen again and since that’s the case. I don’t want to miss a minute of it.

  • Eric – You make a good point that we should not look forward beyond the task at hand. To that point I agree.

    However, we can’t also think that the team is going to lose. I know you’re not implying that at all, but I think that Rick put it quite well yesterday with his “Jose Mesa” post. We need to have confidence in our team’s ability, especially with a team as special as this one.

    Also, it wasn’t this entire site that said no more Browns coverage – it was just one writer, TD. I think one thing that goes somewhat glossed over is the fact that there are now ten people writing for this site. TD has yet to write on the Browns since he wrote the moratorium article. However, the other nine writers have written and will write about the Browns, whenever the Browns decide they need to distract us from more pertinent topics (like the NFL always tries to do).

  • phil

    Great work, Jacob.

    It is necessary to remind sports fans that while “numbers don’t lie” — how many times do we have to hear that refrain as if it actually explained something? — numbers do not choose themselves, either. Nor do they fit themselves within arguments all by themselves. That is the work of human hands, and whether or not the work is done well is a matter for human judgment.

    In this case, Jacob does a great job of framing the numbers against a backdrop of a well-known general perception to show that that general perception is problematic.

    Incidentally, this excellent article at ESPN by Rob Peterson on why LeBron is the runaway MVP this season (LINKED) states that, because the Cavs did not beat LA during the regular season or perform consistently well against a few other top teams, LA would be favored should it meet the Cavs in the finals. I wonder, though, if this one weak point in the Cavs’ performance this season is really all that troubling. Mind you, I have no problem with LA being favored if it comes to that. The Cavs, I think, would perform well as underdogs, and they would do it with home court advantage.

  • You left out the amount of minutes LeBron plays against bad teams. The Cavs play him when they are up 21 just to get him stats. Kobe sat out of the fourth quarter 8 times this season.

  • I’ve been preaching this gospel to anyone who would listen, so thanks for posting this. I find it intolerable that the majority of high profile NBA analysts still subscribe to the presupposition that the West is still much stronger, even though five minutes of internet research and some common sense easily prove otherwise. It’s like they don’t even watch the games at all. The ABC/ESPN studio crew is especially inept. I’m starting to think Avery Johnson may have been exiled from coaching basketball mainly because he doesn’t know squat about basketball. Plus he has a funny voice- YES I WENT THERE.

    Also, I’d like to point out that the Lakers were owned by the Bobcats all year, and lost to the 76ers at home in a game they needed to keep pace with the Cavs. A 76er squad that needed overtime to scarcely overcome the end of the Cavalier’s bench. And furthermore, the hero for Philly that night against LA was our pal Donyell Marshall, a man who no longer has a vertical leap or a discernible neck. He too has a funny voice. Coincidence? Yes.

    The Lakers’ big win total may be overrated, is what I’m saying.

  • phil

    Good chime-in bitmatt (#6). I personally cannot count the number of times I have heard someone ask Kenny Smith for an analysis of a situation only to see Smith respond with unsupported opinion. “I think Team A beats Team B.” Does this guy think he is divine, or is he seriously that dull? Since his divine status must at least be an unresolved question (as in the nature of any divinity), you might think that his employer would insist that he give an analysis and not merely opinion when all we hear from him are out-of-nowhere preferences. To make matters worse, Yahoo! Sports always asks for the shaman’s “predictions” at the end of each “interview.” Sheesh… predictions based on what? Prejudice?

    To be fair, Kenny Smith does occasionally support his views, and he does so more often in his writing, where his grandstanding presumptuousness and mighty air are measured somewhat by the frequent use of words. But when he does bother to cite evidence, he relies on the kind of hazy bunk that Jason has dismantled in his post. It basically amounts to chatter from the men’s room of this sort: “The West is far better than the East.”

    Wow, what killer insight! Give the wise man a raise! Someone light the incense next to his podium should he grace our screens again! All hail, the Mighty Analyst!

  • AboutTime

    #5 Mark is a troll & has no idea what he’s talking about in regards to the Cavs. LeBron sat out more quarters than Kobe did this season. Go back to your hole troll. Get a TV in there & watch some actual games that don’t involve the Lakers.

  • Lol, you watch a game without the Cavs, and do some research.

  • DKH

    Sure, #5 should post the corresponding stat for James. But as long as we’re talking about minutes against bad teams, here are some numbers against the seven teams below 30 wins:

    588 minutes played
    36.8 minutes per game
    19.3% of his total minutes

    861 minutes played
    34.5 minutes per game
    29.1% of his total minutes

    So, sure, LeBron played more minutes per game against those teams, but he also played a much smaller fraction of his minutes against them. To compare the “amount of minutes LeBron [and Kobe play] against bad teams” isn’t favorable to Kobe.

  • Interesting stats you got there DKH, I would be intrigued to see where you got those and/or all the effort you put into it. I didn’t know those numbers, I had yet to look them up at all.

  • DKH

    There was virtually no effort. I went to ESPN’s stats/splits pages and used the calculator on my computer. 🙂

    It’s just a subset of the argument you made in the original post. The Lakers played more games against those teams (compared to the Cavs), so the players naturally have more minutes against them (assuming no injuries, yadda yadda, which is true for these two players).

  • B-bo

    Stats don’t win titles–players do. I’m beyond tired of conversations about stats–be it LeBron’s ppg, Kobe’s “clutch shots”, the Browns “strength of schedule”, or any of the myriad other numbers–being talked about as decisive, one way or the other. For example, assembled full-season stats from the NBA in the ’04-’05 season, and used them to identify the “most clutch” player in the league that season (see the address below). The winner? Manu Ginobili. Now, does anyone here really feel that Manu was THE guy they wanted on their team in crunch time, game on the line–be it that or ANY season? Numbers may not lie, but that doesn’t mean they tell the whole truth. They are ultimately subjective in how they are gathered (ask Bron after that “triple double that wasn’t” at MSG this year) and interpreted (hello, NFL QB rating system), and they age poorly (the Babe’s HR totals versus, say, Manny’s, por ejemplo). I know stats are part of the sports fan language, and they can be fun to kick around, but frankly it gets foolish at times when people want to use them as “proof” of anything. Hopefully it ends up Cavs-Lakers at the end, so all this Kobe v. LeBron talk can be settled the only place that matters: on the court. Go Cavs.

  • Wow good work there DKH, I am pretty impressed with what you did there.

    @ #13 B-bo

    My argument was not to say that the Cavaliers will certainly win the NBA title this season because the East was better. I simply looked to show all of the statistics and numbers possible behind the idea that the West was not better. The Lakers played a comparatively easier schedule, and thus even though the Lakers beat the Cavaliers twice, on paper, the Cavaliers without a doubt had the more impressive season.

    You bring up a good point in that no matter what the story, the reference or the sport, stats do not tell us everything. Usually for myself, I look at efficiency numbers which tell what players do per 48 minutes played, and those can be especially misleading as players are in different positions on different teams every time they come on the court. You are exactly right, but my statistics were here simply to point out that I believe the East was just as good and certainly more competitive than the West, not that the Cavaliers are necessarily the favorites to win the Finals.

  • B-bo


    And you did a fine job laying everything out and discussing it, and I don’t mean to seem belittling of your work–I appreciate your obvious attention to detail. My displeasure was more a general one abot the larger issue of “stats as sports judge/god” rather than specifically about your piece here, in which you are careful to note that the numbers reinforce your own opinion–rather than PROVE anything beyond any doubt. The “Kobe v. ‘Bron” argument that arose is more my issue, and to me, reducing that to mere stats insults both players. The fact is, having watched both, I believe LBJ to be the MVP and better overall player. Can I “prove” it? Of course not. Like politics and religion, it’s all about belief, not hard fact.

  • DKH

    Thanks Mr. Rosen.

    In response to B-bo, the way I see it (based on reading about the application of advanced stats to baseball), there are three purposes for advanced stats (in no particular order):

    1. Put a value on strategies for use in the present.
    2. Put a value on a player’s likely future contributions.
    3. Put a value on a player’s past contributions, generally for award purposes, but also in a descriptive statistics sense.


    Baseball example: Steals were found to be overvalued in that they usually cost runs, rather than manufacture them. So far as I can tell, steals are limited by the advanced stats teams, i.e. the A’s, and I think Cleveland has been part of this trend.
    Basketball example: Not sure, but teams have identified shooting trends in whether a player shoots better off the dribble, going left/right, etc. I could see stats being used to decide whether to go over or under a pick.

    This I think is pretty clear. How much was Varejao worth to the Cavs this year? How much should they be willing to spend on him to keep him next year?

    This is our current discussion. So yea, it’s kinda looking at the past. But it is still important beyond the player vs. player debate. We have to understand how a player contributes to his team in order to stop that player. These discussions support the other two purposes of advanced stats.

    I might never convince a Kobe fan that LeBron is MVP, because I’ll have one interpretation of the statistics and he’ll have another. And the 30 teams in the NBA might have 30 more interpretations. That’s part of the fun. If everyone thought the same, then trades like Devin Harris for Jason Kidd or Shaq for Marion don’t happen.

  • Sweet Jesus, the math majors are coming out in droves this weekend.

    In my line of work nothing can be proven, only disproven. I took up chemistry to avoid math. The only numbers that matter to me are on my golf scorecard and up at the top left of this page.

    Oh, and also the fact that I’m #1.

  • So between golf and running and his arbitrary placement, Denny prefers to do things where he tries to keep his numbers as low as possible.

    Want to go bowling, Denny? I’ll happily bet on it.

  • Gaffigan sums up my thoughts on bowling pretty well – how about we run a race? I’ll happily bet on that.

  • AboutTime

    #9 was a witty response Mark… throwing my challenge to you back in my face! You really got me there, oh, but wait – you’re main point is still wrong. But I’m glad you’re here Mark. You’re the type of person that needs to soak up the stats put forth in this post to realize a) The Eastern conference was better than the West this year b) The Cavs schedule was more difficult than the Lakers c) That being said LeBron still sat out more fourth quarters than Kobe d) If you can’t accept reality you are & forever will be a troll stuck in your little hole.

  • B-bo


    The Harris for Kidd trade stuns me to this day–maybe the numbers made sense to someone involved in that mess, but it ignored a little thing I like to call common sense. Give me the young up-and-coming start over the washed-up vet any day.

  • TSR3000

    Are you trying to jinx the cavs? WTF

  • JM

    This is why I don’t bother with the national media anymore. The same idiots who said the Lakers were more impressive and had a tough schedule also say the Lakers should cruise to the Finals. How does that make sense? Then really they are saying the West isn’t that good. Trust me when an analyst says LeBron is not MVP that is where I stop taking them serious.

  • Cavs Fan

    Nice post, Jacob, and the research about the effect of having 6 doormats in the West is enlightening.

    In terms of whether playing in the East was a benefit or detriment for the Cavs, in contrast to the Lakers playing in the West, I have a simpler metric: Both the Cavs and the Lakers had much better records against the West than the East.

    Cavs vs. East: 40-12 (.769)
    Cavs vs. West: 26-4 (.867)
    Cavs vs. West teams other than Lakers: 26-2 (.929)
    In other words, the Cavs’ record against the Lakers’ Western conference opponents was 16% better than their record against their own Eastern conference opponents.

    Lakers vs. East: 21-9 (.700)
    Lakers vs. East teams other than Cavs: 19-9 (.679)
    Lakers vs. West: 44-8 (.846)
    So the Lakers’ record against the Cavs’ Eastern conference opponents was 17% worse than their record against their own Western conference opponents.

    Those differentials are too pronounced (and too consistent) to be a mere product of chance, and they demonstrate that as a whole the Eastern conference was a much tougher place to play for BOTH the Cavs and the Lakers.

    Looked at another way, if you switched the Cavs to the West and the Lakers to the East, and they both maintained those exact same winning percentages over the course of a full season in the opposite conference (and the Lakers also beat the Cavs in both meetings, just like this season), the Lakers would finish a still-impressive 61-21, but the Cavs would be a mind-blowing 70-12.

  • ken

    Think about it like this. Take away those 6 bad teams in the west, every team other than that is a playoff team in the east. Yes the good teams in the west dominate those bad teams, but the reason there record is weaker against the rest of the league is because most of those games against “the rest of the league” are in fact against top tier west teams. Saying the west is weaker because they have more abysmal teams is just dumb. It’s like saying the east is better because they have 3 of the top 4 teams. As for the Lakers record against the east, everyone knows they play bad against opponents they dont respect, which is basically all of the east, unlike the west where there are 8 or 9 teams that are very good, not just kinda good like in the east.