The Diff: Cavs big men trio among NBA’s best of late

The Diff is your weekly WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Last week, I wrote about “ace” Justin Masterson’s future with the Cleveland Indians. This week, it’s back to basketball to talk Cavaliers big men.

The Diff

The Cleveland Cavaliers have suddenly won four of their last five games. During these contests, the triumvirate of Andrew Bynum, Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson has averaged a combined 37.6 points and 32.0 rebounds on 54.9% true shooting. The resurgence of these three has been a huge reason for the recent streak. Now that they’re all (currently) healthy, they might be one of the best frontcourts in the very weak Eastern Conference and perhaps in the entire NBA. Let’s dive into their recent success and look at their possible future together in leading the Cavs.

Andrew Bynum’s interior play

Among the three, the 26-year-old Bynum has the biggest potential for the franchise’s future. A near-MVP candidate for Mike Brown in Los Angeles in 2011-12, he didn’t play a single game last year or in the preseason. But over the last week, he’s looked like an All-Star after a rough start to the season.

In his first 12 games through Nov. 29, the 7-footer was rusty to say the least. He wasn’t able to handle consistent minutes, but even in those opportunities, he wasn’t finishing his offensive looks. He shot just 37.0% from the field in his first 81 field goal attempts, including a terrible 7-for-24 (29.2%) mark from the restricted area. For comparison, his previous career shooting percentage from that area was exactly 40% higher – all the way at 69.2%. He was one of the NBA’s most unstoppable big men.

Now, over these last five games, Bynum’s been back to his forceful ways in the paint, converting on 17-of-23 (73.9%) of those signature restricted area opportunities. With that success, he’s been attacking more frequently, not settling for those awkward eight-footers as often. He’s averaging 15 points and 8.8 rebounds over this stretch in an average of 25 minutes per contest. Hardly anyone could have predicted Bynum to be this healthy and effective this early in the season.

Anderson Varejao’s mid-range game

Trivia question: Who is the current NBA leader in mid-range shooting efficiency1? No, it’s not LaMarcus Aldridge, who astoundingly has attempted 70 more such shots than anyone else this year. The correct answer is actually none other than Anderson Varejao at 55.2%. He’s converted on 32-of-58 such shots this season, a remarkable percentage for a guy oft-regarded with little natural offensive game.

During the preseason, in a season-long storylines post and an article about Kirk Goldsberry’s ShotScore statistic, I openly criticized Varejao’s mid-range game. Last season, a career-high 29% of his shots came from this range at a solid 41.4% clip. It was above the league average – established at about 40% – but I felt the notoriously inefficient mid-range shots shouldn’t have to be part of his game. These shots had only been about 17% of his offensive game in the past, so why the sudden urge to step back?

Well, he’s proven why this season with his very impressive rate. With Bynum clogging the paint and the need for Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters to attack the rim, Varejao’s been knocking down open jumpers left and right. Mid-range opportunities have ballooned to 40% of his shots – and rightfully so. Kudos to Fear The Sword’s David Zavac for rightfully calling me out on this topic. Varejao’s suddenly elite floor spacing has been a huge reason the Cavs aren’t even worse than they are offensively.

Tristan Thompson’s defensive rebounding

In his brief NBA career, the 23-year-old Tristan Thompson already has proven to be an elite offensive rebounder. He’s always averaged at least 4 such boards per 36 minutes. Over the past three seasons, his 13.4% offensive rebounding percentage ranks eighth in the league among players with 2,000 minutes. He has a knack for that side of the game, enabling lots of his trademark easy looks at the rim.

But also after a slow start, Thompson has emerged with one of his finest stretches on the defensive boards2. In his first 12 games, he had a 19.3% defensive rebounding percentage. That was way lower than last year’s far improved 22.2% mark. But in the last nine contests, Thompson is all the way up to 26.3%. That ranks among the top 20 in the NBA, along with a certain shaggy-haired teammate.3

Some of the knocks against the Canadian’s game have been his slowly developing touch with his right-hand shooting, his lack of assists and, for a long time, his below-average defensive rebounding. The free-throw shooting is up to a very respectable 72.2%. His assists are up a modest amount of late. And the defensive rebounding is showing signs of dominance as well. With this added facet, he nearly already is one of the best rebounding bigs in the game.

The trio’s future

The biggest caveat with the success of Bynum-Varejao-Thompson (and the success of the Cavaliers as a whole) is the illustriously small sample size. We’re talking about only a dominant five-game stretch. The Cavs started the year 4-12. That sample is larger, although also still quite small. The season is one-fourth over, but we really don’t know everything we eventually will about this roster.

But the production from this frontcourt trio has been as good as any such grouping in the league. All three are rebounding at least 8.8 per night during this stretch. All three are scoring at least 8.2 per night. They’ve been efficient offensively from a variety of spaces on the court. The defense has remained consistent. That frontcourt production largely hasn’t been seen since another trio involving Bynum and Mike Brown — the 2011-12 Lakers with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom.

Most importantly, these Bynum-Varejao-Thompson are averaging a total of 85 minutes per game of late. During the first 16 games of the season, that average was only 75 minutes, most notably as Bynum missed four of the contests. The Cavs are actually staying close in games and all three have delivered with their steady time on the court.

Specifically with the rotation, I dug into some stats on exactly how these three players have been used on the court for the first 16 games and the last five. The chart below shows minutes played, +/- and +/- per 48 minutes. The usual caveats apply with +/- analysis and small sample sizes, but it’s at least intriguing to put this out for consideration.

cavs big men plus minus rotations

Bynum has had the worst+/- numbers of the three, with him struggling especially while playing alongisde either Varejao or Thompson. Of late, the starting lineup of Thompson-Bynum has received heavy minutes, while Varejao continues to receive a decent amount of minutes as the lone member of the trio on the court with the team’s struggling bench. I won’t dive more into the +/- numbers, but the stats on the rotation certainly are fun to absorb.

Going forward, it will be fascinating to track how these three continue to perform. Bynum is a former All-Star on his way back. Varejao is an aging do-it-all energy big. Thompson is an up-and-coming former No. 4 pick. All three could be starters on most teams in the NBA, but it’s just a matter of how they can come together for possible Eastern Conference playoff appearance in 2013-14 for the Cavaliers.

Trade murmurs will certainly continue to swirl around Varejao. Because of his injury concerns, there’s no knowing what the market might be. And for Bynum, the team has a massive 2014-15 contract decision looming this summer that could affect its ability to engage in talks with other free agents. Thompson looks to be the future, but who knows how he otherwise could be bundled into some franchise-altering move.

For now, I’m enjoying the ride as the Cavaliers employ one of the biggest and most dominant big men rotations in the NBA. It’s certainly a pleasing transition from the days of Tyler Zeller, Ryan Hollins, Samardo Samuels, et al receiving heavy minutes.

  1. min. 25 such field goal attempts []
  2. and overall. Because of a 17-21 game and a 20-13 game, plus other solid performances, he’s been the statistical leader during this stretch, averaging 14.4 and 13.6. In his previous five games, that was just 5.0 and 7.8. Tripled the scoring and doubled the rebounding. []
  3. A quick note that Varejao has an even better 31.4% defensive rebounding mark during this nine-game stretch. But Varejao has established himself previously as above average in this light – he had a 30.4% stat last season. []

  • mgbode

    fantastic write-up and I love the level-set at the end to the days of Hollins.

    the only issue is that the entire time I was reading the pang inside my head kept repeating “so, why the heck did we draft Bennett” over and over. I really hope that whatever is wrong with him gets fixed because he’s been a real downer so far (still early, possible shoulder issue?, other things that he may adjust, etc.).

  • Steve

    Bynum wasn’t signed by draft day, and he and Varejao are not likely to be around for the long haul.

  • WFNYJacob

    Thanks for the kind words. Just discussed this comment with David Zavac. It’s a great comment. Made both of us think about it.

    I guess the two things about Bennett and the article. 1) Varejao might get traded. 2) Bennett’s offensive game still is different. He has a far better pedigree for mid-range shooting than any of these guys.

    Maybe that’s then the offensive game plan long-term. Varejao’s mid-range-heavy role would be Bennett. Certainly they are different players defensively and rebounding-wise, and that would have to be addressed. Bennett also has the pedigree of being an attacking scorer. But if Varejao is traded and also for long-term, Bennett should be able to shoot the mid-range shot in an offense alongside Bynum and Kyrie.

  • Jared Mueller

    JackeyStats… Seems like Bynum has struggled with his left, I think its just a timing/lift issue as he learns his new lift on his shots, any stats on him struggling greatly with his left compared to his right?

  • david

    and the problem, then, is what you do with Tristan. I don’t believe in Bennett as a SF at all, but eventually could be a solid PF. This is what I wrote write after the draft about TT and Bennett sharing the court together. I think with Tristan’s improved defensive rebounding, he can spend some time at the 5. Offensively, TT and Bennett could complement each other well.

    defensively, it’s a little scary.

  • david

    but if you see Bennett as a 6th man type, as I kind of do, you can get him 25 minutes a game backing up TT and playing 10 minutes a game with him.

  • mgbode

    yes, that is a good point. they very possibly saw the need for the mid-range shooting from a big and didn’t know if Andy could handle it (or were thinking long-term). there was no way of knowing he would be so much better this year there.

    as for Andy being traded, I still think he will be worth more to the Cavs than to other teams and he’ll stay for his contract (at least). sort of like Asdrubal on the Tribe in that we always seem to be talking about a trade that never seems to actually happen.

    mostly though, my comment was embedded with the growing frustration in what is so far a wasted pick. I truly hope that he turns it around and think that he can, but something just has to change with him.

  • mgbode

    I’d love it if he could develop into part of a gangbusters bench guy at this point. If he and Waiters could pair up and just create an fast-paced offensive bench unit to counter-punch our starting unit (Dellavedova, Karasev and add in Andy) it could be fun.

    But, there’s a ton of development from our current state for them to even get to that point. I want to believe it can happen this season, but, particularly with Bennett, it seems like we’ll need an offseason to fix some of these issues.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Great breakdown, and would love to see the same analysis of the guards.

    One thing I’m finding interesting is that we saw early last year somewhat of a penchant for TT to struggle a bit with Andy in the game, as if they covered a lot of the same area. Now, that seems to be less of an issue, which is great. It’s also interesting to see the lineups in general, with the Cavs’ bench including a number of guys who could start elsewhere. Re-stating the obvious, Dion on the bench means more focus both among the starters and subs instead of the switching off. Letting Kryie/Dion play a few minutes together after they have both established themselves in the game is a better way for them to learn to play together.

    Side note: Much like the panic over the Cavs to start being overrated because teams take time to gel (think Miami a few years ago), I think the panic on Bennett is early for the same reasons.