When LeBron James announced that he would return to the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Cavs traded for Kevin Love soon after, many assumed it would be nothing but champagne and caviar as the Cavs cruised to 75 wins and a title. Okay, not everyone had the Cavs being the best team in the history of professional basketball. But it was hard not to be optimistic when LeBron James, who was coming off four NBA Finals appearances, was teaming up with All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Over-exuberance wasn’t unjustified.
But the ride hasn’t been as smooth as Cavs fans hoped. The Cavaliers lost the long-awaited home opener to the New York Knicks, then battled to 5-7 before going on an eight-game win streak and leveling out. Then LeBron James took a break to recover from knee and back strains and the team dropped six in a row, falling to 19-20. People called for David Blatt’s job as the media told tales of a mutiny in the organization. The Cavs have played better of late, clinching a sixth straight victory with a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday afternoon.
Yes, the ride of the 2014-15 season hasn’t been as smooth as Cavs fans hoped. It’s been less like the Millennium Force and more like the Mean Streak: the old, rickety wooden roller at Sandusky, Ohio’s Cedar Point. It began less a sleek, ultra-modern thrill ride to awesome heights, and more a vicious battering of mild heights that would smack you into a concussion if you lacked the vertebral fortitude to keep your neck straight. Everyone expect some imperfections in the track, but no one quite anticipated such a bumpy ride.
But fans and media alike should have been (and should remain) more patient for the Cavs to righten the track. The 2014-15 Cavaliers are the result of extraordinary turnover, so much so that the current team’s roster doesn’t even resemble the roster that went into last offseason in April, 2014. As a result, they Cavs have been forced to develop chemistry in a lab where the toxic media and poisonous expectations constantly threatened to spoil the experiment. Would their basketball brew be ruined before they had a chance to find the right recipe?
To appreciate how severe the Cavalier roster changes have been, take a look at the roster from last season, shown below.1 It looks familiar, but only faintly. Tristan Thompson and Kyrie Irving? Hey, those guys are still around! But further down the list, things start to get weird. Jarrett Jack—remember him? Dion Waiters was traded, Anderson Varejao is done for the season. Luol Deng’s gone, as is Tyler Zeller. Alonzo Gee! One thousand and twenty painful, painful minutes of Alonzo Gee. Anthony Bennett was sent away in the trade for Love. Remember the game Seth Curry played, the significantly less-gifted-at-basketball Curry brother? Yeah, I don’t either.
The point: The 2013-2014 roster rapidly disintegrated in the offseason, making way for the likes of LeBron James and Kevin Love. Hence why the above roster looks only vaguely recognizable. This is evident before looking at the numbers. Now, let’s look at the numbers.
The table below illustrates how drastic the turnover has been for the Cavaliers. Only five players from last season’s team have played a single minute this season. That’s 29th in the NBA, which is misleading in its own right because it’s tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for the least returning players in the entire NBA. Barely more than half of last season’s minutes, points, or rebounds were earned by players who played for the Cavs this year, near the bottom of the league in each category. All the other teams ranked in the high 20s for returning percentage of production are struggling mightily (the Indiana Pacers, the Miami Heat, the Orlando Magic, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Los Angeles Lakers are among them). The lone exception is the Dallas Mavericks, who have a long-time great coach, returned two of their best three players, and also brought back J.J. Barea and Tyson Chandler, former Mavericks that just weren’t on last season’s team.
Contrast the returning production for the Cavaliers with that of the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks have 12 players that returned this season, bringing with them 87.1 percent of their scoring. Other teams that brought back most of their production are the San Antonio Spurs, the Portland Trail Blazers, the Toronto Raptors, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Golden State Warriors. Continuity helps. A team returning 80-90 percent of its scoring would seem to have an edge over one returning barely one-half of its scoring like the Cavs.
So the Cavs had quite a challenge on their hands well before the roster upheaval they’ve experienced since the season began. Anderson Varejao’s season was cut short by an achilles injury. The front office traded away Dion Waiters, and traded or cut a few other lesser pieces (your ponytail will always be missed Lou Amundson). Through this transformation process, David Griffin added J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov, creating another challenge of integrating new pieces. As a result, the Cavaliers have had 14 different starting lineups (all shown below), the sixth most in the NBA. The Cavs’ record in games in which they’ve taken a new starting five for a spin is 4-10, compared with 21-10 in games in which they’ve recycled a previous starting lineup.
Combine all this with the mid-season roster changes, and the Cavaliers have undergone an extreme roster makeover seldom seen in the NBA before. It’s a been a true evolution, like watching a weak and feeble Caterpie evolve into a beautiful Butterfree (hell yea I just used a Pokémon simile!). After eliminating everyone who has played for the Cavs this year that is no longer a productive member of the team, what’s remaining is shown below.2 Every man that did not play for the Cavs last season is treated as a newcomer, and their per game totals are calculated and shown in the table.3 Look at all the newcomers! And look at how much the Cavs’ current totals are produced by newcomers.
The accompanying table summarizes the results. Ten of the 13 current Cavs contributors were not on last season’s team, not even for a moment. Of the Cavaliers’ current production, new roster additions are producing 70.3 percent of the minutes, 72.9 of the points, and 75.6 percent of the rebounds. That’s a staggering overhaul.
What’s lost in all of this is the task David Blatt had thrust upon him. Nobody’s going to shed a tear for a European import that received a giant promotion to lead an NBA franchise that miraculously happened into LeBron James. But Blatt has had maybe one of the most difficult challenges faced by a new NBA coach. Here’s the laundry list of uniquely demanding circumstances:
- Burdensome expectations with the return of James and three All-Stars.
- Over-sized egos from the likes of James, Love, Irving, and Waiters.
- The need to prove to players who had never heard of him that he was worthy of the job.
- A roster where few of the teammates had ever played with one another for so much as a minute.
- Injuries to some of the team’s most important player.
- A roster in constant flux.
- Media and internet spectators salivating over a potential disaster.
- A complete lack of exposure to the NBA and the competition, unlike most former assistant or head coaches.
- Uprooting his entire life and moving to the States, where he hasn’t lived for decades.
- Trying to import a relatively cumbersome offense when clearing and driving to the hoop or launching jump shots is so much easier.
No team in the NBA other than the Cavs hired a new coach and also returned less than seven players from last season. The Cavs had a historical roster renovation and a head coach with a historically difficult first job. It was easy to lose sight of the big picture on a night-to-night basis because the Cavaliers were playing so poorly; but no one can complete a 50,000 piece puzzle overnight. Yet that’s what the entire world asked David Blatt to do.
The team has certainly looked much more like the team we imagined of late. On Friday night, after the Cavs annihilated the Charlotte Hornets, James admitted, “I feel like this is the team that I envisioned.” So far, this season has been like watching the Cavs attempt to recreate the superhero movie The Avengers, but no one wanted to watch the exposition. Instead, everyone demanded alien punching and Hulk smashing from the opening credits. Hopefully the Cavs are finally getting to the good part of the action.
- Unless otherwise noted, all data is from Basketball-Reference.com. [↩]
- All data is current through Friday’s game against the Charlotte Hornets. [↩]
- The per game totals are calculated for their work in a Cavs uniform, not for that of their former team. It’s also a bit of a crude assumption, as these numbers will fluctuate as more guys enter the rotation and some of the guys don’t play every game. The chart below creates the perception that the Cavs score more than they actually do. It’s an approximation, but not far from the reality. [↩]