A History of Champions and Momentum

Are you nervous about the Cleveland Cavaliers? It’s OK, you’re not alone.

Media members, fans, and even this site have all expressed concern over the past few weeks while watching the Cavs stumble their way through basketball’s home stretch. Matchups that should end in easy wins are turning into nail biters. Purportedly tough challenges against playoff-caliber teams have devolved into one-sided thrashings. With a few short weeks to go before “All In 3: Bet the House This Time” begins, it’s important to remain calm when evaluating the Cavaliers. I think.

History serves as basketball fans’ magic 8 ball, a roadmap for hoop heads to follow when deciding how historical or hashtaggable an on court performance may be. With that in mind, it is instructive to review how much momentum previous champions accrued in their March/April games. The postseason is an entirely different animal with a friendlier schedule and a consistent opponent. Still, it is worthwhile to look at the past ten champs and compare how they finished up the regular season before capturing Larry O’Brien’s trophy.

Champions’ March & April Combined Records

2016 Cavaliers: 15-8, 0.652
2015 Warriors: 22-4, 0.846
2014 Spurs: 20-4, 0.833
2013 Heat: 25-2, 0.926
2012 Heat: 19-13, 0.594
2011 Mavericks: 13-9, 0.591
2010 Lakers: 12-10, 0.545
2009 Lakers: 17-6, 0.739
2008 Celtics: 21-4, 0.840
2007 Spurs: 19-4, 0.826

The best finish belongs to LeBron James and the 2012-13 Miami Heat who blistered opponents with a 25-2 record and .926 win percentage. The 2010 Lakers and their .545 win percentage bring up the rear, though Kobe and the boys caught fire in the playoffs on their way to yet another title.1 The last ten champs’ average record is 18.3-6.4, 0.741.

As of this writing, the Cavs are 6-9 in March and have nine games remaining on the schedule. Suppose they continue their lackluster ways and go 5-4 in those contests. Their March/April combined record would then be 11-13 with a 0.458 winning percentage. In the past decade no champion sported such a low win percentage in the run up to the playoffs. Don’t forget that record is speculative and once the games are played we will have a better understanding of the club’s momentum entering the real season. Still, a 6-9 March mark is disappointing. Equally troubling may be the magnitude of Cleveland’s losses.

Perhaps best exemplified by Monday’s humiliating defeat in Texas, the Cavs are losing badly both at home and on the road. The high (low?) water mark was the Spurs’ 29-point smackdown, but in the month’s nine losses the average margin of defeat is 14.9 points. In a game played by twos and threes, that is not very encouraging. Yes, there are caveats: LeBron did not play against the Heat or Clippers. Love and Irving both missed a handful of games to injury. J.R. Smith is not quite back to his sniping self. What worries me are games like the 127-115 home loss to the Wizards (a potential second round playoff opponent) in which the entire Big 3 played. Let’s re-open to figure out if these losses are atypical:

Champions’ Margin of Defeat, Individual and Average

2016 Cavaliers: 3, 9, 21, 9, 6, 14, 3, 2. Average loss – 8.4 points
2015 Warriors: 2, 9, 15, 3. Average loss – 7.3 points
2014 Spurs: 12, 19, 6, 13. Average loss – 12.5 points
2013 Heat: 4, 12. Average loss – 8.0 points
2012 Heat: 1, 10, 6, 4, 16, 15, 19, 15, 8, 10, 2, 12, 34. Average defeat – 11.7 points
2011 Mavericks: 1, 1, 5, 3, 6, 28, 7, 8, 8. Average defeat – 7.4 points
2010 Lakers: 3, 15, 2, 16, 8, 17, 19, 2, 3, 16. Average defeat – 10.1 points
2009 Lakers: 7, 17, 1, 10, 10, 8. Average defeat – 8.8 points
2008 Celtics: 18, 7, 5, 14. Average defeat – 11.0 points
2007 Spurs: 11, 6, 1, 5, 10, 23. Average defeat – 9.3 points

Again this margin of defeat would be the highest of the past ten champs. A few close losses in the home stretch could shrink the mark, but its position on the list cannot be disputed. The Cavs have already lost more March games than seven of the past ten champs lost in both March and April.

*Small sample size alert*

This is a good moment to remind everyone that we are talking about a handful of games at the end of a long regular season. In many cases the future champion rested players or had little to play for with both playoff berth and seeding all sewn up. Asterisks abound, but not unlike the ball: Stats don’t lie.

Are we putting too much emphasis on relatively meaningless regular season games? Probably. Most of this Cavaliers team already has a championship under their belts and understand what it takes to win a title.

We can mitigate their lack of defensive energy, shooting woes, and worrisome no-shows with a quick reminder that arguably the greatest active basketball player on Earth wears wine and gold. LeBron has won three titles and more than earned the benefit of the doubt, especially from Clevelanders. We want to believe him when he says he will make more free throws in the playoffs. We want to believe that the team will simply “flip the switch” when the postseason begins.

For now all we have to go on is what is happening in front of us. RIght now, this team makes me nervous.

  1. Editor’s Note: Which should have been the Cavaliers’ first title, for what it’s worth. []