Cavaliers, WWW

On setting proper expectations: While We’re Waiting

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Happy Tuesday, WFNY!

Well, somehow we made it. It’s been a wild ride and unquestionably one of the more bizarre regular seasons of my life, but tomorrow the Cleveland Cavaliers will wrap up their 2017-18 regular season. By the weekend, the Cavaliers will be playing playoff basketball.

We don’t need to recap play-by-play all the things that happened over the last calendar year for the Cavaliers franchise, but needless to say, it’s been a turbulent journey. As I eluded to a couple weeks ago, timing is everything when it comes to playoff basketball, but the timing just has never seemed to really work out for the Cavaliers. A couple weeks ago, I thought things were coming together at the right time, but after writing that, Kevin Love got his teeth knocked in and suffered a concussion, George Hill injured his ankle, Jose Calderon has dealt with hamstring issues, and Rodney Hood hurt his Achilles. Indeed, every time I’ve tried to write something positive about the Cavaliers, it has immediately been followed by a new issue. So, let’s be positive about the Cavaliers heading into the playoffs, yeah?!

Superstition aside, the Cavaliers seem to be close to 100% for the first time all year. That’s not hyperbole or exaggeration. Truly, the Cavaliers have not been fully healthy since the trade deadline moves. The team that is going to be playing in the playoffs? We haven’t seen it play a single game yet. That tells you all you need to know about this whacky season. Yet, how’s this for trivia? The Cavaliers record last season was 51-31. Their record right now? 50-31. With a win at home against the Knicks1, the Cavaliers will actually end with the same record as last season, as impossible as that seems2. Sure, last season wasn’t exactly the model season, but without thinking about records, it sure feels like it would be impossible for this year’s team to not have a worse record.

I don’t really know what to make of that. But, if you would have told me that the Cavaliers would lose Kyrie Irving and the players they got for him would mostly be a disaster and yet the team would somehow end up with more or less the same record, I would have found that pretty hard to believe. Most of this is a testament to LeBron James and the season he has delivered. I don’t want to dwell too much on the fact that this might be the last season LeBron plays in Cleveland. Boy, I sure hope it’s not, but we have to brace ourselves for the very real possibility it is. And if it is, what a way to go out. But before we get to thinking about that at all, we first have to focus on the playoffs. So what should be the expectations for this team?

That the Cavaliers mostly have the same record as last season would seem to bode well for their chances of getting back to the Finals. Or, rather, it should at least serve as a reminder that there’s probably not much merit in fretting about the regular season when it comes to a LeBron-led team. When LeBron enters his annual “Zero Dark Thirty-23” mode, good things tend to happen for the Cavaliers.

However, that’s not to say there aren’t historical trends that are worth looking at. WFNY’s Jacob Rosen brought this article from ESPN’s Kevin Pelton to my attention yesterday, in which he talks about what an outlier it would be if the Cavaliers made it to the Finals. When a reader asked Pelton about the historical oddity of the Cavaliers winning 50-plus games despite having a margin of victory lower than 1.0, this was Pelton’s response:

Typically, a team’s point differential will closely track its winning percentage, and the Cavaliers are indeed an outlier. […]

That holds up on a historical level too. No team since the ABA-NBA merger has won more than 48 games (or the equivalent in a lockout-shortened season) with a point differential worse than plus-1.3 points per game. The 2011-12 L.A. Lakers are probably the best match for what Cleveland has done this season. Those Lakers went 41-25 (a 51-win pace) with a plus-1.4 differential. After beating the Denver Nuggets in a seven-game series, those Lakers lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder 4-1 in the second round.

The Cavaliers winning the Eastern Conference would also buck historical trends. No team has made the NBA Finals with a point differential worse than plus-3.2 (Cleveland’s mark last season) since the New York Knicks in 1999 (plus-1.0) after a lockout-shortened season. Just three other teams since the merger (the 1978 Seattle SuperSonics and Washington Bullets and 1981 Houston Rockets) have made it with a point differential worse than plus-2.

So, it would seem the odds are stacked against the Cavaliers, right? Well, maybe. From a purely historical standpoint, yes, the numbers are the numbers. However, as we pointed out earlier, we haven’t actually seen the Cavaliers team that will play in the playoffs yet. Who knows what this team’s point differential would be if they played a full season together?

That’s the optimistic way of looking at it. The pessimistic3 way of looking at it is, well, it might matter that this team hasn’t played together at 100% yet. It’s more than possible that not being able to play together and gel over the last few weeks will pay a toll in the playoffs. There might be a reason why teams who deal with roster upheaval and injury throughout a year, thus lowering their point differential, don’t advance to the Finals in the playoffs even if healthy.

The thing is, though, LeBron James is the outlier. He’s been the outlier his entire career. There’s never been a player quite like LeBron, and that matters. We can spend all the time we want hand-wringing over this team’s issues, but until someone in the East proves they can beat LeBron James, I’m going to side with LeBron.

So I don’t know what everyone else’s expectations are for this team, but my expectations haven’t changed. There are things that concern me a lot about this team, sure, but with everything I have seen LeBron do in his career, carrying this team to the Finals wouldn’t count as one of the bigger surprises I’ve seen from him. There’s a lot of talent on this team, they are healthy at the right time, and they have LeBron. Anything short of another Finals appearance would be a disappointment for LeBron and potentially a disaster for this franchise going forward. So, no pressure, right?

  1. Of course, maybe the Cavaliers should lose to the Knicks. If the Nets win against the Celtics and the Cavaliers beat the Knicks, the Nets will actually pass the Knicks in the standings. Kudos, New York, on a magnificent job of tanking. And thanks for nothing, Brooklyn. []
  2. Another interesting note of comparison, Kevin Love played 60 games last year and has played 59 this year. Assuming he plays Wednesday, Love will play the exact same number of games in back to back seasons. []
  3. realistic? []