THE BLOG
11/18/2010 09:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Are the Cleveland Cavaliers Playoff Contenders Without LeBron?

A few months ago the Cleveland Cavaliers were contenders. Then LeBron James -- and his 27.2 Wins Produced -- left for Miami. And even though Daniel Gilbert promised a title in Cleveland before LeBron and the Heat win a championship, NBA observers expected...

• The Cavaliers to be much worse without King James.
• The Heat to be much better.
• There is a good chance that Gilbert is wrong.

But after 10 games this season, the Cavaliers are actually 5-5. And Cleveland is only a game and a half behind the Heat. So apparently...

• Cleveland isn't quite as bad as people thought
• The Heat aren't that good.
• Daniel Gilbert might be right.

Then again...

Okay, the Heat's record is a bit of an illusion. To see this, let's consider offensive efficiency (i.e. points scored per possession) and defensive efficiency (i.e. points surrendered per possession). After eleven games, Miami has scored 110.4 points per possession while only allowing 98.8 points. These two efficiency measures result in an efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) of 11.6. Such a mark is identical to the mark of the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls and second only to the 13.0 mark of the 1995-96 Bulls. Yes, Miami -- despite popular perception -- has been very good. And this has been achieved without the injured Mike Miller (a player who has been quite productive in the past). So the Heat could get better.

Just like the Heat, the Cavaliers record is also a bit of an illusion. Unfortunately for fans of the Cavs, the won-loss record actually overstates how good this team has been. Currently the Cavaliers' efficiency differential is -2.8. Such a mark is consistent with a team that will win about 34 games across an 82-game season. And that mark -- prior to the games played on Thursday night -- currently ranks 10th in the Eastern Conference. So although the Cavs would be in the playoffs if the season ended today, the team's efficiency differential (a better predictor of the future than won-loss records) indicates this team will not be in the playoffs when the season ends.

Of course, that assumes that what we see after 10 games continues the rest of the season. And of course, players can get better (and of course, they can also get worse).

As the season unfolds we will see who gets better (or worse). For now, though, let's move from efficiency differential to Wins Produced (a metric derived from efficiency differential that is explained HERE).

As the following table indicates, the Cavaliers currently have five players -- Daniel Gibson, Jamario Moon, Anderson Varejao, Antawn Jamison, and Ryan Hollins -- who are above average (average WP48 -- or Wins Produced per 48 minutes -- is 0.100).

2010-11-19-Cavs10gm1011.png

Relative to last year, two of these players -- Gibson and Hollins -- are performing quite a bit better. In fact, Hollins was the second least productive player in the NBA in 2009-10. So Hollins producing at an above average rate (okay, 0.102 is only slightly above the 0.100 average mark -- but this is Hollins, so cut him some slack!) is quite a bonus.

Unfortunately, Hollins entered this season with 2,384 minutes of NBA experience and he had never posted numbers for a season in the positive range. Gibson has consistently produced in the positive range. But in 5,616 minutes of NBA experience, Gibson had never had a season where he was above average. If both Hollins and Gibson revert to form, then the Cavaliers will decline across the remaining 72 games this season.

Even if that doesn't happen, though, the Cavaliers have clearly declined from last year. Okay, maybe it isn't that clear. After all, Cleveland has only played ten games. Then again, Arturo Galletti recently noted that we don't need much of a sample in the NBA to start forming a very clear picture of how a given player will be performing across the entire season (and one should also note that Arturo also used Wins Produced to predict Cleveland's struggles before the season started).

Going forward it's clear what the Cavaliers need. It is difficult for a team to contend when its most productive player posts a WP48 mark that is below 0.200. If your most productive player offers so little (and Gibson's WP48 is only 0.187 and he is on pace to produce just 9.1 wins), all of the remaining players on your team have to average a WP48 of 0.141 for the team to win 60 games. The Cavs do have five players who exceed this threshold. But the team also has eight players who do not reach this level.

So going forward, the Cavaliers could find a whole collection of players who can produce at an above average rate. Or the team could find one (or maybe two players) player -- like a LeBron James -- who can produce at a rate beyond 0.300 or 0.400.

Until either happens, the Cavaliers are not going to contend for a title. And the odds are, Gilbert will continue to be wrong about Cleveland's chances to win a championship.

Two last notes... If you want to see Wins Produced numbers for every team, check out the automated WP numbers from Andres Alvarez. These numbers are being updated every morning. And check out all the blogs in The Wages of Wins Network for additional stories on the NBA.