Monday, January 28

Come on Cavs

I feel a bit of regret that here on the site we have barely mentioned the one Cleveland sports team currently in-season, the one defending a Conference Championship, and one that has now won 12 of 15 games after a strong road win over the Lakers. That's right, the Cavs.

After a sluggish start that featured some really uninspired basketball, the Cavs currently sit at 24-19. This puts them on pace for a 46-win season, which is a few off their mark from a year ago but still easily enough to qualify them for the postseason. If everyone stays healthy, it's reasonable to think they'll post 48 wins or so. The question is: what will that get them?

Hit the link over on the right to the NBA standings and sort by Conference, which is really the important grouping to consider for playoff positioning. It's unlikely they'll be able to run down either the Pistons or the Celtics for a top-two seed. Funny - I don't seem to hear nearly as much about Detroit as in years past but they're solid once again. Right now, I'd rather face the C's in a seven-gamer than the Pistons. Orlando seems to be the favorite for the Southeast title, but whether it's the Magic, Wiz, or Hawks (OK, maybe not) who end up hoisting that banner, the Cavs have a reasonable chance to end up third in the conference. Right now they're running even with Washington and Toronto, and neither of those teams are slouches, but I'm optimistic that Cleveland will earn one of the top four seeds and a first-round home series. Maybe we'll even get to dump Washington for the third straight year.

As for the Cavs recent winning ways: at risk of being a Coach Brown soundalike, I think they've been doing a few things better, especially executing better on defense late in games. They've won a lot of close games, evidenced by the fact that they are the only +.500 club in the entire Association with a negative point differential on the season. The four factors I see as key to their recent success have been:

1) LeBron's excellent play
2) The rebounding and defensive presence Varejao's return has brought along with continued steady post play from Ilgauskas
3) Role players stepping up game to game, including reserves like Devin Brown, Ira Newble, and Damon Jones
4) Late-game team defense and rebounding

There's not super-impressive statistical or analytical insight here, but I'm at least enumerating actual basketball-related items instead of meaningless pundit speak like "being aggressive," "grit," or whatever. Furthermore, to make sure I'm not one of those lousy sportswriters who doesn't bother to look things up, I just calculated some defensive PPG stats:

- First 28 games (12-16): 101.0 PPG allowed
- Last 15 games (12-3): 92.9 PPG allowed

Eight points a game is a big deal. They're also scoring more on their recent hot streak (98.9 PPG) than previously (96.4 PPG) but the defensive improvement is over 3X as great in terms of straight PPG. It's also worth noting that there hasn't been a discernible difference in recent quality of competition; the Cavs have been taking down quality teams like Dallas, San Antonio, and the Lakers, often doing it on the road to boot.

Note that I didn't include among their keys to success: shooting. These guys are still serious bricklayers - I look at the box score each game and notice the Cavs taking 10-15 more shots than the opposition at a lower percentage, which speaks to both their rebounding prowess and shooting troubles.

Three other things jumped out at me from the NBA's standings breakdown:

1) The West is once again a superior group of teams, based on point differentials and interconference play. The top ten teams out West all feature positive point differentials, while only five Eastern clubs can make that claim. Western teams are 138-112 against their Eastern foes, highlighted by Phoenix's sparkling 18-2 mark (which should have been 17-3 after Friday's contest at the Q).

2) The Cavs, oddly enough, are a pedestrian 12-12 against the weaker East and sport an impressive 12-7 mark against the West. The in-conference record is only good for sixth (overall they are tied with two other clubs for fourth), while the out-of-conference mark is second only to Boston's remarkable 12-0 run.

3) Away from Cleveland we have a similar story to last season; they're a little below .500 on the road (10-12 vs. 20-21 last year). However, their home record this year of 13-7 (.650) this year is still quite good but a significant step down from last year's excellent 30-11 (.731) showing. Protect the home court a bit better, and the Cavs will be right where they were last year.

Go Cavs!


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