Using Real Plus-Minus to Project Lineups for the Cleveland Cavaliers
Everyone that even remotely follows basketball has a strong opinion about the Cleveland Cavaliers next season. There's a ton of unknown variables - LeBron James' new "Big 3" is comprised of two players who haven't played a truly meaningful game in the NBA at this point in their respective careers.
We don't even know how players will mesh together. It's not only James and Kevin Love that are new faces - the Cavs could very well have Shawn Marion, Ray Allen, and Mike Miller playing valuable minutes next year too. Despite all the lineups, let's try to look at what some of these lineups could be.
To do this, I'm going to use Real Plus-Minus (RPM), which is a fairly new statistic. It attempts to show how much a player adds or subtracts to his team while on the floor, while accounting for his teammates. The example ESPN uses in their explanation is Reggie Jackson - his overall plus-minus is always very high, but you would expect that when playing most of his minutes with superstars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. RPM adjusts for the other players on the court.
And what's particularly useful about RPM is that it is additive. We can add each players' numbers in a lineup and have an idea of how that lineup would perform with those five players. So, let's look at some potential Cavs lineups.
Irving - Waiters - James - Love - Varejao
This has been the lineup that most assume would be the crunch-time one late in games. It definitely has an offensive punch, but Irving and Waiters' bad defensive numbers really drag down the DRPM. And this will be the most defining trait of next year - will either of those two guards take a step defensively? If not, then this lineup will give up many points.
However, James will raise the play of the guards and perhaps if Irving's offensive usage rate declines, he will be able to focus on defense more. It's also possible that just being a title contender will raise the play as well, as Irving and Waiters are certainly athletic and quick enough to play defense. Maybe if they have motivation (a championship) and a leader (LeBron), they'll be more inclined to step it up on that end.
Dellavedova - James - Marion - Love - Varejao
This lineup is the best projected defensive lineup for the Cavs next season. LeBron gives them the flexibility to play a lineup like this, as he could defend a guard if needed. Doing this would let Marion be inserted along with James and give them some much needed length on the perimeter.
Interestingly, even if the Cavs traded for Timofey Mozgov (it was rumored they offered a first-round pick for him), this would still be the best defensive lineup. For all of the hate that Kevin Love gets for his defense, his DRPM is still a positive and is higher than Mozgov's. A lineup with LeBron and Love is going to be offensively potent with any other three guys, so it's probably prudent for the Cavs to surround them with defensive guys as much as possible.
Irving - Allen - Miller - James - Love
This would be a devastating offensive lineup, and one we've never really seen before in the NBA. While many teams go small-ball and try to surround a big man with four shooters, this would be the first lineup that had elite three-point shooting at all five positions.
This lineup will be key to the Cavs' future. It will be almost impossible for teams to stop it on the offensive end, and if it can be even just average on the defensive end, it will be their go-to lineup over the next couple of years. There is just no team that can defend a motion offense with all of these shooters.
If the Cavs do indeed go after another big man to back up Varejao, it will be interesting to see what happens with Tristan Thompson. His ORPM of -0.75 and DRPM -1.30 is going to make it hard to play him on a team with title dreams. However, he has the same agent as LeBron James. He should theoretically be the fourth big off the bench, but Blatt could be pressured into giving him playing time.
One last observation: their best defensive lineup, listed above, actually projects as their best lineup period. And it doesn't include Kyrie Irving. How Blatt handles crunch time if Dellavedova proves to be as significant of a defensive upgrade as the numbers suggest will be crucial to this team.