How the Cleveland Cavaliers Started Winning

Some overlooked players have impacted the Cavs both positively and negatively this year. How have they turned it around?

Without a doubt, the successes and failures -- to whatever extent -- of the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers were going to fall on the shoulders of LeBron James first and foremost. And both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving weren't going to escape scrutiny (or praise), either.

Those three currently lead the team in usage rate, points per game, and offensive win shares. So yeah, a lot of the onus is rightfully focused on them. And, yes, the contracts, too. They were and are the key trio for the Cavaliers this season, but as has been the case with all teams opting for the big three approach in years past, peripheral players still matter.

Two of the most divisive role players on the Cavaliers this year have been Dion Waiters and Anderson Varejao -- not for the same reason, mind you. But without both of them, the Cavs have found themselves on an 11-game winning streak. What has changed during Cleveland's reversal of fortune? Was it really as simple as losing Waiters? Are the Cavs still hurting without Varejao? Did the Timofey Mozgov trade really help? Is it, gulp, J.R. Smith?

Losing Varejao

We'll roll this chronologically.

I know there have been other keystone moments this year for the Cavs, but things really started to change around that magical (or unfortunate) time of year: Christmas. Anderson Varejao hasn't played ball since December 23rd, having torn his Achilles, and the Cavs reeled as a result of losing Varejao and LeBron, who missed eight games in this span. Starting on Christmas Day, the team's first game without Varejao, and running through January 13th, the Cavs plummeted from a 17-10 record to just 19-20, a 2-10 stretch.

Varejao had been having his best season ever this year. With Varejao (and with Tristan Thompson), Kevin Love had been losing significant rebounding numbers earlier in the year. While Love's numbers waned, both Varejao and Thompson were having their most efficient seasons based on our nERD metric. Even though Love wasn't as prolific as usual, the rest of the frontcourt was playing well.

It may be coincidental that the Cavs' poor stretch coincided with Varejao's absence considering that LeBron also sat for most of it, but their numbers declined nearly universally in this stretch before re-adjusting during their current 11-game win streak.

Until Dec 23103.699.60.470.3740.923.07.04.313.0
Dec 25-Jan 1391.2101.30.410.3141.919.27.13.513.6
Jan 15-Feb 2108.495.50.470.3747.

Their shooting percentages dropped significantly during their losing stretch, and their numbers were more or less down across the board in this time. But things re-adjusted, and the Cavs started winning on January 15th.

Now, it could very easily have been a problem of game location, as eight of those 12 games were on the road, where the Cavs are just 12-11 on the season compared to 18-9 at home, but as soon as Varejao and LeBron were out, the Cavs plummeted, and it took three weeks to figure it out.

Losing Waiters, Gaining Smith

The Cavaliers also lost Dion Waiters, of course, but this move was more addition than subtraction. On January 5, the Cavs flipped Waiters to the Thunder. There are a lot of ways to indicate Waiters' negative impact on the Cavaliers this year, but with Waiters on the court this year (for 787 minutes, per, the Cavs posted an Offensive Rating of 104.4. Without him, that Offensive Rating has been 113.0, a difference of 8.6.

In terms of our nERD metric, Waiters is one of the least efficient players in the league. His nERD of -6.3 ranks just 138th out of 151 qualified players.

But he was replaced by the guy who won't stop shooting threes, J.R. Smith. Still, Smith has been an enormous improvement over Waiters. Here are their per 36 numbers with the Cavaliers this year.


Smith is both playing bigger minutes than Waiters did, and his percentages are significantly better than Waiters' were in Cleveland this year. Still yet, there's more to the puzzle.

Gaining Mozgov

Quick! Who has the best Offensive Rating on the Cavs? LeBron? Kyrie? Love? Nope. Did you guess Mozgov now because of the section header? Well, I tricked you because it's Tristan Thompson at 120, but Mozgov is actually second on the team with an Offensive Rating of 116. Mozgov, who played his first game in wine and gold on January 9th, also has the best Defensive Rating -- of players with at least 100 minutes -- on the team at 104.

In fact, Mozgov's per 100 possession numbers are very similar to Varejao's, and his arrival nearly overlaps the recent win streak (which started on January 15th).


Mozgov has improved during his Cleveland days over his performance in Denver from earlier this year. His rebounding rate is up to 18.5 from 16.3, his true shooting percentage is up to 57.2 from 55.4, and his Player Efficiency Rating is up to a career-best 18.0 from 13.8.

What About the Big 3?

Even though the role players in Cleveland have had some interesting trends this year, we can't overlook the role of LeBron, Love, and Kyrie in all of this. I know you're wondering why I haven't talked about LeBron's absence more (read: yelling at me or jumping to the comments section to call me names before finishing the article), but that's only part of the story -- albeit a big one.

But LeBron's efficiency pre- and post-injury break aren't all that different. I'm leaving in an extra decimal place where I can to show how close it is.

Until Dec 2837.50.5840.5338.537.51.91.615.131.1113108
Jan 13-Feb 236.30.5820.5389.

LeBron's Defensive Rating took a large step forward, and his usage is up. But other than that, things are pretty similar with small increases in rebounds and steals. In other places, numbers have ticked down a bit. So saying LeBron's return was key isn't necessarily wrong, but saying he's been playing substantially better than he did before Christmas isn't really the case.

What about Kyrie?

Until Dec 2337.80.5760.5224.523.
Dec 25-Jan 1339.20.5020.4575.325.
Jan 15-Feb 237.10.6430.6135.

Kyrie's play has improved pretty significantly, obviously helped by his 55-point outing against the Blazers, a game LeBron Missed. Kyrie's Offensive and Defensive Ratings are significantly better in the winning streak than at any other point in the season -- particularly the post-Christmas skid.

It's not the same case for Love, whose shooting percentages are trending downward.

Until Dec 2336.20.5710.50117.410.
Dec 25-Jan 1334.20.5430.48817.
Jan 15-Feb 233.50.4980.43418.

Love is attempting threes at a higher rate this year (37.0 percent of his field goal attempts) than ever before -- his three-point rate has climbed each season in the league -- and he is attempting 34.3 percent of those from the corner. He's never attempted more than 13.3 percent of his threes from the corner. Also, his usage rate (22.0) is the lowest since his rookie year (21.0), and his rebound rate (17.2) is the lowest of his career, too.

Love is producing his best Defensive Rating during the recent win streak, but his offensive role is still lacking based on his fullest potential. His Offensive Rating was between 117 and 123 in his final three seasons with Minnesota (excluding his 18-game season in 2012-13).

What It All Means

Well, LeBron deserves the praise he's getting, as he's been producing at a consistent rate during the season. His rest might have rejuvenated him, but it doesn't really show in the advanced numbers. Kyrie has stepped up his game -- that much is certain. However, Love, per the advanced stats, is still struggling while playing a completely different role than he had in Minnesota.

Losing Waiters helped pave the way for Smith -- who does shoot a lot -- but who has done so at a much more efficient rate than Waiters did. Anderson Varejao's loss may or may not have played a big role in the losing stretch after Christmas -- though it did coincide with LeBron's absence. Still, Mozgov's improved play has effectively mitigated the loss of Varejao, and even though Love isn't playing to his fullest potential, the Cavs are winning. You can say it's LeBron and Kyrie if you'd like, but the role players are keys in this, too.

Again, this could all be a matter of game location, as the Cavs have played seven of their last 11 at home. We also can't rule out schedule. Along with being average on the road, the Cavs are just 11-11 against the West and are 19-9 against the East. So maybe it really does come down to the opponents, but that would be good news for the Cavs, as they have one of the easiest remaining schedules in the NBA.

Whatever it is, the Cavs' fortunes, whether self-made or not, are reversing, and the rest of the year should continue to be kind to them as they try to make the most of the first (and possibly only year) of this big three combination.