Could This Year's Cavaliers Team Be the Best Supporting Cast LeBron James Has Had?
When digging deeper into James' stat line, we saw him contributing in many categories beyond scoring buckets, such as assists and rebounds to go along with a better defensive game than in previous seasons. With that comes the narrative that James doesn't have any teammates again this year -- the loss of Kevin Love has crushed the team and James is carrying the Cavaliers like he did before he left.
But that narrative is wrong, and there are numbers to prove it. Let's look at some team and individual metrics to get a better look at how this may be the best supporting cast James has had in the NBA Finals.
We all know The King's ring total sits at two despite five different trips to the NBA Finals. Michael Jordan won in all six of his trips, and Kobe Bryant won in five of his seven, leaving LeBron a lot to live up to. But this season is different -- the Cavaliers already have 12 wins this postseason, losing just three times and completing a series sweep twice as well.
So with the best playoff winning percentage of his career, James' best team is obviously this year's right? Well, not so fast -- let's dig deeper for some better comparisons.
|Season||W||L||ORtg||DRtg||Net Rtg||eFG%||TOV%||Opp. eFG%||Opp. TOV%|
This year's Cavaliers have notched the second best Offensive Rating of a team that has reached the NBA Finals with LeBron James, scoring 110.9 points per 100 possessions; only last year's Heat had a better points per possession. However, this year's team is still a mixed bag -- they're fourth best on the list in Effective Field Goal percentage (eFG%; factors in two- and three-point shots), but they've also committed the fewest turnovers per 100 possessions than the others teams had.
Defensively, Cleveland's squad from this season mirrors Miami's 2011-12 squad (James' first championship) in Defensive Rating but are still third on the list thanks to the first year James made the Finals. The biggest reason is keeping their opponents' eFG% lower than any other season (45.5%). Throw in the Cavaliers' advantage in Net Rating, and we can see that this year's team is, at the very least, one of the top three teams James has played with in the NBA Finals.
We also have some individual metrics to evaluate to see if James' supporting cast is the best he's had. First, we'll look at Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), which Basketball Reference proceeds to define as -2.0 to indicate an average, replaceable player.
VORP is also dependent on minutes played, so when looking at all six teams James has taken to the NBA Finals, I only looked at role players who played a significant amount of minutes throughout each years' playoffs. And, of course, LeBron James has always netted the highest VORP on any team he has taken to the Finals.
But as we examine the other players, there has only been one season where a teammate has had a VORP of 1 or greater, and never a teammate with a VORP of -2; James has also rarely had a teammate below 0 VORP.
The 2011 and 2012 playoffs gave James three players with VORP above 0.5, with Dwyane Wade leading the way both years despite a drop from 2.0 to 0.7. 2013 was slightly better with Wade and Chris Bosh each netting a 0.9 VORP. However, this season's team gives James the most players (four) with a VORP of 0.5 or better, the most he's had, indicating that this year's supporting cast may be the deepest James has had in the NBA Finals.
Sharing the Load
Another metric to gauge a player's contributions to a team over the course of a season or playoffs is Win Shares (WS), which will look at how much a player contributed positively or negatively to a team's success. It's no surprise that LeBron James as been the leader in WS for each team he has been in the Finals with, but the supporting cast is a different story. Like VORP, I stuck with just players who played significant minutes in the playoffs for this year's Cavaliers team.
In looking at Win Share data for LeBron's teammates, we come across some interesting trends. First is that each of James' teams had at least two teammates that contributed at least 1.7 WS during the playoff runs except for last year's Miami Heat team. And we find that the 2007 and 2012 supporting casts had three players with at least 1.7 WS.
With a high threshold for WS, it's not surprising to see the 2012 supporting cast standout. They still do if we drop the threshold to 1.0 WS, netting five players to contribute at least 1.0 WS. Not surprisingly, James achieved his first championship that season. However, two other teams can lay claim to having five players with at least 1.0 WS -- James' other championship team from 2013 and this year's supporting cast as well.
If the number of players above a Win Share threshold isn't enough, then we can also examine each of James' supporting casts with WS/48, which showcases how many wins a player contributes for every 48 minutes of play -- for reference, the league average is usually .100 WS/48. Every team that James was in the Finals with all had at least two roles players with at least an average WS/48.
The 2007 and 2011 Finals teams each had four while James' two championship teams, along with this year's squad, all had five players above .100 WS/48. If we set the bar just a little bit higher to .150 WS/48, it changes the landscape a little. The 2013 championship team doesn't have any role players at .150 WS/48 on the team while the 2014 team still has one. The 2011 and 2012 teams both netted two, the 2007 team has three and the 2015 squad comes out on top with four role players above .150 WS/48.
So while the NBA Finals could shift the WS and WS/48 for the 2015 team, the numbers are backing up some conclusions VORP gave us -- the Cavaliers are a deep team playing in this year's Finals.
Next, I examined the Offensive and Defensive Ratings for each supporting cast, sticking with players that logged significant minutes while playing during each team's run through the NBA Finals as an extremely high (or low) rating from a player that averages just five minutes a games could be harder to maintain than a player with a high or low rating that averages 20 minutes a game.
Immediately upon looking at the data, one thing stands out: all but LeBron's championship team in 2013 includes at least one role player with at least a 119 Offensive Rating. Furthermore, only the 2015 Cavaliers and last year's Heat include two role players with a 119 Offensive Rating or higher. But at a threshold of 105, we have a different story.
With a 105 Offensive Rating, each squad can claim to have at least four different role players at 105 or higher. This is where the depth of the Miami Heat squads James was a part of come to the light. In the 2011 and 2013 seasons, James saw five teammates with a 105 Offensive Rating and saw six teammates on his 2012 championship squad at 105 or higher.
The 2012 championship team becomes another comparison for the 2015 squad yet again. Like that season, this year's Cavaliers have six role players that have notched at least a 105 Offensive Rating. However, you need more than just a great offensive team to win a championship -- but with constant comparisons between this year and 2012, you get the feeling this could be a special squad for LeBron James until we look at the defensive side of things.
Let's hit the bad news first -- the 2014 Heat were the worst supporting cast for LeBron James. No role player but Chris Andersen had a 105 Defensive Rating or better, and that's not all that great either. The best Defensive Rating for all the supporting casts belonged to the 2007 Cavaliers thanks to four players with a 100 Defensive Rating or less.
But if we examine each team to see how many role players had a 102 Defensive Rating or better, we see a few more similarities. The team that helped James win his second title has two players at 102 or lower just like this year's squad does. However, the 2012 championship team had three such players. This year's squad would probably look a little more formidable if it wasn't for Matthew Dellavedova's 109 Defensive Rating, the worst rating for a role player outside a majority of the 2014 Heat.
One last comparison for the teams that have been to the NBA Finals with LeBron James -- our in-house metric, nERD. With nERD, we have another way to measure a player's contributions. Each player's nERD score indicates how many wins above or below .500 the team would be with that particular player. For this, we are looking at each player's regular season nERD scores.
As we see in the table below, the regular season was very kind to all four of James' teams when he was on the Heat. All four teams dwarf both seasons that James took the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals. But let's put a little context around this too.
This year's Cavaliers didn't have J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Movgov until early January. The nERD total reflect the overall nERD for each player the Cavs traded for, not just the time spent with the Cavaliers since January. However, we have the data to see what they added to just the Cavaliers.
When Smith and Shumpert were traded from the Knicks, they had a nERD of -7.3 and -4.4, respectively, costing the Knicks almost 12 games combined. However, after joining the Cavaliers, their cumulative nERD scores rose to -0.7 and -3.4, respectively. Smith added a 6.6 nERD to the Cavaliers while Shumpert added just 1.0 nERD since they were traded.
It wasn't as bad of a situation for Mozgov when he was in Denver, though he was barely an average player with a 0.6 nERD score. He finished the season with a 3.1 nERD, thus adding 2.5 wins for the Cavaliers. When you factor in the nERD scores for just their time in Cleveland, the 2015 Cavaliers role players end up with a 23.0 nERD score, right between what the role players produced during the regular season for both of James' championship runs.
So is this LeBron James' best supporting cast? The data says it very well could be. But if Kyrie Irving's injury is serious, then it could spell trouble for the supporting cast as a whole. Without Irving, the supporting cast loses their best member and more responsibility falls on LeBron James and other role players that aren't used to it.
Even if this isn't James' best supporting cast, it does have shades of the 2012 team. However, after Game 1, the Cavaliers have less than a 14% chance to take home the NBA title. Without Irving, that drops another 2%. The Cavaliers will throw everything they have at the Warriors, but a supporting cast that looks as good as James' first championship team may not still be enough.