Thanks to the Orlando Magic, a foe that Cavs fans are more than familiar with, the Cleveland Cavaliers have experienced their first three game losing streak since March 29th, 2008. With losses against Denver, Charlotte, and Orlando, the Cavs are -25 over this three game span, coming up short by an average of 8.3 points per game. In March of 2008, the Cavs lost to the Bucks, Hornets, and Pistons by a combined 25 points as well, mirroring their current three game losing streak. But I think every fan knows that these Cavaliers, at 43-14, are better than that 2007-08 team that finished the season with only 45 wins.
However, I also believe that this Cavaliers team is better than last season’s Cavs, a team that held a 45-12 record after its first 57 games. In fact, even after losing to the Magic yesterday, Orlando is a great stepping stone to prove why this team is better.
For instance, last season the Cavaliers were 0-2 in the regular season at Orlando, losing those two games by a combined 40 points (-20 points per game), setting up a disappointing 0-3 record in the playoffs at Amway Arena (-8.3 points per game). So far this season the Cavaliers are 1-1 in Orlando (+1.5 points per game) and lead the season series 2-1 after losing it 1-2 last season.
And what can be seen against Orlando can be seen against the top teams around the league. Last season there were nine teams that finished at least 15 games above .500. The Cavaliers were 13-8 (61.9%) against these top teams, posting a sub-.500 mark on the road (5-6). So far this season there are currently nine teams that are at least ten games above .500. Even after the loss to Orlando, which is one of these teams, the Cavs are 12-6 (66.7%) when facing these skilled opponents, going 5-4 on the road against them.
Similarly, the Cavs have done a great job matching up against the best teams in the eastern conference so far this season. Just as it was last season, the top four teams in the east this year are the Cavaliers, Celtics, Magic, and Hawks. While the positioning has changed slightly (Orlando is ahead of Boston and Atlanta is much closer to the top three), Cleveland’s record against these three teams is the big difference between the two seasons. After going 6-5 (54.5%) against Atlanta, Boston, and Orlando last season, the Cavaliers are 4-2 (66.7%) against that trio so far this season. In addition to posting a better record, the losses are much closer games as well. In those six games this season the Cavaliers are +22 (+3.7 points per game), compared to just +10 (+0.9 points per game) in their eleven games last season. Lastly, Cleveland is now 2-1 (66.7%) on the road against these three eastern conference teams after Sunday, already trumping their mark of 1-5 (16.7%) in away games last season. That means that even if the Cavaliers lose both games in Boston and their remaining game in Atlanta, they’ll still post a better record on the road against teams seeded 2-4 in the eastern conference this season.
Additionally, don’t overlook how the Cavs have played against the teams that went the distance last year. Currently the Cavaliers are a combined 4-1 (80%) against the Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic, the two teams from last season’s NBA Finals. Even if the Cavs were to drop their final game against the Magic, this is easily their best record against the reigning conference champs in the regular season. Last season the Cavs were 2-4 (33.3%) against the previous year’s Finals tandem (Celtics and Lakers) and were 10-21 (32.2%) against reigning Finals teams through LeBron’s first six regular seasons.
But playing well against the league’s elite teams isn’t the only area in which this year’s Cavaliers have out performed last year’s team, as this season they have exhibited tremendous consistency in the face of massive role changes and multiple injuries. During the 2008-09 season, the Cavaliers had a seemingly human stretch where they went 9-5 from January 15th to February 20th. Over this span they were without Delonte West and lost Ben Wallace for a couple of games. This season the Cavaliers have been without Delonte West for several stretches and various reasons and have spent significant time without Mo Williams or Shaquille O’Neal in the lineup. Regardless, their worst stretch over a 14 game span has been 10-4 and they recently went 9-0 over a nine game stretch that saw them compete without either member from their starting backcourt tandem of Mo Williams and Delonte West from last season’s 66 win team.
And those numbers are a testament to how deep the Cavaliers are this year. With a diverse cast of offensively skilled players, one that now boasts the skillset of Antawn Jamison, the Cavs have several players who can expand their role when called upon. One of these players is Shaquille O’Neal, who is averaging 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds per game over his last ten games after seeing in increase in minutes. O’Neal’s efficiency over this span, making 61.9% of his field goal attempts, is not only refreshing, but essential to a well balanced offensive attack.
Furthermore, despite being criticized as a “lane clogging” presence, O’Neal has revitalized Cleveland’s approach to attacking the paint. Last season the Cavaliers averaged only 35.5 points in the paint per game, which was good enough for 26th in the league. One season later, the Cavs are 8th in the league in points per game, scoring 43.5 points per contest in the painted area. That’s an increase of 8.0 points per game in the paint and an improvement of +18 in the league rankings. Additionally, the Cavaliers are now number one in the league in opponent’s points in the paint, allowing only 35.4 points per game. Last season they were ranked 4th and allowed 36.0 points per game in the paint.
Sure there are some things the Cavs don’t do better this year, such as limiting turnovers (14.4 to’s per game this season compared to 12.7 last season) and opponent’s points per game (08/09 – 91.4, 09/10 – 95.0), which has really been troublesome as of late (Cavs allowing 106.3 points per game over their last six games), but this year’s team is much better as a whole. The team is playing more consistently on the road, particularly against the elite teams, and is matching up much better against the top tier teams around the league. Also, there is enough depth on this season’s Cavaliers team that would give even Hubie Brown trouble fairly allocating minutes to everyone. With several new scorers and a new sense of dominating the paint, it’s no surprise that this season’s Cleveland team trumps last season’s in both points per game and field goal percentage.
The final 25 games of the season will prove to be very interesting as the Cavs will reintegrate several new pieces such as Antawn Jamison and Leon Powe, have their injured guards, Mo Williams and Delonte West, reclaim their full rotation minutes, and hopefully return to their intense style of defensive play. Ultimately, even if the Cavs go on to lose their next three games, I’d still make the argument that they’re better than last year’s club. But let’s just hope I don’t have to.