At 13-21, there are only seven teams in the NBA with a worse record than the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the 7-28 Wizards are one of them. Even with a lackluster record, the Cavaliers have been better than expected while the Wizards have been even worse than most predicted. During the course of this season, the Cavs were briefly one of the Eastern Conference’s top eight teams, and the Wizards were at one point the worst team in the NBA. John Wall was supposed to approach the elite category this year, but instead, it’s been Kyrie Irving who has been the closest to that. I’ve been surprised by this Cavaliers team, as they won only 19 games last season and appear to be greatly improved with Kyrie at the helm.
Kyrie Irving’s performance in the Rising Stars Challenge was so impressive that it prompted me to tweet about how Irving is everything Wall should be, and that he is having an incredible rookie season with an even worse supporting cast than John Wall. I don’t want to say I’d rather have Kyrie (because readers might kill me), but it must be nice to have a point guard who can hit a jump shot, right? That sound you just heard was Celtics fans everywhere sighing in agreement.
These tweets prompted a number of responses from followers about how the Wizards are MUCH worse than the Cavaliers. MUCH worse? Could any team in the NBA really be MUCH worse than the team with the seventh worst record? Before I did any research, I would have agreed that the rosters were close in their talent level. My logic went like this: Kyrie Irving has been so good that he has been carrying an awful team and making the awful players on that awful team a little less awful. Keep in mind that Kyrie’s numbers this season are stunning – he is having a better rookie season than LeBron James had with the Cavaliers in 2003-2004. In fact, he is even having a better season than LeBron had in year two.
When I went to my research, I decided on two methods. I would analyze the roster from a qualitative standpoint, using my knowledge of each team’s players to judge them against one another. I obviously know the Wizards’ players more intricately and probably overrate them, so keep that in mind. Second, I would use a full squad plus-minus (+/-) metric that measures net points scored on the season for every unit that did not include Kyrie Irving or John Wall.
Let’s start with the roster breakdown:
Ramon Sessions, who is perpetually underrated, would probably be the second best player on the Wizards. Sessions actually makes this team comparison difficult, as he’s an incredibly capable second team player who elevates the play of others. The Cavs’ second team gets to benefit from a skilled point guard who is averaging 7.7 assists per 36 minutes. Replace Sessions’ minutes with Shelvin Mack’s and you would see a drastic fall in the output of the Cavalier reserves.
Anthony Parker is the equivalent of Roger Mason. Parker has averaged 23 minutes per game in twenty games this season. Mason is playing only eight minutes per game. The Cavs have had to get that much run out of Parker, which speaks to their poor situation at shooting guard.
While, former Wizard, Alonzo Gee was decent filling in for Parker, I’d still not say he is as good as either Nick Young or Jordan Crawford – especially since Crawford caught fire a few weeks ago.
It’s hard to come to a definitive conclusion on which team’s supporting guards are better because Sessions is far superior to any second team guard the Wizards have. I’ll give the slight edge to the Wizards because the two-guard spot is so much stronger.
The Wizards’ forwards, led by Trevor Booker and Rashard Lewis, are not of much concern to opposing teams. Although I love Trevor Booker’s game, it’s hard to get too excited about his 7.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 0.6 assists per game averages. Rashard Lewis is having his worst year since his rookie season while shooting a career low 23.9% from three-point range. He has been relegated to the bench with a mysterious “sore knee” injury and replaced with the sneaky effective veteran Mo Evans.
I’m an outspoken Andray Blatche detractor, but he is about to be the perfect example for my point about the Cavaliers’ best big man, Anderson Varejao. Varejao was the main point people raised in expressing their disgust with my assertion that Kyrie Irving had less help than Wall. Varejao’s strong play in the first 33 games of the season almost earned him an All-Star nod and seemingly pushed him up a level in the collective conscious of the NBA fans. Somehow the high-energy big man had graduated to borderline All-Star big man status.
All of that is fine and good, and I don’t totally dispute Varejao’s effectiveness, but once upon a time Andray Blatche averaged 21.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game on 48.6% shooting over the final 33 games of the 2009-2010 season. That production led to his $35 million contract extension. Thirty-three game runs are not indicative of a player’s overall ability. We’ve known Anderson Varejao to be a high energy player and good defender for his entire career, but we’ve not known him to ever approach All-Star status. Point being, Kyrie Irving and Ramon Sessions are doing more for Anderson Varejao than he is doing for them.
Add in Antawn Jamison, who I haven’t even mentioned, Anderson Varejao, and even the rookie Tristan Thompson – who is improving every game unlike the Wizard rookies – are superior to any forward the Wizards have trotted out onto the court this season.
It’s behind Varejao where Cleveland lacks in the frontcourt. Since Varejao has been out, the Cavs have been using Semih Erden and Ryan Hollins… I think you see where I’m going with this.
And then there is JaVale McGee. While it is quite popular to kick JaVale while he is down (and he is definitely down), it isn’t quite as popular to point out that he will probably be a ten million dollar man after this summer. NBA teams pay for athleticism and size, and JaVale has both of those in abundance. Whether or not you hate JaVale’s attitude, you have to realize that his combination of size, speed, and agility comes only a few times each decade.
The frontcourt of the Cavaliers has been better than the Wizards’ this year, but I think it’s closer than you would initially think.
From a quantitative standpoint, if you look at how the teams perform when Kyrie Irving and John Wall aren’t on the court, you’d see a much different story than the one I portrayed. Using net points (basically +/-) per five on the court, the Cavaliers come out much better than the Wizards. The Cavaliers’ plus-minus is about 50% better than the Wizards’. Specifically, per 48 minutes, the Wizards’ units without John Wall are outscored by 5.7 points while the Cavs without Irving are outscored by only 3.8 points.
Based upon this analysis, it is hard to see how the Wizards without Wall would be near the Cavaliers without Kyrie. Combining these qualitative and quantitative analyses still points to a Cavaliers edge. Perhaps I was wrong to assume that Kyrie “probably” had a worse supporting cast. It may very well be that John Wall has the lesser teammates, but I still maintain that it’s closer than the six win spread between the two team’s records.