A thought provoking question was asked yesterday on the NY Times’ Off The Dribble Blog: Are this year’s Miami Heat better than last year’s Cleveland Cavaliers? I’m sure LeBron would tell you he’s in a better situation than he was last season. That is almost certainly true if you consider his personal relationships, financial incentives and quality of life. However, if winning is the only goal is he really in a better off this season than he was in Cleveland?
On it’s face it seems like a silly question. I think everyone except Dan Gilbert would be in agreement that this year’s Heat incarnation has significantly more talent. Of course talent doesn’t always equate to winning; just ask Isaiah Rider. The conventional wisdom is that LeBron has a better chance of winning a championship in Miami. Does that wisdom overvalue the impact of talent and undervalue the importance of things like chemistry and a roster filled with a synergistic blend of complimentary role players?
One thing we do know for sure is that this year’s Heat team has not played as well as last year’s Cavaliers. The table below shows some key statistics from Basketball-Reference for each team. I took the liberty of highlighting the better number for each stat.
Let me go through and explain what we’re looking at here. The bottom eight categories represent the Four Factors on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Last year’s Cavs and this year’s Heat each split the offensive and defensive Four Factors 2-2. When we look at the Offensive and Defensive Ratings we see that Miami is a little bit better defensively and the Cavs with LeBron were a little bit better offensively. However, the tradeoff is essentially a wash as both teams had a Net Rating of +7.1.
Wins and losses is where the two teams really to start to separate themselves. Last year’s Cavs won a much higher percentage of their games including those against the other top five teams in the league. Miami has gone an abyssmal 3-9 against Chicago, Boston, Orlando, San Antonio and the Lakers this season. The next category, SRS, is the Simple Rating System used by Basketball-Reference. The higher the number, the better the team. Again Cleveland comes out on top.
SOS stands for strength of schedule. Both teams had a negative SOS demonstrating the advantage they’ve gained playing against the relatively weaker Eastern Conference. However, Cleveland’s again is higher. They won a much higher percentage of their games and accomplished it against a more difficult schedule than the Heat have played so far this season.
The final category is my favorite illustration of the differences between these two teams. The Pythagorean Win formula uses a team’s point differential to predict their performance. It has shown to be an extremely accurate predictor of the true abilities of a team. I compared the Pythagorean Wins for each team to their actual win total. Last year’s Cavs won 2 more games than predicted. This season’s Heat have lost 3 more games than they should have. So last year’s Cavs overperformed against a tougher schedule while this season’s Miami Heat have underperformed against an easier schedule.
The Cavaliers performance last season was the culmination of several years of work and shared development from the bulk of the roster, while Miami’s big three have played less than 70 games together. In that regard it’s somewhat unfair to to be comparing these two teams. Regular season performance is also not always a great indicator for postseason success. If you need any convincing on that point sit down and watch a few Boston Celtics’ games from last March.
The other thing that’s important is that our view of last year’s Cavaliers is distinctly colored by the way the season ended for them. Their meltdown, headlined by LeBron, is the thing that will likely be remembered most about that team, but let’s not forget how completely unexpected and out of character it was at the time. They were a juggernaut and played that way for the first 95% of the season.
Winning this season’s title is certainly important to LeBron but it’s probably packed onto a list of other priorities like winning multiple titles, living in Miami and playing with his friends. I’m sure he would never second guess his decision based on his chances of winning the title in this season alone. Still, just reading this question has kept my wheels turning all morning.
If someone asked me right now which team, last season’s Cavaliers or this season’s Miami Heat, would finish their regular season with a better chance of winning the championship I’m not sure who I’d pick. Not having an answer to that question never even crossed my mind three months ago.