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How Much Would Losing LeBron James Hurt the Cavaliers?

Posted by Neil Paine on July 2, 2010

As I watched Byron Scott's introductory press conference as head coach of the Cavs, the spectre of LeBron James' free agency hung over the proceedings (and justifiably so). Scott is a fine coach and has been successful in New Jersey & New Orleans, but I wonder what he could possibly be getting himself into -- I mean, Brian Shaw was reportedly Cleveland's first choice, but in the end he couldn't commit to the team without knowing James would be back. That's looking like a smart move, because now the unenviable question facing Scott is this: if James is gone, can the Cavs even be close to competitive without The King?

Let's break it down with Win Shares and adjusted & statistical plus/minus. Last season, the Cavaliers won 61 games with a +7.1 efficiency differential. James had 0.299 WS/48, a +18.1 APM, and a +12.8 SPM in 2,966 minutes. It's tough to say who the replacement would be if Cleveland can't find a way to keep James in Ohio, but let's say for the sake of argument that they replace him with a league-average player playing the same # of minutes... An average player has 0.100 WS/48, so the Cavs would be losing ((.299 - .100) / 48) * 2966 ~ 12 or 13 wins, simply by replacing him with an average player.

Now, 48-49 wins would still make the playoffs in the East last year, but the damage to Cleveland is much worse when you look at the +/- ratings. Replacing a +12.8 player with a +0.0 one in 2966 MP would take a +7.1 efficiency differential team down to a -2.5 one. Which teams had roughly a -2.5 differential last year? The Raptors (-1.9, 40 wins), Hornets (-2.7, 37 wins), and Pacers (-3.1, 32 wins), meaning SPM sees the Cavs finishing in the lottery without LBJ. And APM's story is even more terrifying for the Cavs: losing a +18.1 player would knock a +7.1 team all the way down to a -6.5 team, which is 2010 Clippers territory. And that's if they can replace him with an average player.

Or maybe it would make things easier if we just looked at the way Cleveland played last year when James wasn't on the floor: they were -4.7 in efficiency, akin to the 2010 Kings, Sixers, or Wizards (compared to +11.1 when he was on the court). Obviously all of these scenarios are simplified models based on many assumptions, but one conclusion that you can count on is that the Cavaliers will be nowhere near the top seed in the East if they can't convince LeBron to stay in Ohio. In fact, if you believe the +/- ratings or the on/off numbers, they probably won't be anywhere near the playoffs without the King, either.

So for Byron Scott's sake, I think it's safe to say he'd better deliver the sales pitch of his life this weekend. Otherwise, he could find himself wishing he was still coaching the Hornets, or even broadcasting for ESPN... Both of those gigs are more appealing than piloting a glorified version of the Clippers.

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8 Responses to “How Much Would Losing LeBron James Hurt the Cavaliers?”

  1. Jason J Says:

    If they lose Bron, they are still over the cap, right? So getting an average replacement would be about the best they could expect.

  2. Neil Paine Says:

    They're on the hook for $49.3M right now, assuming LeBron isn't back:

    http://hoopshype.com/salaries/cleveland.htm

    Cap is like $56M, so they would basically have an MLE-style amount (which is intended for a "league average player") to spend on a replacement. My guess is they would move Jamison to SF, start Varejao, and find a center somewhere... Whatever they do, that's probably a .500 team at best.

  3. Jason J Says:

    OT - Neil, has any research been done on the impact of pace and minutes per game on DRtg? I'm wondering if there's a similar correlations btwn the amount of work a player does on defense and the Usage / ORtg relationship.

  4. Jayson Says:

    The one thing is (even though it is not tangible), the fact that Cleveland's offense was highly dependent upon Lebron James. He was their main scorer and main distributor and the fact that he was so ball-dominant was (in my opinion) a huge reason why they were so putrid and anemic without him on the court. You give the same Cavaliers team a training camp without Lebron and a balanced system like the Princeton offense that Byron Scott runs and I see them still being a fringe playoff team.

    $0.02.

  5. Anon x 2 Says:

    "They're on the hook for $49.3M right now, assuming LeBron isn't back:

    http://hoopshype.com/salaries/cleveland.htm

    Cap is like $56M, so they would basically have an MLE-style amount (which is intended for a "league average player") to spend on a replacement. My guess is they would move Jamison to SF, start Varejao, and find a center somewhere... Whatever they do, that's probably a .500 team at best."

    It's actually more like $50 million. Hoopshype is not accurate. Always use Sham Sports for salaries. http://shamsports.com/content/pages/data/salaries/cavaliers.jsp

    Also West is unguaranteed, only $500k counts against the cap when he is released (assuming not traded). They can be at $46.5 total after waiving West and renouncing rights should Lebron leave.

  6. Anon x 2 Says:

    er, $46 million

  7. Neil Paine Says:

    Thanks Anon, I'm going to add their link to the sidebar.

  8. UB Says:

    I don't think you can use plus/minus that easily. Just taking a pair of players that were right around the .100 WS48 range last year on the same team:

    Russell Westbrook's SPM is +3.8
    Jeff Green's SPM is -4.2

    That's an 8-point swing for players with identical WS48s. So I'm not sure that an 'average' player has a +0.0 plus-minus.