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How Many Titles Should the Cleveland Cavaliers Have Won During the LeBron Era?

Posted by Neil Paine on July 15, 2010

One common media refrain when criticizing LeBron James' decision to "take his talents to South Beach" has been the idea that he left behind unfinished business in Cleveland. He and the Cavs posted consecutive 60+ win seasons in 2009 & 2010, each time securing the #1 record (and top playoff seed) in the Eastern Conference, but in both years Cleveland flamed out early. Many have used this as supposed "proof" of some character flaw on the part of James and his teammates, but what was the probability that this could have simply happened due to random chance alone?

To answer this question, I set up a very basic Monte Carlo simulation using the regular-season winning percentages of all playoff teams since the Cavs' first playoff appearance of the James era (2006). 10,000 times, I simulated the playoffs for each season, taking into account the postseason bracket & home-court advantage effects, and I recorded the team that won the Finals in each simulation. Here's how it broke down for each season:

Year Team W L Championship%
2010 Cleveland Cavaliers 61 21 36.8%
2010 Orlando Magic 59 23 21.1%
2010 Los Angeles Lakers 57 25 13.2%
2010 Dallas Mavericks 55 27 7.9%
2010 Phoenix Suns 54 28 5.3%
2010 Atlanta Hawks 53 29 3.7%
2010 Denver Nuggets 53 29 3.4%
2010 Utah Jazz 53 29 3.0%
2010 Boston Celtics 50 32 1.4%
2010 Oklahoma City Thunder 50 32 1.3%
2010 San Antonio Spurs 50 32 1.2%
2010 Portland Trail Blazers 50 32 0.9%
2010 Miami Heat 47 35 0.5%
2010 Milwaukee Bucks 46 36 0.3%
2010 Charlotte Bobcats 44 38 0.1%
2010 Chicago Bulls 41 41 0.1%
2009 Cleveland Cavaliers 66 16 44.7%
2009 Los Angeles Lakers 65 17 34.2%
2009 Boston Celtics 62 20 11.3%
2009 Orlando Magic 59 23 4.2%
2009 San Antonio Spurs 54 28 1.8%
2009 Denver Nuggets 54 28 1.6%
2009 Portland Trail Blazers 54 28 1.0%
2009 Houston Rockets 53 29 0.6%
2009 Dallas Mavericks 50 32 0.3%
2009 New Orleans Hornets 49 33 0.2%
2009 Atlanta Hawks 47 35 0.2%
2009 Utah Jazz 48 34 0.1%
2009 Miami Heat 43 39 0.0%
2009 Chicago Bulls 41 41 0.0%
2009 Detroit Pistons 39 43 0.0%
2009 Philadelphia 76ers 41 41 0.0%
2008 Boston Celtics 66 16 63.5%
2008 Detroit Pistons 59 23 12.2%
2008 Los Angeles Lakers 57 25 6.4%
2008 New Orleans Hornets 56 26 4.6%
2008 San Antonio Spurs 56 26 3.9%
2008 Houston Rockets 55 27 2.6%
2008 Phoenix Suns 55 27 2.4%
2008 Utah Jazz 54 28 1.8%
2008 Orlando Magic 52 30 1.5%
2008 Dallas Mavericks 51 31 0.5%
2008 Denver Nuggets 50 32 0.4%
2008 Cleveland Cavaliers 45 37 0.1%
2008 Washington Wizards 43 39 0.1%
2008 Philadelphia 76ers 40 42 0.0%
2008 Toronto Raptors 41 41 0.0%
2008 Atlanta Hawks 37 45 0.0%
2007 Dallas Mavericks 67 15 64.2%
2007 Phoenix Suns 61 21 15.5%
2007 San Antonio Spurs 58 24 6.1%
2007 Detroit Pistons 53 29 6.0%
2007 Cleveland Cavaliers 50 32 3.0%
2007 Chicago Bulls 49 33 1.7%
2007 Toronto Raptors 47 35 1.3%
2007 Houston Rockets 52 30 0.9%
2007 Utah Jazz 51 31 0.6%
2007 Miami Heat 44 38 0.3%
2007 New Jersey Nets 41 41 0.1%
2007 Orlando Magic 40 42 0.1%
2007 Washington Wizards 41 41 0.1%
2007 Golden State Warriors 42 40 0.0%
2007 Denver Nuggets 45 37 0.0%
2007 Los Angeles Lakers 42 40 0.0%
2006 Detroit Pistons 64 18 49.2%
2006 San Antonio Spurs 63 19 28.5%
2006 Dallas Mavericks 60 22 11.4%
2006 Phoenix Suns 54 28 4.1%
2006 Miami Heat 52 30 3.0%
2006 Cleveland Cavaliers 50 32 1.2%
2006 New Jersey Nets 49 33 1.1%
2006 Los Angeles Clippers 47 35 0.6%
2006 Memphis Grizzlies 49 33 0.3%
2006 Los Angeles Lakers 45 37 0.2%
2006 Denver Nuggets 44 38 0.1%
2006 Chicago Bulls 41 41 0.1%
2006 Washington Wizards 42 40 0.1%
2006 Indiana Pacers 41 41 0.1%
2006 Sacramento Kings 44 38 0.0%
2006 Milwaukee Bucks 40 42 0.0%

As you can see, despite having the league's best record over the past two seasons, Cleveland had less than a 45% chance of winning each year even if they had played at exactly the same level as they had during the regular season. However, calculating the expected odds of them being shut out twice in two years requires some additional math: since we know the probability of the Cavs not winning in 2010 was (1 - 0.368) = 0.632, and the probability of them not winning in 2009 was (1 - 0.447) = 0.553, the odds of them being ringless in consecutive seasons was (0.632 * 0.553) = 35%. Certainly that's still within the realm of reasonable probability, but the inverse is that they had a 65% probability of winning at least one ring in the last 2 seasons, and they failed to deliver.

If you expanded things to look at the entire LeBron era, you'd find that Cleveland won 0.8579 titles on average during the 5 years the Cavs made the postseason. Here's a frequency table detailing how often they won each # of titles during that span:

# of Titles Frequency
0 33.5%
1 48.0%
2 17.8%
3 0.7%
4 0.0%
5 0.0%

In this sense, the LeBron James era in Cleveland was absolutely a disappointment. The Cavaliers had a 66.5% probability of giving Cleveland at least 1 NBA championship during his 5-year run there, with the most common outcome being exactly 1 title, and they were unable to make it happen... That's nothing if not unfinished business.

That said, there's still roughly a one-third chance that the Cavs' recent postseason failings have been due to random chance alone. Unfortunately, this is not exactly solace to poor Cleveland fans, because if that's true it means they happened to end up in the unlucky 1⁄3 of alternate universes that featured James skipping town without any hardware. Man, and you know things are rough for your city when even the multiverse is against you.

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117 Responses to “How Many Titles Should the Cleveland Cavaliers Have Won During the LeBron Era?”

  1. Daniel Song Says:

    In my experience the most important factors to winning a championship are (1) officiating, (2) talent, (3) experience, and (4) coaching. Regular season numbers aren't quite as important. I've seen too many championship-caliber teams dog it in the regular season, only to turn it on come playoff time. It's the Randy Moss effect - they play when they feel like it.

    This is where a lot of numerical analysis goes wrong. Talent doesn't always show up in the regular season numbers. Experience and coaching are hard to quantify. And you can have all the factors in your favor and outplay the opposition - but a few whistles in some key spots will completely change the game. Miami in '06 is a perfect example. There are many others.

    Officiating has been one of the points that has driven handicappers nuts for years. Even a couple of whistles changes winners into losers. For an extreme example, Dwayne Wade shot close to 20 free throws per game in '06 - which prompted me to look at all the games in '06 when Kobe shot 20 or more free throws. In those games, Lakers were undefeated and outscored their opposition by more than 15 a game, while Kobe averaged over 50 points per game. Refereeing makes a huge difference!

  2. Daniel Song Says:

    P.S. About Wade, I'm referencing the '06 NBA Finals.

  3. themojojedi Says:

    101. Really? You believe that the number 1 factor in winning a championship is officiating? That will come as quite a blow to the legacy of Bill Russell ;)

    The 2006 Finals is an extreme example, but surely it is the exception rather than the rule. Even with the outrageous number of calls for Wade, the Heat only won by 2 in Game 3 (18FTA), by 1 in Game 5 (25FTA) and by 3 in Game 6 (21FTA), with HCA in the first 2 of those games. Let's say you put the exaggerated free throw numbers solely down to officiating. That indicates to me that even in this extreme case it takes a significant amount of referee interference to barely overcome the basketball-related factors (e.g. Dallas with a regular season efficiency differential larger by 2.6 as one measure of this). That seems to indicate a fairly low sensitivity to officiating rather than high.

    There's also the issue of separately identifying the components causing the FTA. Part of it is officiating, while other aspects being captured are the quality and aggressiveness of the player getting the calls. Apart from that, the FTA numbers here might just be an indicator that flaws in the Mavericks defense are being systematically attacked and exploited, which is typical in a 7 game series. These 2005-06 Mavs did get outscored 62-61 through 3 quarters by Kobe, another attacking perimeter player, who averaged 43 ppg and 16.7 FTA/g in their regular season series.
    Similarly, LeBron averaged 41ppg and 10.5 FTA/g in two regular season meetings. Exploiting the weaknesses of opponents speaks more to talent, experience and coaching than officiating.

  4. Daniel Song Says:

    Themojojedi,

    I've been a Lakers fan and I will readily admit that officiating was perhaps the biggest factor in several of their championships. Lakers got the calls down the stretch in Game 7 vs. Portland in 2000. Sixers were definitely robbed in Game 3 in the 2001 Finals. There's absolutely no way the Lakers should have beaten the Kings in 2002. In 2009, the Lakers were too dominant for the referees to make a difference but the Lakers lived at the free throw line down the stretch vs. Boston in Game 7.

    Officiating was one of the factors that just killed my earlier attempts at analyzing playoff teams. After being taken to the shed a few times, I finally decided to incorporate them into my power ratings and started adjusting them based over the course of the playoffs, based on the calls they were (or weren't) getting. My results started to improve once I got better at predicting potential refereeing bias.

    As for the 2006 NBA Finals, the fouls often came in key spots that stopped Dallas' runs or fueled Miami's. Wade was fouled consistently, but there were many, MANY instances in which he just jumped into the player, threw up an airball, fell down and got two free throws. Plus, it seemed that Dirk Nowitzki was being fouled every time down as well, yet he did not get near the number of free throws. It was really an infamous Final and the general consensus was that Dallas was getting hosed - not that Dallas were a bunch of thugs who were justly punished.

    I'm not sure how much Russell and the Celtics were affected by the officiating. What I do know is that the "stars" system and the officiating bias targeted toward certain teams has been around at least since the early 80's. People have been joking about this for 30 years now and virtually no one was surprised when it was revealed that an NBA referee was found to have fixed games. But even if you don't buy the anecdotal evidence, what I know for certain is that my prediction accuracy increased once I started to incorporate possible refereeing bias in my handicapping.

  5. themojojedi Says:

    Daniel Song,

    I agree that officiating can impact games and series, particularly those that are more evenly matched, and it makes sense that you could increase your prediction accuracy when incorporating referee-related variables. I also agree that the timing of crucial calls can have a huge impact, but I'm sure that you could find 4 or 5 crucial basketball plays for every seemingly unethical (and not just incompetent) call. But I don't think conceding these points establishes officiating as the most important factor in winning a championship. Do your officiating variables add MORE predictive power than the basketball-related variables?

    Given that you are putting your money on the line based on your predictions I'm guessing you have a pretty sophisticated model. If you don't mind me asking, what seem to be some of the stronger officiating "biases" that you've found? Big city bias, star treatment bias, referee allocation bias, individual referee bias, home court officiating bias, bias toward certain styles of play?

  6. Daniel Song Says:

    themojojedi,

    There are several types of officiating bias and each one of them must be considered.

    The most well-known factor is widely known throughout the betting circles - the infamous "zig-zag" effect. It's a simple system in which you simply play the straight-up loser of the previous game of the series. It's so powerful that the Las Vegas line eventually moved 1-2 points to account for this effect. People cite "motivation" as the reason for this effect, but I think officiating has just as powerful an effect. This system is especially powerful when an underdog plays its first home game down 0-2 in the series.

    Just two cite two examples in the playoffs, Lakers were up 2-0 vs. both Oklahoma City and Phoenix. In game 3, Lakers were beaten both times as their opponents racked up considerable free throw advantages. This was especially curious since Lakers are much more geared towards an inside game than either of their opponents. It was interesting to see how the games transpired. Lakers took the ball to the basket, got mugged, and was left searching for in vain for whistles. After a while they started to jack up contested threes since that seemed to be the only way they could score. Obviously it was a losing proposition and they went down in defeat.

    There was a somewhat related example in both of the conference Finals. The Lakers and Celtics both seemed to be headed toward sweeps. Not surprisingly the Suns and Magic received the benefit of the calls in the next couple of games as the series tightened up. When the officiating became more even, the Lakers and Celtics were able to close out the series.

    Yet another example is the frequency of fouls that are called. Some games are foulfests while others are wrestling matches. Obviously, the foulfests will result in higher-scoring games than wrestling matches for the most part. And foulfests tend to favor finesse teams while wrestling matches tend to favor physical teams. In addition, sometimes star players will get into foul trouble, testing a team's depth. This type of bias will generally influence the total more than the spread, though you can seriously change a game by putting a team's best player in severe foul trouble.

    The most infamous, and hated, example of officiating bias is the "star" treatment - both toward established stars and their teams. Even Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were reviled back in the day for being able to run into the lane, throw up a wild shot while falling to the floor, and get two free throws. Among today's players, Lebron James is an obvious example - he often runs right to the basket and bowls over a defender in the lane, and gets two free throws. And he never seems to be whistled for a foul no matter what he does. Dwayne Wade is an even more egregious example as he just jumps into the defender on the 15-20 foot jump shots and still gets two free throws. Kobe, not as much - though he got several gifts down the stretch in Game 7 vs. the Celtics. The opposite of that is Dirk Nowitzki, who gets mugged on every play but almost never gets to shoot free throws.

    Teams also get calls. 2006 Miami was a great example. The 2007 Spurs-Suns series, another one (though Suns received a Christmas present in Game 4). Celtics got the calls against the Lakers in Games 1 and 2 and it left the Lakers in too big a hole to dig out of. I can go back to the previous Lakers three-peat, the Bulls' two three-peats, and the Lakers and Celtics in the 80's. It's the same old story.

    This affects the future betting in a significant way. All but 2-3 teams become unbettable since they (1) don't have the star player who will rack up bogus free throws, or (2) don't have the "pedigree" that will allow them to get the calls in a closely-contested series. Yes, these factors can be overcome, but not often enough to justify betting on these teams. This is why the "favorites" are usually the best ways to bet the futures. The vast majority of my wins were from backing the top team(s) at short odds or shorting good regular season teams that didn't have the above two factors.

    I still find NBA entertaining and feel it has the same appeal as watching pro wrestling or your favorite TV show. It's somewhat scripted but you still don't know what's going to happen, and it always manages to produce its share of excitement. Let's see what happens in 2011!

    P.S. Unless you are the LA Lakers, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics or the Orlando Magic, you have zero chance of winning the championship. Don't say I didn't warn you.

  7. Jason J Says:

    Daniel - I think you exaggerate the gifts given to Bird and Magic. Neither of them averaged very many foul shots per game in a much more grabby era of defense.

    Also Dirk gets to the line a ton for a guy who is primarily a high post jump shooter. With the exception of 2010, his free throws have been right in line with Michael Jordan's when the Bulls switched to the triangle offense and Michael began most possessions in the same spots that Dirk does. Maybe that's the wrong comparison due to the era difference in what constitutes a foul (frankly I think Bryant and Pierce both get a lot more benefit of the doubt whistles than MJ or Dirk in those jumpshooting / high post situations - but they also sell it better).

  8. Daniel Song Says:

    You could be right, but my goal was to find a way to cash more tickets. I'd rather have a biased and flawed analysis lead to the right answer than to have a completely numerical analysis lead to the wrong answer. I've seen several attempts to predict NBA outcomes simply by using regular season statistics. All of them failed miserably, including my own.

    However you do make a good point in that Pierce is yet another one of those floppers who get bogus free throws. I think Kevin Durant is yet another player that has shown potential in that arena. Unfortunately we've gotten to the point where flopping is the most important skill to have on offense and I would love to see that change. If I wanted to watch flopping all day I can always watch soccer. I would like to see something different in basketball.

  9. Jason J Says:

    No argument regarding the annoying overabundance of flopping in today's game. Fisher was driving me insane in this last finals, but like JVG said, he's been doing it to great effect since he came into the league, no reason to expect him to stop now.

  10. themojojedi Says:

    Thanks for the info Daniel, interesting to get a betting perspective on officiating.

  11. Ryan. Says:

    Daniel, why is it that you offer rhetoric as opposed to method? This seems - and forgive me for being judgmental here - like one of the all-too-common charades constantly haunting the hallway of stat analysis. I guess what I'm saying is, until you provide true basis and not just poetics, I'll call BS.

  12. Gil Meriken Says:

    111.

    Ask yourself, what is "true basis"?

  13. Sean Says:

    Hard to say. An equal question might be: 'just how many wins during the regular season should teams like the 2009 & 2010 Cavs have had?'

    The post season in some sports seems to be a different animal than the regular season and relying on regular season success alone to predict post season success can be foolhardy.

    Sports where you play 'best of' series tend to be like this. The preparation is different. Playing the same opponent 7 games in a row or even 4 games in a row, home and away is different than different day/ different city. You are dissecting an opponent and countering counter-moves from the same foes over a week/ 2 week span.

    With hockey it gets whacky with the 'hot goalie' effect, baseball has it's 'how's your rotation set up' effect and nobody forgets your moves night after night in basketball if you keep playing the same guy(s)...

    LeBron can be figured out. A strong team will take away what you do best, then it's your move. LeBron maybe doesn't have enough ways to beat you in a long series if you're a good team. He does during the regular season, perhaps because he's flying into your city, playing one game, then leaving. You can't make adjustments. The travel is different in the playoffs... and older team like the Celtics may have benefited from staying in a city for extra days during a series. There's a lot that makes the post season different.

  14. King Kong Says:

    There are lots of great players that haven't won a ring, or only won one ring. The problem is that LeBron was (and is) endlessly hyped by everyone, and his continual failure is constantly excused.

    I do think he and Kobe are the two best players in the league, but wait until he proves himself to suck him off or you're going to end up with even more excuses

  15. Eric Says:

    Looking at the results compared to the probabilities is troublesome for this method. The favorites to win the championship only did so 1 out of 5 - the 2008 Celtics. The favorites from each conference only reached the Finals 4 out of 10 chances. The actual champion had probabilities of 3%, 6.1%, 63.5%, 34.2%, and 13.2% against favorite probabilities of 49.2%, 64.2%, 63.5%, 44.7%, and 36.8%.

  16. Neil Paine Says:

    Again, these are not intended to represent the teams' "true" probabilities of winning the championship; it's what we would expect their probabilities to be based on regular-season winning % alone.

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