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:
|2010||Los Angeles Lakers||57||25||13.2%|
|2010||Oklahoma City Thunder||50||32||1.3%|
|2010||San Antonio Spurs||50||32||1.2%|
|2010||Portland Trail Blazers||50||32||0.9%|
|2009||Los Angeles Lakers||65||17||34.2%|
|2009||San Antonio Spurs||54||28||1.8%|
|2009||Portland Trail Blazers||54||28||1.0%|
|2009||New Orleans Hornets||49||33||0.2%|
|2008||Los Angeles Lakers||57||25||6.4%|
|2008||New Orleans Hornets||56||26||4.6%|
|2008||San Antonio Spurs||56||26||3.9%|
|2007||San Antonio Spurs||58||24||6.1%|
|2007||New Jersey Nets||41||41||0.1%|
|2007||Golden State Warriors||42||40||0.0%|
|2007||Los Angeles Lakers||42||40||0.0%|
|2006||San Antonio Spurs||63||19||28.5%|
|2006||New Jersey Nets||49||33||1.1%|
|2006||Los Angeles Clippers||47||35||0.6%|
|2006||Los Angeles Lakers||45||37||0.2%|
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|
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.