We’re inaugurating our NBA player projection system, CARMELO, with 2015-16 season previews for every team in the league. Check out the teams we’ve already previewed here. Learn more about CARMELO here.
From mid-January until about halfway through the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers had the best record in basketball, going on a 48-12 run of dominance. Then it all came crashing down with a three-game losing streak that ended their championship chase and started a summer of discontent. The only question that matters for this Cavs team is whether that bad taste can fuel them to a title this season, or if we’ll look back and realize that injuries ruined the Cavs’ best chance in Year One of their Big Three era. During the 2015-16 regular season at least, FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO model expects the Cavs to go 59-23.
And here’s what CARMELO expects from Cleveland’s main players:
CARMELO tags LeBron James as an “MVP candidate,” an apt label for the consensus pick for most valuable in this year’s NBA.com GM survey. But a far more interesting part of James’s chart is his comps. CARMELO’s algorithm thinks LeBron is most like former teammate Dwyane Wade in 2012-13, Wade’s third season alongside James. The rest of his top 10 comp list is just as fascinating, both for who is included — a contemporary rival (Kobe Bryant), one of his idols (Scottie Pippen) and arguably two of the five best players ever (Magic Johnson and Larry Bird) — as it is for who is not (the G.O.A.T. himself, Michael Jordan).1
While CARMELO lists Kyrie Irving’s No. 1 comp as David “Skywalker” Thompson, a notoriously high-flying player, Irving makes his bones below the rim. (Perhaps the link speaks to explosive scoring ability: Thompson once scored 73 points in a game and Irving had those 55- and 57-point outbursts a year ago.) Another area in which the Cavs hope CARMELO is confused is his defensive plus-minus, which is projected to decline this season despite the defensive strides he made with last season’s Cavs team.
Everyone knows Kevin Love for his rebounding aptitude, but the blue dots on his CARMELO card speak to the other areas of the game in which Love excels: scoring, shooting efficiently, drawing fouls and — in an underrated facet of his game — rarely turning the ball over. Even Love’s defense, long maligned by observers, draws a slightly above-average grade according to CARMELO’s plus-minus metric. The Cavs mounted a Finals run without him, but it would be a mistake to think he isn’t crucial to their hopes of a return trip.
There’s a perhaps-not-so-coincidental thread running through five of J.R. Smith’s top 10 comparables: Byron Scott, Kerry Kittles, Rick Fox, Dennis Scott and Stephen Jackson all played in the Finals during their careers. Smith is looking to make it two trips in a row — though another commonality among most of his comps was a tendency to decline quickly once hitting the wrong side of 30. The Cavs have a decent amount of depth on the wing, but they still need Smith to buck historical trends for another year or two (and a playoff run like Smith’s last year would be a stroke of great fortune).
The man they call “Mozzy” most likely peaked last season, according to CARMELO. If true, that will make things interesting when he becomes a free agent in the summer of 2016 and starts looking for big money. In the meantime, Mozgov will likely grade well once again in the duties you want performed by a role-playing big man: rebounding, blocking shots, playing tough D, finishing with efficiency and drawing fouls.
Cavs general manager David Griffin might want to use CARMELO’s comps for Tristan Thompson in his next round of negotiations with Rich Paul — there aren’t many max-money-type players in that group. (That will have to be in five years, as Thompson signed a long-term contract worth $82 million last week.) For now, though, Thompson offers a lot of the same statistical strengths — and weaknesses — as Mozgov: good rebounding, foul-drawing and shooting efficiency, but a low usage rate and next to no assists or steals.
Iman Shumpert is lauded for his defensive intensity and athleticism, but CARMELO highlights a handful of categories clearly holding the shooting guard back on offense. Namely, his shooting efficiency is weak, he doesn’t draw fouls, he turns the ball over a bit too much and he isn’t much of a scorer. Shumpert’s defensive metrics live up to his reputation, but that just fuels the algorithm’s comparisons to other hard-nosed, defense-first guards such as T.R. Dunn and Thabo Sefolosha. Those players have their charms, but Shumpert has quite a few offensive hurdles to clear to take the next step as an all-around player.