Could Cleveland Cavaliers Offense Be Best Ever?

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Could Cleveland Cavaliers Offense Be Best Ever?
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Outfitted in a sharp suit and wine-colored tie, Kevin Love had every reason to smile when he was formally introduced as the newest member of the Cleveland Cavaliers on Aug. 26.

He'd just joined LeBron James, left a situation in Minnesota he'd worked for months to escape and, not least of all, turned the Cavs into what might be the greatest offense in NBA history.

Might.

Mashing multiple stars together and assuming they'll find immediate harmony is dangerous. The Miami Heat were supposed to conquer the basketball world in 2010, and while they ultimately enjoyed four very successful years, it took lots of time and a few growing pains before James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh really figured out how to play well together.

And that's to say nothing of the supposed juggernaut the Los Angeles Lakers constructed in 2012. You know, the one featuring Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash that fizzled out almost immediately.

Kyrie Irving, Love and LeBron have at least as much raw offensive talent as that Miami trio had, and there's a case to be made that they actually fit together more naturally.

Plus, Love and Irving are still young NBA players—ones whose efficiency should benefit from moving down a peg on the team totem pole.

James is a force of nature on the hardwood. Specifically, he's gravity. Defenders are drawn to him because he's the most fearsome and versatile offensive talent in the game. His mere presence alongside Irving and Love alleviates pressure and playmaking duties.

We don't even really know how good Irving or Love, who both functioned as top options with little help throughout their careers, can be. James will help us find out.

Now cast in secondary roles on a legitimate contender, we should expect to see both Irving and Love take more good shots. For two players who are already efficient scorers, that's a scary thought.

Flipping it, Irving and Love also figure to make James' life on offense easier.

Irving is a masterful shot creator, capable of dominating games by breaking down the defense off the dribble. Love can score on the block, wreak havoc on the offensive glass and, of course, space the floor with his three-point range. They'll welcome James' help, but Love and Irving can certainly help themselves.

This will be a welcome change for James, who had to create shots for virtually all of his former Heat teammates—even Wade, whose lack of range and dwindling athleticism made him more dependent than ever on James' facilitation.

Per Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight.com, LeBron won't have to do it all this year:

Even so, the Cavaliers are considered the favorites to win next year’s NBA championship. A lot of that is due to James’s return, but it doesn’t hurt that he’ll play with the most gifted set of teammates he’s ever had.

 

Compiling the Evidence

USA TODAY Sports

OK, great. The Cavs are going to be good. But what about that offense, specifically?

Well, for starters, consider this: Of the nine players in the entire NBA to average 20 points, four assists and hit 100 threes last season, three of them now play for the Cavaliers, per Basketball-Reference.com.

Here again we run up against the idea that numbers achieved separately don't necessarily mean they'll be duplicated together. "NBA history is littered with the torn-up blueprints for 'on paper' dynasties that never reached their potential," Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland.com wrote.

Caveat noted.

Of course, Goldsberry also wrote:

With the new Big 3 in place, Cleveland will likely become one of the league’s most prolific interior scoring teams. Both James and Love have demonstrated they can blend volume and effectiveness down there at an elite level. However, it also stands to reason they’re going to be pretty good away from the basket as well.

It seems safe to say the Cavs are going to score, even with the hiccups and chemistry issues new teams invariably face. But can they score at historic rates?

Thanks to some hard work by Ian Levy and Andrew Lynch of Hardwood Paroxysm, we have a database available that can help.

We all know offensive rating measures how many points a team scores per 100 possessions. It's a vastly superior stat to points per game because it adjusts for pace, which eliminates some of the deceptively high totals up-and-down offensive clubs accumulate.

Levy and Lynch took things a step further, though. They compiled every team's offensive ratings over the past 40 years and then weighed them against the league-average for each applicable season. That had the effect of showing how each team's offenses stacked up against the league average. They call it offensive rating "plus" or ORtg+.

Measured against the overall production of the league that season, the 2003-04 Dallas Mavericks had the greatest offense of all time. They posted a raw offensive rating of 112.1, which doesn't even crack the top 50 totals of the past 40 years. But when compared to the league-average offensive rating for that 2003-04 campaign, the Mavs' ORrtg+ of 108.9 was tops in history.

ELAINE THOMPSON/Associated Press

If adjusting for the context of the league seems overly complicated, we can consult the raw totals as well.

By that method, the 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers, in peak Showtime form, head the all-time list with an offensive rating of 115.6, per Basketball-Reference. A handful of Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls teams rated very high as well.

 

Looking Ahead

B/R

So how might the Cavaliers fare against the last 40 years of teams for which we have data?

According to ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton (subscription required), pretty darn well. His SCHOENE projections foresee the Cavs having "the best offensive rating (118.0 points per 100 possessions) the league has seen in that four-decade span."

The reason?

"Cleveland could feature unprecedented offensive versatility," Pelton explains. "Since the ABA-NBA merger, no team has ranked in the top five in all four offensive factors (shooting, rebounding, free throws and turnover rate)...SCHOENE projects the Cavaliers first in both eFG% on offense and offensive rebounding and fifth in the other two factors."

The Cavs offense figures to be capable of anything. Mike Miller and James Jones can catch fire from distance, Shawn Marion and Anderson Varejao will cut, rebound and do the dirty work and Dion Waiters might put up 15 easy points off the pine. 

Without knowing what the league's average offensive rating will be in 2014-15, we can't definitively say where Cleveland will stack up in ORtg+. But if we assume a modest uptick (offense has trended up the past three seasons) over last year's average of 106.5 to, say, 107, the Cavs' projected ORtg+ of 110 would best the one posted by the '03-'04 Mavs.

In addition to projections like Pelton's, there are other signs that point to a new level of offensive dominance for the Cavs. Guys like Love and Irving are out of excuses now that James is in town and they have a deeper, more experienced roster around them. Maybe that will provide both with the motivational boost necessary to take their games to a new level.

USA TODAY Sports

And maybe David Blatt, by all accounts a creative, adaptable offensive mind, will push all the right buttons.

It's tempting to ignore the lingering questions surrounding Cleveland.

Why worry about issues like fit, chemistry and the unique struggle of cramming three ultra-high-usage players together when we can drool over the possibility that this team could have the most potent offense we've ever seen?

The problem, though, is that when you look over Levy and Lynch's list, you don't see any teams near the top that had just undergone massive overhauls in the offseason before their offensive explosions.

The 2004-05 Phoenix Suns come closest. They added Steve Nash in the summer of 2004, but he joined a team that already had Joe Johnson, Marion and Amar'e Stoudemire in place. That's not the same as adding two new superstars and a boatload of supporting free agents. Phoenix, led by newly installed head coach Mike D'Antoni, didn't have to make any wholesale changes to accommodate Nash.

Barry Gossage/Getty Images

In his prime, Nash could play with anybody, which you can probably say about James today. But Nash got the keys to an offense that was tailor-made for him and joined a preexisting core of talent that was already familiar with one another.

Cleveland is basically starting from scratch.

The Cavs will have to work a little harder to integrate so many new pieces.

So we'll close with this: The Cavaliers will have one of the best offenses in NBA history—eventually.  Just don't expect it this season.

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