Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Heat Check: LeBron James Is In A Better Place Now

There's been some content floating around the Wages of Wins Network debating whether the Heat are better than last season's Cavs and whether or not LeBron James actually has better teammates in Miami than he had in Cleveland.


...If you're still reading this after rolling on the floor laughing, then let's quickly debunk this nonsense.

This article will use Win Score and Estimated Wins Produced, statistical models created by Professor David Berri from the Wages of Wins Journal, to measure how much a player's box score statistics contributed to their team's efficiency differential and wins. An average player produces an estimated 0.100 wins per 48 minutes (EWP48), a star player produces 0.200+ EWP48 and a superstar produces 0.300+ EWP48. More information on these stats can be found at the following links:

The debate started with a nice post by Ian Levy - The Grass Might Be Greener | Hickory High. Ian actually put together a decent list of stats in response to a comment posted at the New York Times' Off the Dribble Blog, but the flaw with his article is timing.

Ian illustrates how the stats for the 2011 Heat pale in comparison to the 2010 Cavaliers, but the problem is that the picture he painted was done on March 10 after the Heat had lost five games in a row, including a 30-point blowout in San Antonio. That bad stretch was enough to drop the team's Estimated Winning Percentage from 0.720 to 0.690 (see the Heat Produced Chart). That's the difference between a team expected to win 59 games and a team expected to win 57 games.

Why is that a big deal? Well, the best measure of a team's quality is efficiency differential and Ian showed that the Heat had the same efficiency differential as last year's Cavs at +7.1. Of course, since Estimated Wins Produced per 48 minutes is based on efficiency differential, the Heat's efficiency differential declined during the losing streak, too.

After winning three games in a row, including a 30-point blowout of the Spurs, the Heat's efficiency differential has increased to +7.8, according to A team with an efficiency differential that increases by +0.7 would be expected to have two extra wins.

So if we go by efficiency differential, then the 2011 Heat have been more productive than the 2010 Cavaliers.

After reviewing Ian's thoughtful look at the Heat and Cavs, things literally start to get silly. Notorious Celtics fan, Arturo Galletti, made the statement that LeBron had better teammates on the 2009 Cavs than his new team in Miami during the Tuesday Podcast: A Rose does not equal Love | Arturo's Silly Little Stats.

After the podcast, Arturo said this should not be up for debate and sent the following tweet:

@MIA_Heat_Index Just checked. Heat '11 no LBJ project out to 41.7 wins (so far). Cavs '09 no LBJ project out to 43.3 wins. Not a huge diff.

The obvious problems were pointed out with Arturo's analysis during the podcast, mainly:
  • Arturo's confusing production with talent.
  • LeBron's top five teammates in Miami are better than the top five teammates he had in Cleveland, and that's all that matters according to analysis Arturo did previously.
I'm not going to address those issues, since they were handled by others on the podcast. I'm going to address whether or not LeBron's Cleveland teammates were actually more productive than his Miami teammates.

One of the strongest cases for LeBron being MVP this season has been the awful performance by the Cavs since he left. The Cavs have the worst record in the NBA at 12-53 and the worst efficiency differential at -11.  In 2009, the Cavs won 65 games and had an efficiency differential of +10. 

Clearly, measuring the performance of LeBron's teammates while they were able to benefit from his presence on the floor isn't the best way to evaluate them. I think a better method to evaluate LeBron's teammates in Miami and Cleveland is to measure their performance without LeBron on the floor.

This spreadsheet uses data from to summarize the performance of lineups without LeBron from the 2009 Cavs and 2011 Heat.

As expected, the 2009 Cavs lineups without LeBron were pretty bad. How bad? They posted an efficiency differential of -7, which means they would only be expected to win 23 games in a season.

The 2011 Heat lineups without LeBron were about average with an efficiency differential of +1.0 and would be expected to win 44 games. Should a team with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh be expected to win 22 more games than a team featuring Anderson Varejao and Mo Williams as its best players? Yeah, that sounds about right.

I understand fans being confused about why the Heat don't have a better record. But as I mentioned in an earlier article, the answer really comes down to injuries and the decline of LeBron's play this season, not the declining play of his teammates in Miami.

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