The Top 8 – Week Four

Posted by Michael Flores | Sports

“The Top 8” is an ongoing weekly column focused on the NBA… And more importantly my favorite NBA team, the Cleveland Cavaliers! For any and all installments, click here.

The Cavs ended Week Three with a heartbreaking loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. People whose jaws dropped and heads shook actually watching the game probably blame an errant ref whistle; but those of us looking at the box score just saw the Cavs drop it by three points in double overtime.

Our heroes then opened up Week Four with a swing at another midwest team: The Detroit Pistons.

Game Eleven: Cavs at Pistons 11/17/2015

There was once a stretch where the mighty Pistons were locks for the Eastern Conference Finals, and back in 2007, the Cavs had to get by them for LBJ to make that first NBA Finals appearance, himself.

Times have changed, though, and the Pistons are barely above .500.

HOWEVER — and this is a big “however” — The Pistons have got Andre Drummond.

ESPN Headline: Pistons rally for 104-99 win over Cavs despite James’ 30

This headline doesn’t begin to describe the game. Thirty points… Whatever! LBJ wasn’t even the best Cav. The real headline here should have been either been celebrating Andre Drummond’s monster line (25 points, 18 rebounds) or pointing out how the Cavs were routed 18-29 in the fourth quarter.

Every time I see an Andre Drummond box score I get a little angry. Drummond is not just hands-down the best Center in the NBA (DeAndre Jordan plays Center in the NBA), but he was hands down the best rookie his rookie year (Anthony Davis was Rookie of the Year that year)… And OF COURSE the Cavs could have had him.

Instead… We took Dion Waiters 🙁

Who drafts a rando Shooting Guard fourth? 🙁

Drummond played better than any two Cavs combined this game, and very nearly as well as the top three Cavs put together, as you can see:

Cavaliers 99 Pistons 104

Outcome: Pistons by 5

Game Twelve: Bucks at Cavaliers 11/19/2015

ESPN Headline: James, Love lead Cavaliers past Bucks, 115-100

If there is such a thing as a must-win game for a single regular-season game a dozen games in (there isn’t)… This would be it. Losing this game would put the Cavs on a three-game slide, with two losses to the Bucks.

Luckily, they stomped ’em.

It is in fact the case that James and Love led the Cavs (more or less equally), but the Greek Freak was the best player in a losing effort.

Bucks 100, Cavaliers 115

Outcome: Cavs by 15

Separately: Really nice to see Andy crack a Top 8 🙂

Game Thirteen: Hawks at Cavs 11/21/2015

ESPN Headline: Love, James lead Cavaliers past Hawks, 109-97

Better would be “James, Love, and Thompson lead Cavaliers past Hawks, 109-97″

TT missed a double-double by one point, but LBJ and KLove both notched ’em in this one.

Hawks97, Cavaliers 109

Outcome: Cavs by 12

More gratifying even than the victory was that it was a big win against an excellent opponent; Atlanta was Cleveland’s dance partner in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.

Side note: Great to see Thabo playing well after his unfortunate off-court injury. I said during the playoffs last year that Thabo was Atlanta’s best player, and without him, they did not have a reliable man defender for LeBron James.

2-1 is a full-on okay week. The Cavs remain at the head of the Eastern Conference at 10-3; not one of these regular seasons games means that much, individually as the Cavs are almost certainly a lock for the playoffs.

Sure fun to watch, though.

Can’t wait for Kyrie and Shump to come back (and now Mo and Mozgov) :/

LOVE
MIKE

Jazz 114, Cavs 118

The Top 8 – Week Three

Posted by Michael Flores | Sports

“The Top 8” is an ongoing weekly column focused on the NBA… And more importantly my favorite NBA team, the Cleveland Cavaliers! For any and all installments, click here.

When we left the Cavs last week they were 5-1 and the best team in the East.

Week Three featured four games, and an ultimately imperfect record… But they’re still the best team in the East both by record (8-2) and differential (+7.2). At the time of this writing there are two teams with better differentials in the game, the still-unbeaten 11-0 Golden State Warriors and their monstrous +16.3 and the seemingly ageless San Antonio Spurs at +10.6; the Spurs, though, hold a slightly inferior 7-2 record.

Spoilers! The Cavs went 3-1 during Week Three, which isn’t too shabby… But I’m again a little concerned about the quality of competition. They faced the Pacers (6-4), Jazz (5-5), Knicks (5-6), and Bucks (5-5)… So no really distinguished teams yet.

Game Seven: Pacers at Cavs 11/08/15

ESPN Headline: James scores 29 despite bruised quad as Cavs beat Pacers

I guess James did in fact score 29 points… But it was on 23 shots; he was not even the leading scorer of the game. That honor went to Paul George with 32 (here’s to hoping George ends up awesome once again). Kevin Love was actually the monster of this game, scoring 21 points while pulling down 19 rebounds. Jeez! Besides those boards, KLove also had a game-high three blocks.

Outcome: Cavs by 4

The Top 8

Pacers 97, Cavs 101

Game Eight: Jazz at Cavs 11/10/15

ESPN Headline: James scores 31, sparks comeback as Cavaliers beat Jazz

LBJ did in fact score a game-high 31 points.

BUT!

My God Mo Williams had an offensive game. 8-9 from the field and 9-10 from the charity stripe? That is some peak Dwayne Wade performance right there. The scary thing is that when Kyrie comes back he will — as would be logical for a max contract number one draft pick — re-ascend to his position in the starting lineup… Mo will probably be able to absolutely feast on opposing second teams!

I’m a little overall wary of the Cavs lineup though. Right now two of the five best Cavs are point guards (Mo and Delly). You have to figure one or both are going to sacrifice minutes to Kyrie (which is fine if Kyrie can return at All-Star level)… But! It’s not like minutes and positions are fungible. The best players on the team are (unsurprisingly) Tristan at PF and LBJ at SF… Rounded out by the resplendent KLove also at PF.

My all-time favorite Cav Anderson Varejao is not playing like anything to write home about this season, and Mozgov has been slightly below replacement level so far. If you want to play Best Six basketball (you know, like in the playoffs [unless you are GSW or SAS]) I don’t know if you want three of those six to be your three shortest players.

It’s possible this is one of those situations where my good friend Patrick Chapin says people grouse about the $100 bill you hand them because they don’t like how it’s folded.

Outcome: Cavs by 4

The Top 8

Jazz 114, Cavs 118

Jeez Mo Williams. All-Star Game #2?

Game Nine: Cavs at Knicks 11/13/15

ESPN Headline: Cavaliers limit Knicks in fourth quarter to pull out 8th straight win

An utterly accurate headline; the Knickerbockers thumped the Cavs 30-17 in the second frame, and were consequently up by six going into the fourth. The Cavs held New York’s Finest to twelve — 12 — points in the fourth quarter; and that was all she wrote.

Outcome: Cavs by 6

The Top 8

Cavs at Knicks

Ew. What a gross game.

Timofey — the best player in Cavs-at-Knicks — would not have been the fifth best player in the preceding Jazz game. Everyone played awful. Love scored seven points on ten shot attempts; not even his eleven rebounds could salvage such poor shooting. LeBron only needed 21 shots to produce 31 points, but he was uncharacteristically low on rebounds (while heavy on fouls). Tristan only made four points on — again ew — four shot attempts.

If there is a shining light — for Knickerbockers fans at least — it’s that Zinger looks like he is going to be a real NBA player.

Game Ten: Cavs at Bucks 11/14/15

ESPN Headline: Bucks outlast Cavs in 2OT as LeBron James held in check late

This is the kind of game that makes you hate sports narratives. Hate HATE HATE. The Cavs got the rebound with about eight seconds left and the game tied at the end of the first of two overtimes. The ref called an inadvertent whistle from the Cavaliers bench. David Blatt did not call timeout!

LeBron had the ball with almost eight seconds on the clock. Is there anyone in all these planes of Dominia who thinks he wouldn’t have at least picked up a foul with Hero Ball on the stack? Yeah, me neither. Bucks get a stop on the not-fast-breaking Cavs, win by three in the second OT 🙁

Outcome: Bucks by 3

The Top 8

Cavs 105, Bucks 108

Like I said… I can’t stand sports narrative sometimes. Love and James played great (along with Greg Monroe of the Bucks). What the “Top 8” doesn’t tell you is that those PGs I was bragging about earlier? Mo put up all of four points on eight shots; Delly zero on three; they did have three and four turnovers, respectively. So basically most of the boys had relatively weak games. Even Mr. Consistent Tristan Thompson only had four rebounds (but three personal fouls). To look at the box score you could reasonably stomach a loss here… But knowing about the bad whistle kind of ruins it all.

LOVE
MIKE

The Top 8 is produced via Simple Models of Player Performance + Box Score data from ESPN.com

The Top 8 – Week Two

Posted by Michael Flores | Sports

“The Top 8” is an ongoing weekly column focused on the NBA… And more importantly my favorite NBA team, the Cleveland Cavaliers! There has only been one other installment (last week’s) so far, but if you want to check out the archives I made a tag for them and this is it.

When we left the Cavs last week they were 2-1 with a very tight loss to the Bulls on opening night (-2), followed by a couple of commanding victories over the Grizz (+30) and Heat (+10), respectively. Week Two was another three-game affair, but this week was more of a mixed bag. Though the Cavs won all three games, the margin for victory in each was weaker than we had seen previously. But perhaps more importantly they were against the Sixers, Knickerbockers, and Sixers again; or, arguably the worst team in the league, the worst run team in the league, and [again arguably] the worst team in the league again.

… And not one of those wins was all that convincing :/

Game Four: Cavaliers at Sixers 11/02/15

ESPN Headline: James scores 25,000th career point in Cavs’ win over 76ers

You don’t hit your 25,000th point very often in your career (once, if that); so giving LBJ a headline opportunity to take the bow was nice / fine / appropriate here. Luckily… He was also the best player of the game!

Outcome: Cavs by 7

The Top 8

01

You may notice that there are actually nine players in this “Top 8” … That is because Cavs big man Kevin Love and Philly big man Nerlens Noel did about as well as each other (identically, based on the Simple Models), so we couldn’t cut to just eight.

The biggest takeaways to this game (for me at least) were 1) a regression to sub-god (if still notable) performance from Kevin Love relative to Week One, and that the Cavs only won by seven.

But man… Can you imagine the world where we took Nerlens Noel first instead of Anthony Bennett? Noel started off slow last year but looks like he will develop into a star-level talent. I’d say the Cavs are allergic to taking great big men (we also drafted Dion Waiters over Andre Drummond) but you can only complain so much with Tristan Thompson performing at superstar level night-in and night-out. TT was tied for third-best this game, and it was by far his weakest outing of the week.

Game Five: Knicks at Cavaliers 11/04/15

ESPN Headline: LeBron scores 23, lifts Cavaliers to 96-86 win over Knicks

Despite its inherent LBJ-ness I can’t really get behind this headline. LeBron didn’t even crack the Top 8 producing players this game! He had twenty-three-on-twenty-three (blah) and missed half his free throws. His was not a bad game by any means, but in this outing he was definitely out-dueled by Carmelo, who despite only seventeen-on-eighteen (worse than LBJ’s offense), pulled down twelve rebounds and generally took care of the ball.

Some other headline ideas:

Knicks fail to hold monster first quarter lead

or

LeBron James actually starts killing it after killing sleeves

Outcome: Cavs by 10

The Top 8

02

The best player by far, though, was once again Tristan Thompson! Double-double in only twenty-six minutes; thirteen boards with crazy four-for-six shooting. Mikey likey.

Game Six: Sixers at Cavaliers 11/06/15

ESPN Headline: James scores 31 as Cavaliers beat Sixers 108-102

This James headline is fine. He in fact had the best game, which included three three-pointers and an absolutely filthy thirteen rebounds.

Outcome: Cavs by 6

The Top 8

03

James was resplendent in this game, but surprisingly, only a hair better than Noel. Noel went 9-18 for eighteen points (blah) but pulled down twelve rebounds and got five (!!!!!) steals. Steals in general have been called the hardest part of the box score to fill; steals out of your big man are great things indeed.

Kevin Love had a weak shooting night but cracked our Top 8 on the strength of fourteen rebounds.

It’s tough to argue with 3-0 on the week, and 5-1 overall.

We know, because it has already happened, that the Cavs opened up Week Three with yet another win (this time against the Indiana Pacers); which is great. The only thing I’m concerned about right now is that the Cavs’ opposition has been quite soft. The Knicks are bad; the Sixers are bad and we played them twice; the Pacers missed the playoffs last year, as did the Heat. A 6-1 start with the second-best differential in the league is an outstanding way to begin the season… I just wish it had been against stronger opposition so I could buy in more.

I am quite positively inclined to the Cavs’ guard situation; Mo Williams looks more consistent, and Delly is showing flashes of superstar, especially in the passing department. Nothing would make me happier in a basketball sense than if the Cavs developed a Spurs-like approach to minutes allocation, with the bench players — in particular Delly and TT — essentially acting as backup All-Stars. The question mark is how Kyrie will fit in when he returns; both Mo and Delly are PGs.

LOVE
MIKE

The Top 8 is produced via Simple Models of Player Performance + Box Score data from ESPN.com

The Top 8 – Week One

Posted by Michael Flores | Sports

NBA season is upon us!

“The Top 8” is going to be a weekly column focusing on the trials and tribulations of my beloved Cleveland Cavaliers… Stats-based but still super biased (probably)

Here goes!

Game One: Cavs at Bulls 10/27/15

ESPN Headline: Pau Gasol stuffs LeBron James’ would-be tying layup as Bulls hold off Cavs

There are lots of despicable cliches in sports narrative reporting. High — if not chief — among them is the concept that crunch time shot attempts are somehow worth more points than those in the first forty-odd minutes of a game.

The headline accompanying the opening game of the 2015-2016 Cavs season is a good example of this.

Gasol, in thirty-two minutes of play, had a mediocre game at best. Two points on seven shots (barf); and only two rebounds (!!!) starting at Center. He did, however, record six blocked shots, and the one on LBJ at the buzzer did make for good dramatic narrative.

Outcome: Bulls by 2

It’s tough to dissect what happened in this game. The Cavs actually put up more shots (94 to 87) and neither team shot the lights out or anyting (though the Bulls did put up 42% to the Cavaliers’ 40%). Moreover the Cavs outrebounded the Bulls while the Bulls gave up more turnovers. Decided by only two points, it looks as if this was the rare, mythical, game actually decided on the free throw line: The Bulls shot 16-23 from the charity stripe while Cleveland only 10-17. And sure, it was a two-point game!

BUT!

I think if the Cavs simply calmed down and shot their season average from 2014-2015 (five clicks up from last Tuesday night) they would have handled the Bulls; that, and committed fewer fouls. Both of these things, for an elite squad coming off of so many injuries and having played so few minutes together, are just artifacts of it being the first game.

Despite the outcome (two-point loss) there were a lot of nice things to take away. Besides those two percentage points on goal there was almost nothing the Bulls did better than the Cavs.

The Top 8

gameone

Unsurprisingly the best player in the game had the best game (even if he was stuffed by Gasol for the ESPN headline). Even if conceding his starting spot to Nikola Mirotic wasn’t the more storied Noah’s idea, Noah and Mirotic were both effective producers. What was more surprising to me was how good Mo Williams was in his Cavs return! Nineteen points on fifteen shots, four rebounds, seven assists, and only one turnover with starter’s minutes! If Mo plays like this consistently he’ll be back on the All-Star team!

I didn’t register how well Tristan Thompson played just watching the game (which I guess is easy to miss considering he was 1-4 from the field) but if TT keeps putting up double-digit rebounds off the bench the Cavs are going to be borderline unstoppable (and his giant contract will be more-or-less justified).

And honestly? I thought he Cavs would be rusty enough with TT having sat out all of the preseason and half the starters still injured that they would have lost by twelve. Merely two was like winning by ten 🙂

Game Two: Cavs at Grizzlies 10/28/15

ESPN Headline: Love leads Cavaliers past Grizzlies 106-76

Simple. In this case accurate. The Cavs starting PF played nearly as well as the best two Grizzlies in this game. The storied Memphis defense was eviscerated on Wednesday night… Which pretty much had to be the case with LeBron James nowhere near his usual form… As his team won by thirty points.

Outcome: Cavs by 30!!!

Obviously this was a super encouraging game, with the Cavs demolishing one of the better teams in the league by huge margins on a back-to-back (with LBJ on “mortal” mode). Nuff said.

The Top 8

gametwo

Game Three: Heat at Cavaliers 10/30/15

ESPN Headline: LeBron James (29 points), Kevin Love (24) help Cavs topple Heat

The main thing wrong with this headline is that Kevin Love’s name should have come first!

Outcome: Cavs by 10

The Top 8

gamethree

This game was way less close than even the ten-point drubbing would imply. Cleveland was up by 18 — eighteen — with a minute to go and the third string managed to give Goran Dragic almost his entire night’s production in circa the final one hundred seconds.

The Cavs starting guards — Mo and Smith — were atrocious, combining for 8 points on 18 shots; Jefferson was no better (five points on seven shots)… but the frontcourt was absolute music. If Kevin Love can continue play as well as he has for the first three games of the season LeBron’s prediction will come true and Kev will be back in the All-Star game. LeBron played a workmanlike great game while Dellavedova aped CP3, lobbing an unending string of alley oop assists to Tristan Thompson.

The Heat stars played well too, actually; Miami just got very little production from their bench.

Speaking of which: Hassan Whiteside is the truth! He is very clearly one of the best players in the NBA, racking up SIX (!!!!!!) blocks in this game. Amazing! What is even more amazing is that as good as he was, Whiteside was outplayed by two different Cavaliers PF/Cs. I’ll take it!

I know the first week was just three games, but like I said already: They were super encouraging. Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson are both playing like All-Stars. The fact that LeBron was not the best Cavalier in either win means that maybe he will be able to rest more during the regular season. I would love Love LOVE to see a team configuration where LeBron takes a backseat during most of the regular season and lets the younger guys get us to 60+ regular season wins and just shows up to claim his Finals MVP.

I am a little concerned about the Cavs guard play, though. Mo was excellent in the Chicago game; J.R. was good in the Memphis game, but neither starter has strung together even two above average games. Hopefully both sharpshooters can get back into the three-point form that earned them All-Star and Sixth Man of the Year awards in past years.

LOVE
MIKE

The Top 8 is produced via Simple Models of Player Performance + Box Score data from ESPN.com