Posted Feb 4 2010 1:09PM
Looking at their overall statistical profile, this year's Cleveland Cavaliers are very similar to last year's. They play at the sixth slowest pace in the league, they rank in the top five both offensively and defensively, and they're tops in point differential.
But the way the Cavs are scoring and defending is very different this season. While Shaquille O'Neal, with Mo Williams out, is only now starting to put up numbers worthy of a spot on your fantasy team, he's made an impact on the way the Cavs play all season.
With the mid-range game being the most inefficient way to score in the league these days, the most important places on the floor are the paint and the 3-point line. The Cavs have thrived beyond the arc (both offensively and defensively) each of the last two seasons, but the paint is another story.
|Cavaliers by the numbers, last two seasons|
Last season, the Cavs scored 36 percent of their points in the paint, a lower percentage than all but three teams in the league. This season, they rank 12th by scoring 43 percent of their points in the paint. Their mid-range points (those not scored in the paint, at the line or beyond the arc) are down to 22 percent (10th in the league) last season to just 16 percent (28th) this season.
The presence of the Diesel has made an impact on the defensive end of the floor as well. Last season, the Cavs' opponents scored 41 percent of their points in the paint. This season, that numbers is down to 37 percent, the lowest in the league. As a result, their opponents' mid-range points are up from 21 percent (15th in the league) last season to 24 percent (third) this season.
So while Shaq isn't the offensive force that he was in the past and he doesn't move too well defensively anymore, he's still a presence in the paint. He hasn't gotten any smaller as the years have gone by. And you can't coach size.
The Cavs have outscored their opponents in the paint in 35 of their 50 games so far this season, and they've won 30 of those. They're just 5-4 when they're outscored in the paint and 4-2 when paint points are even.
Per 100 possessions, the Cavs have a points-in-the-paint differential of +9.4, which is tops in the league. Last season, they ranked 19th with a differential of -1.4.
Who was No. 1 last season? Shaq's Suns, of course.
Points in the paint have been tracked since the 2000-01 season. And in eight of the 10 seasons since, Shaq's team has ranked in the top three in points-in-the-paint differential.
One anomaly was the 2002-03 Lakers, when Kobe Bryant became the team's leading scorer for the first time and shot a lot more threes than he ever had. The other was the season when Shaq was traded from Miami to Phoenix in February and played just 61 games total.
|Diesel in the paint|
|How Shaquille O'Neal's teams have fared|
|PIP Diff = Difference between points-in-paint made|
and points allowed in paint
Now, outscoring your opponent in the paint isn't necessarily a formula for success. This season, the 16-31 Pistons rank fifth in the league with a differential of +2.9, while in 2005-06, the 64-18 Pistons were very much a jump-shooting team and ranked last in the league with a differential of -8.6. If you've got four or five guys on the floor who can shoot and you move the ball well, you can still be successful without a post presence.
But the Cavs believe that controlling the paint will be critical for them come May and June. That's why they traded for Shaq last summer and that's why, despite his much larger expiring contract, he won't be the center they trade if they want an upgrade at power forward.
Even though there are some good teams at the bottom of the rankings when it comes to points-in-the-paint differential -- Portland ranks 30th, Toronto ranks 22nd and Dallas ranks 21st -- the teams the Cavs are focused on are all near the top.
The Celtics rank third with a differential of +5.8, the Lakers rank fourth at +3.4, the Magic rank sixth at +2.5 and the Hawks rank 10th at +1.5. So if you can match their size and take away the paint, you will have an advantage against those teams. It's not a coincidence that the aforementioned Pistons, despite their poor record, are one of only three teams who have beat Atlanta, Boston and Orlando this season.
The Cavs, of course, are 5-1 against the Lakers, Celtics and Hawks, with the only loss coming on opening night against Boston. They've won the points-in-the-paint battle in each of the six games, by an average of 10.3 per contest.
A year ago, the Cavs were 6-7 against those teams in the regular season and famously lost to the Magic, 4-2, in the conference semifinals. In two regular season games against the Lakers, they were outscored 104-52 in the paint. They didn't get outscored in the paint in that Orlando series, but Dwight Howard averaged 30.3 points on 66 percent shooting in Orlando's four wins, and it was his size and quickness on the pick-and-roll that allowed his teammates to shoot 41 percent from 3-point range.
In eight career games against Shaq, Howard has averaged just 13.6 points on 56 percent shooting. In the Cavs' Nov. 11 win in Orlando, Howard had just 11 points and took just three shots from the field.
On the surface, Shaq's impact on the Cavs seems minimal. But in the games that matter most, his presence is critical.
All stats are through Wednesday, February 3.
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