The Cavaliers and making the leap out of the NBA draft lottery
Moments after striking draft lottery gold by winning the No. 1 overall pick for the second time in three years, Nick Gilbert, son of owner Dan Gilbert, had already turned his attention to the Cavaliers’ next goal.
“Whoever we pick can make our final push into the playoffs,” Nick declared.
Dad agreed: “This is huge for us. It’s our third year in a row in the lottery. Hopefully it’s our last for a long, long time.”
The 24-win Cavaliers jumped up from the third spot in the lottery order, claiming the No. 1 pick despite having just a 15.6 percent chance of doing so. As The Point Forward’s Rob Mahoney noted Wednesday, the future appears bright in Cleveland thanks to two first-round picks this year, a clean salary cap sheet making them players in free agency, and a young core centered around All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving.
But just how difficult is it for lottery teams to escape the roomful of ping pong balls and qualify for the postseason? What does recent history tell us about the likelihood of the Gilberts’ playoff dreams coming true in 2014?
Making the lottery leap
The face-value odds of making the playoffs are deceptive. Sixteen of 30 teams get in! That’s more than half!
“This is the beginning of our annual right of renewal,” commissioner David Stern promised Tuesday. “The lottery into the draft into free agency, and those are sort of the ways, together with trades, that our teams get ready for the season.”
Of course, the 30 teams begin next season with the same shot of qualifying for the playoffs in theory only. In practice, the haves and have-nots aren’t too hard to spot already, nearly 12 months out and before the draft or free agency cycles have even begun. We can all agree the Bobcats, Magic, Kings and Suns will all likely be back in the lottery again next year, correct? And we can essentially pencil in at least five teams — the Heat, Thunder, Spurs, Pacers and Bulls — into next season’s playoffs without blinking, right? And, wait a minute, haven’t the Spurs made the playoffs every single year since 1998?
That begs the question: What exactly is the year-to-year turnover rate in the playoffs? How many new blood teams can we expect to qualify for the 2014 playoffs? How many open seats at the table are the Cavaliers realistically fighting for?
Four of the 16 teams to qualify for the 2013 playoffs — Warriors, Rockets, Nets and Bucks — did not qualify in 2012. Turns out, that’s right about average.
Examining the playoff teams since Michael Jordan’s sixth and final title in 1998 reveals that, on average, there are 3.7 new playoff teams every season compared to the previous year, yielding a turnover rate of 23.1 percent year-to-year. There’s slightly more movement in the Eastern Conference, where an average of two new teams appear in the playoffs every season compared to 1.7 new teams out West.
Put simply: In any given year, roughly three-quarters of the league’s playoff teams can be expected to return to the postseason one year later, while roughly 10 of the 14 teams in the lottery in any given year can be expected to endure that shame again the following year.
Going back to 1999, there has never been a season in which there were more than five new playoff teams — I’ll call them “leapers” from here on out– compared to the previous season. On the other side, there’s never been a season in which there was less than two leapers. Only once in the post-Jordan era has a conference returned all eight teams to the playoffs for a second straight year, which happened in the East following the 2011 lockout.
Adjusting for games lost during the lockouts, the threshold to make the playoffs in the East is significantly lower than in the West. Over the 15 post-Jordan (Bulls) seasons, the East’s eighth seed averaged 40.3 wins, compared to 45.2 wins in the West.
So far, the news isn’t too bad for the Gilberts. The Cavaliers need to improve by 16 wins next season to hit that average threshold, compared to the 21+ they would need if they were in the West. And they play in the East, which is slightly more fluid than the West in terms of letting in new playoff teams.
But how difficult has it been for lottery teams to improve by 16+ wins in the post-Jordan era?
All types of leapers
If we look at the 52 leapers of the post-Jordan era, we see a wide variety of stories and paths of improvement. You’re probably already thinking of the 2008 Celtics, the most famous rags-to-riches story in the modern NBA. Boston improved from 24 wins in 2007 to 66 wins in 2008, winning a title in the first season after acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in summer trades. That 42-win improvement leads the way among leapers It’s followed by a 33-win improvement from the 2005 Suns, who scored 62 wins in their first full season under coach Mike D’Antoni thanks to the offseason acquisition of Steve Nash. Other big leapers: the 2009 Heat (+28 wins), 2010 Thunder (+27 wins), 2004 Nuggets (+26 wins) and 2002 Nets (+26 wins).
On the other end of the spectrum: the 2013 Bucks, who dropped from a (lockout-adjusted) 39 wins, which wasn’t enough to qualify for the 2012 playoffs, to a 38-win postseason appearance this year. While the Bucks are the only team to actually leap backwards into the playoffs, their relative stability from 2012 to 2013 is a good reminder of what teams like the Cavaliers are up against. Twenty seven of the 52 leapers — more than half — moved into the postseason by increasing their win total from the previous year by 10 or fewer games.
Those numbers help explain why we so often hear GMs of bad teams preaching the virtues of taking baby steps or progressing gradually toward success. It’s simply easier to go from the lottery to the playoffs if you were within shouting distance of the playoff chase the previous season.
Clearly, that’s some bad news for the Gilberts, who are coming off a near cellar-dwelling season. But it’s not a definite death blow to their hopes by any stretch. Twenty five teams over the last 14 seasons have leaped into the playoffs by winning 11+ games. Of those, 17 have done so by winning 16 or more games compared to the previous season, which is the task facing Cleveland.
Here’s a quick pie chart showing the various ways teams have leaped into the playoffs. The key takeaway: baby leaps, small leaps, gradual leaps and gigantic leaps have all been made. Even though the turnover rate among NBA playoff teams is fairly small, cracking into the club is a possibility open to even truly awful teams, as long as they make the right moves.
Overall, the average leaper improved by 12.7 wins from its non-playoff season to its playoff season. That number was nearly identical in both conferences. In the East, the average leaper improved from 32 wins to 44.5 wins. In the West, the average leaper improved from 36 wins to 48.7 wins.
Need some examples of “prototypical” leapers? Try the 2010 Bucks, who won 46 games in the best year of the Scott Skiles era, 12 more than in 2009. Or, the 2006 Clippers team that won 47 games, improving from 37 wins the previous season and snapping an eight-year streak of missing the playoffs.
Which teams from this season most closely fit that bill from a pure numbers standpoint? The Raptors, Sixers, Pistons and Wizards finished within three games one way or the other of 32 wins in the East. Out West, the 36-win average mark is in a bit of a dead zone between the No. 10 seed Mavericks (who won 41 games) and the No. 11 seed Blazers (who won 33 games).
For the Gilberts, then, this becomes a crowded picture. There are cases to be made for Toronto (first full year with Rudy Gay), Philadelphia (can’t be worse than a season without Andrew Bynum), Detroit (some cap flexibility and a growing young core) and Washington (a full year of John Wall plus the addition of the No. 3 pick) moving up. There are also some potentially vulnerable teams in Atlanta (tons of expiring contracts), Boston (aging core that might require a retooling effort) and Milwaukee (a mediocre team with all sorts of free-agent decisions to make).
We’ll have a much firmer grasp on potential leapers and droppers once the summer is out, but what’s clear now is this will be a crowded picture for the Cavaliers or any of the teams on the outside looking in. Eight teams fighting for just three playoff spots is crowded, no matter how you look at it. Credit Nick and Dan Gilbert for selling hope and credit the Cavaliers front-office for positioning itself well for this summer, but don’t start counting their eggs quite yet.
Leaping and sticking
Speaking of hope, there’s one more good piece of news for the Gilberts and their lottery-dwelling brethren. During the post-Jordan era, leapers are more likely to leap and stick in the playoffs for consecutive postseason appearances than they are to go one-and-done.
In the East, 20 of the 26 leapers since 1999 qualified for the postseason a second consecutive time after making their initial leap. (Note: these numbers don’t account for the Nets and Bucks this year, as we don’t know their fate next season.) In the West, things are a bit more fluid, as 13 of 22 leapers since 1999 qualified for the postseason again after making their initial leap (again, not counting the Warriors and Rockets this year).
This may or may not run counter to your assumptions. For example, it’s easy to remember the Bobcats bowing out quickly after their 2010 postseason appearance and it’s hard to miss the Bucks seemingly dancing in and out of the lottery over the last few seasons. Cavaliers fans envisioning a new golden era led by Irving can find comfort in these numbers, which indicate once you qualify for the playoffs, you tend to hang around for awhile, especially in the East. Examples: the LeBron James-led Cavaliers qualifying every year from 2006 to 2010, Knicks backing up their 2011 appearance with two more, Celtics following up their 2008 title with five straight additional appearances, Bulls turning the 2008 Derrick Rose lottery into five straight postseason appearances, Wizards making four straight appearances from 2005 to 2008, and so on.
Again, in the West, the bouncing in and out effect is more pronounced. Since 2010, the Jazz, Hornets and Suns have dipped into the playoffs for one season before falling back to the lottery. Still, the list of counter-examples is long: the Grizzlies have made three straight appearances on two separate occasions in the post-Jordan era, Blazers hung around for three years in a row after a lengthy playoff drought, Nuggets haven’t missed the playoffs since making the leap in 2004, Thunder have qualified for four straight years and could seemingly string together another 10 appearances in a row, Lakers haven’t missed the postseason since their forgettable 2005 campaign, and so on.
Leaping models for the Cavaliers?
Which teams made the type of jump the 24-win Cavaliers are hoping to make? There are three good examples over the last decade.
1. The Heat climbed back into the playoffs in 2004, winning 42 games (17 more than the previous season). A 22-year-old rookie guard by the name of Dwyane Wade might have had something to do with that.
2. The Wizards put together 45 wins in 2005 (20 more than the previous season), thanks to a much-improved offense that saw the Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison trio average a combined 67.1 points per game. Arenas, the team’s leading scorer, was 23.
3. The Raptors won 47 games in 2007 (2o more than the previous season), snagging the only division title in franchise history, thanks to 22.6 points and 10.7 rebounds per game from a 22-year-old Chris Bosh.
The ages of Wade, Arenas and Bosh relative to Irving, who turned 21 in March, and the timing of their initial run to the playoffs should provide even more hope for Cavaliers fans. Really, there’s almost an inevitability to Cleveland’s progress as Irving develops. If the franchise’s leap doesn’t happen in 2014, it would be borderline shocking if it didn’t happen the following season. In other words, if we’re talking about Nick Gilbert winning the lottery for the third time in five years in 2015, something went terribly, terribly wrong.
One final thought
All 30 teams have made the playoffs since Jordan’s last title, but only one — San Antonio — has managed to qualify for the postseason every single year. I guess the Spurs can’t be bothered with the notion of leaping when they have already set up shop on top of the mountain.