It wasn't supposed to go like this.
The Cleveland Cavaliers -- anointed by pundits and oddsmakers alike as preseason favorites to win the Eastern Conference -- are a team in disarray.
And it's not just the 20-20 record, the negative point differential, the incessant lineup churn. It's also the relentless saga-cum-soap-opera of rookie coach David Blatt.
Is LeBron James overriding Blatt's play calls? Did Blatt just say Kevin Love is not a max player? Are assistant coaches really calling timeouts behind the head coach's back? And why are Blatt's players giving such inconsistent effort? Has he lost the team already?
And yet -- despite all the failings and drama -- the Cavaliers still might be the best team in the East heading into the playoffs.
How is that possible?
Forecasting with predictive RPM
The Cavaliers' case can perhaps best be made by means of the metric -- real plus-minus (RPM) -- that allows us to estimate the true plus-minus impact of each player on both offense and defense. In addition to the basic RPM stats that appear at ESPN.com, Jeremias Engelmann and I also generate a related metric, Predictive RPM, that builds on data from prior seasons to give an even more accurate forecast of how each player is most likely to perform in the immediate future.
Using Predictive RPM, we can thus get a better sense of how the playoff races and postseason might shape up.
Based on each Cavalier's projected real plus-minus (RPM) impact and postseason playing time allocation -- assuming the integration of the Cavs' three newly acquired players into the rotation and reasonable health for everyone except Anderson Varejao, who is out for the season with a torn Achilles -- Cleveland projects to be very good.
Predictive Real Plus-Minus (Points/100 possessions)
As shown, Cleveland projects to have an overall net efficiency of plus-7.09 points per 100 possessions -- with an elite offense (plus-7.48) and a mediocre defense (minus-0.39) -- when using a somewhat tightened playoff roster.
Here's how their roster compares with that of other Eastern Conference contenders, based on similar RPM-based lineup analyses:
Projected net efficiency
Despite their difficult start, the Cavs rate slightly better in our RPM-based projections than any other team in the Eastern Conference.
That doesn't mean, of course, that Cleveland is actually favored to win any of its potential playoff matchups, since the Cavs would likely be playing without home-court advantage (typically worth more than three points per game) due to their poor start.
But our analysis does suggest, at the very least, that Cleveland has the requisite talent -- when healthy and playing to its potential -- to compete with any other team in the East.
Playing under their potential?
Yes, the Cavs have often seemed to be playing in "chill mode" this season, with truly lackluster effort on the defensive side of the ball, where the team's efficiency now ranks a dismal 25th in the NBA. And yes, Blatt has sometimes seemed indifferent to coaching tweaks that might help Love regain his superstar impact. (His RPM has dropped nearly three full points since joining the Cavs.)
For example, see if you can spot the common denominator in Love's most efficient four-man lineups so far this season (courtesy NBA.com/stats; minimum 50 minutes played):
Cavaliers' most efficient four-man lineups (2014-15)
Clearly, the Cavs have often played extremely well -- especially on the defensive end -- when Love has been paired in the frontcourt with Tristan Thompson, whose athletic interior presence helps offset some of Love's defensive limitations. And how many combined minutes did any of the above Love-Thompson lineups play during the team's dispiriting loss to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday? Six.
Again, according to RPM, the Cavs have the talent to compete favorably with any team in the East. The question is whether they can play up to their potential.
Meanwhile, in the West
OK, there's another important question: How would the Cavs fare against the best teams in the West? Well, the league-leading Golden State Warriors rate a staggering eight points per 100 possessions better than the Cavs in the same RPM-based analyses -- a prohibitively large advantage -- and the other Western elites would also be heavily favored in any hypothetical NBA Finals matchup against LeBron & Co.
So, while Cleveland still has the dark horse potential to contend for the Eastern Conference crown this postseason, their chances of winning an NBA championship appear remote.