The Ws of Cleveland

Yesterday I watched a fair amount of NBA coverage on TV, and sports pundits across the land seemed oddly fixated on the idea that Mo Williams deserved to be sent to the All-Star Game. The basic argument was that since Cleveland is doing so well, they “must” have two All-Stars on the team. It wasn’t entirely clear if they were making an epistemic argument in which the success of the Cavs demonstrated that it must be the case that Williams is having an All-Star season or if it was a causal case in which the Cavs’ success simply mandates that you must make Williams and All-Star irrespective of the quality of his play.

Either way, it doesn’t make much sense. Almost any way you slice the numbers you come to the conclusion that what’s happening in Cleveland is exactly what it looks like — LeBron James is a fantastic basketball player, and then there are 6–8 other guys there making contributions, none of them extraordinary and none of them wildly out of line with his teammates.

But beyond that, the focus on Williams seems myopic. Williams, it seems, is Cleveland’s second All-Star because he scores the second-most points. But everyone knows that there’s more to the game than scoring. And unlike your average overrated one-dimensional scorer, Williams isn’t even scoring that much. 17 points per game is nothing to sneer at, but it doesn’t exactly leap off the page and scream “All-Star season!” In terms of scoring efficiency Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, and LeBron James are all doing better (my stats are coming from here). Rebounding-wise, James, Ilgauskas, Varejao, and Ben Wallace are all contributing more in raw numbers, and Szczerbiak and Sasha Pavlovic contribute more on a per-minute basis.

A main idea behind the Williams-love seems to be that he’s new, and the Cavs have improved, so it must be all thanks to Williams. But the truth is that several Cleveland players are simply playing better than they did last year. LeBron is still on the upswing of his career, which should be no surprise given his age. Delonte West has dramatically increased his shooting efficiency and reduced his turnovers. And Ben Wallace’s rebound rate has edged back up from last year’s low point, and his shooting efficiency is the best it’s been since the 2005–2006 season.