How well does LeBron James know the Cavaliers? A pace-comparison and evidence of LeBron James’ mere mortality

After the Cavaliers stomped the Celtics in a 108-88 victory on Thursday night, LeBron was asked about Shaq’s sprained thumb. He had this to say:

“We need him out there,” Cavaliers forward LeBron James said. “We play faster without Shaq in the lineup … but in the playoffs you can’t play fast all the time. You need to establish the half-court offense. That’s what he does for us.” (For more information and quotes click here for the full report from ESPN.com)

Is LeBron right? Do the Cavs really play faster without Shaq in the lineup? At first glance, the answer appears to be “no.” I don’t mean to be blasphemous or threaten treason, but after reading The King’s statement, my gut told me the numbers wouldn’t support that claim.

Here is some raw data (all numbers were taken from God’s cyber residence, basketball-reference.com): in 2008-2009, The Shaq-less Cavs ranked 6th-lowest in the league in pace at 88.7 possessions per game (league average was 91.7 poss/game). This season, the Cavs rank 6th-lowest in pace at 91.0 poss/game (league average is 92.8 poss/game).

What does this mean? While the Cavs have been sixth-slowest both seasons, they played at a slower pace last season without Shaq relative to the 08-09 league average than with Shaq this season relative to the 09-10 league average (last season they played 3 fewer possessions per game than the average team, while this season they only play 1.8 fewer possessions than the average team). In addition, so far this season, the 09-10 Cavs have played 1.3 more possessions per game than the 08-09 Cavs, meaning that the Shaq-powered Cavs play faster than the Shaq-less Cavs. So LeBron was wrong…at least so I think.

Maybe LeBron is right–what might I be missing? First off, they Cavs’ slower pace last season could possibly be attributed to the presence of John Keuster the Cavs’ former offensive coaching mind. But what about previous seasons with Keuster? With Keuster, the 07-08 Cavs ranked 7th-slowest at 90.2 poss/game (league-average was 92.4 poss/game) and the 06-07 Cavs (with Keuster) ranked 11th-slowest at 90.8 poss/game (league-average was 91.9 poss/game).

With Keuster, the the Cavs were not slower relative to league average–if anything they were faster, ranking 11th, 7th, and 6th-slowest in pace (this season they are 6th-slowest without Keuster). But in comparing the 09-10 Cavs teams to older Cavs teams (as opposed to league-average comparisons), the Cavs have historically been slower with Keuster–this years pace of 91.0 poss/game is faster than any of Keuster’s three seasons (by a small margin, granted). So maybe LeBron is right–the Cavs appear to be faster this season by the numbers, but that’s because Keuster is gone. In other words, with Shaq and Keuster, maybe the Cavs would really be playing at a snail’s pace.

The most important caveat here is that I don’t have the on/off pace data for the Cavs this season with and without Shaq. The best way to see whether LeBron was right/wrong is to compare the Cavs’ pace with Shaq on the floor to their pace with Shaq on the bench. I don’t have this data, but I’d love for someone to follow up on this question with some concrete evidence from the 2009-2010 season.

Thoughts on pace, the Cavs or LBJ? Comment on the article or e-mail us at AGRbasketball (at) gmail (dot) com. Don’t forget to follow @AGRbasketball on Twitter and to like us on Facebook.

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