CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Cavaliers have made their way through the first half of the season in a way that few people could have anticipated. The team sits at 24-18 ahead of its matchup with the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night.
They’ve also done it against one of the NBA’s most difficult schedules, playing 29 of their 42 games thus far against teams above .500, trailing only the Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic in that area. The Cavs have gone 13-16 in those games.
What may be even more impressive, and reason to be excited about this team’s playoff hopes is the fact they’re 11-2 in games against teams below .500. According to Tankathon.com, the Cavs have the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA. When that, combined with the team’s performance against below .500 teams is put together, it’s a reason to be optimistic about advancement to the playoffs.
The question that many Cavs fans may find themselves asking over the next couple of months is whether or not they’ll be able to avoid the play-in tournament or if they’ll need to earn their way in following the conclusion of the regular season in April. As things currently stand, the Cavs sit in the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, with a one-game lead over the Charlotte Hornets. There’s currently a three-game gap between the Cavs and the 11th-place New York Knicks.
The analytical website FiveThirtyEight has a couple of different projection systems for basketball. The first is a forecast that’s based on the site’s RAPTOR player ratings and doesn’t actually account for wins and losses, but rather uses the site’s player projections, estimating every player’s future performance based on the trajectory of similar NBA players. This formula gives the Cavs a 67 percent chance to make the playoffs, which is seventh in the Eastern Conference. The projection also has the Cavs finishing the season at 45-37, meaning a 21-19 finish to the season. That seems a bit pessimistic considering the remaining schedule for the Cavs. That said, this feels like a worst-case scenario that factors in the absence of guard Ricky Rubio for the remainder of the season.
The RAPTOR method is an interesting one for the Cavs, especially considering that guard Darius Garland and center Jarrett Allen are having the best seasons of their respective careers, likely outplaying their projections. When that is added in with not having a baseline for rookie big man Evan Mobley, it could help to explain it.
Five Thirty Eight’s other projection system, the Elo rating, is much kinder to the Cavs. In that set of data, Cleveland has a 92 percent chance to make the playoffs, a mark that is tied for third in the Eastern Conference. In this model, the Cavaliers are projected to finish with a 50-32 record, meaning they would finish the season 26-14. That may be a bit optimistic, but entirely doable considering the schedule the Cavs have remaining.
Another projection system that is high on the Cavs is the one at Basketball-Reference. In fact, that system has the Cavaliers as the highest-rated team in the entire Eastern Conference. The Cavaliers have numbers across the board that are best in the conference. Basketball-Reference gives the Cavaliers a 99.5 percent chance to make the playoffs, a 33.1 percent chance to win the conference, and a 14.5 percent chance to win the NBA Finals. All of those numbers, especially the latter two, are wildly optimistic. This model is based on 10,000 simulations of the remainder of the season done daily and does include simulating the play-in round.
While the above can certainly be characterized as a touch overly optimistic, Basketball-Reference does believe that the Cavs have played the third most difficult schedule in the NBA thus far, giving them a strength of schedule rating of 0.75, trailing only the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference, who are at 0.82. The site also believes that the Cavs have the easiest remaining strength of schedule left, with a rating of -1.24. No other team in the eastern conference has a rating of weaker than Boston’s at -0.67.
Finishing with a top-four seeding in the Eastern Conference seems a bit ambitious still, with Chicago, Miami, Brooklyn, and Milwaukee separating themselves as title contenders. But the Cavs, led by Garland, Allen, and Mobley, while featuring the best point differential in the conference, with the easiest schedule in the NBA left, should be good enough to find themselves locked into the fifth or sixth-seed at season’s end.