LeBron James tallied his 57th career triple-double Friday against the Charlotte Hornets, helping secure the Cleveland Cavaliers’ seventh win in a row. James was certainly the hero of the night with 27 points, 16 rebounds and 13 assists, but the bigger story of the Cavs’ streak is that James is finally getting the help he needs.
J.R. Smith, Channing Frye, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder and Kyle Korver are all pitching in while Isaiah Thomas, Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert and Derrick Rose are unavailable. With Frye, Wade and Korver on the court with James, the Cavaliers have scored 137.5 points per 100 possessions behind an effective field goal rate of 63.6 percent. Opponents, meanwhile, are scoring just 99 points per 100 possessions with an eFG% of 42.4 percent. It is admittedly a small sample size of just 50 minutes, but that plus-38.5 net rating is better than the Golden State Warriors’ small-ball “death lineup” (plus-23.9 net rating in 2016-17). The two most used lineups without James on the floor each have a plus-11 net rating in 17 minutes this season. That’s not a lot of time to get a read on the true talent level of those five-man lineups, but it does give the Cavaliers a cushion when James, Wade and Kevin Love are resting.
Crowder getting more minutes with Rose out also has helped. Using 19 percent of the team’s possessions over the past seven games, the Cavaliers’ net rating with him on the court is plus-1.6, a significant improvement over Rose (minus-12.6) and roughly the difference in performance between the 12-6 Detroit Pistons and the 5-14 Sacramento Kings.
Smith scored 16 points in Friday’s victory, including the game-winning free throw with 48.2 seconds to play, and has seen an uptick in rebounds, assists, steals and points during the seven-game streak, with a decrease in turnovers. His game score, a metric created by John Hollinger to give a rough measure of a player’s productivity for a single game, has improved from 3.5 to 6.8 over that span.
Cleveland’s net rating has soared to plus-20.2 over the past seven games with Wade on the court, dropping to minus-4.1 with him on the bench. Those marks were minus-2.5 and minus-5.2, respectively, during the first 12 games of the season. Wade is also taking advantage of his time away from James: When they share the court, Wade scores 16.5 points per 100 possessions, which rises to 28 points per 100 possessions when he is asked to work while James gets a breather.
Korver might be the most improved and is certainly the key to the Cavaliers’ success over the past seven games. During the seven-game streak, the team is creating more than 12 unguarded three-point catch-and-shoot opportunities per contest, compared to nine per game during the season’s first 12 games. Cleveland is also more successful on these attempts, hitting 46 percent over the past seven games compared to 37 percent leading up to the streak. Korver has been lights out: He is producing 1.7 points per open look with an 84.2 effective field goal percentage during the run.
With the team not squandering leads as often with James, Love and Wade on the bench, it keeps their superstar fresh for the end of games. James is scoring 50.6 points per 100 possessions in the fourth quarter, second-highest in the NBA to former teammate Kyrie Irving (52) among players appearing in at least 10 games, with 12.1 assists per 100 possessions, the fifth-best mark. No one is averaging more points than James in the paint (28.3) in the final frame this season.
The seven-game streak, and overall team effort, has essentially turned the Cavaliers’ season around. According to the playoff probabilities at FiveThirtyEight, Cleveland had a 19 percent chance at making the NBA Finals behind a 44-win season. Now they have a 30 percent chance, with 50 projected wins on the year.