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February 28, 2011
Trend Watch
Best in February, Cavs Scoring, Post-Deadline Runs

by Kevin Pelton

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Trending player: Dwight Howard, C, Orlando Magic

Quietly, the Magic's center has been climbing the league's statistical leaderboards. Howard's 26.61 PER now ranks him just decimal points behind NBA leader LeBron James of the Miami Heat (26.78). By Basketball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement Player metric, Howard has been better on a per-minute basis this season, though James has provided slightly more total value because of his minutes advantage.

Howard has surged during the month of February, averaging 27.3 points and 15.3 rebounds per game while shooting an impressive 67.3 percent from the field. According to WARP, Howard edged out LaMarcus Aldridge of the Portland Trail Blazers as the month's most valuable player (through games of Feb. 26).

Player               Tm    Win%   WARP
--------------------------------------
Dwight Howard       ORL    .812    3.3
LaMarcus Aldridge   POR    .740    3.2
LeBron James        MIA    .757    3.0
Pau Gasol           LAL    .702    2.6
Kevin Love          MIN    .711    2.6
Dwyane Wade         MIA    .658    2.2
Kevin Durant        OKC    .663    2.0
Ramon Sessions      CLE    .675    1.9
Chauncey Billups    DEN    .712    1.9
Danny Granger       IND    .607    1.8

Behind his high-percentage shooting, Howard's True Shooting Percentage in the month of February has ranked third in the league. He's also slashed his turnover rate, showing growth in his post-up game that stems back to working with Hakeem Olajuwon on his moves last summer.

Howard isn't the only player who had an impressive month. Aldridge responded to being left off the Western Conference All-Star team by taking his game to another level, topping the 30-point mark five times and twice hitting for 40 or more. If coaches had to vote again today, Aldridge might just make the West roster. He would be unlikely to displace Gasol, however, after the Lakers' center bounced back from a quiet month of January. Other surprising names on the leaderboard include Cleveland's Ramon Sessions--more on him in a moment--and new Knick Chauncey Billups, who has been getting stronger as the season goes on instead of wearing down like he did a year ago.

Trending team: Cleveland Cavaliers

Recent upset wins over the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks are evidence that the Cavaliers are more dangerous than they appeared during the midst of their record 26-game losing streak. During the month of February, Cleveland has unexpectedly developed into a potent offensive squad. Overall, the Cavaliers rank 29th in the league by scoring just 103.2 points per 100 possessions, but their offensive rating has improved to 111.9 this month. In seven of their 11 games, the Cavs have scored better than their opponent typically allows.

Why hasn't the increased scoring translated into more wins? Cleveland has slipped defensively, which is saying something, because the Cavaliers have always struggled to stop opponents. They're giving up 117.7 points per 100 possessions in February, far worse even than their season-long 114.7 defensive rating, which is worst in the league. When Cleveland has put it together at the defensive end, it has meant trouble for contending teams. The Cavaliers' three above-average defensive performances have come in a narrow loss at Dallas and the wins over the Lakers and Knicks.

As for the scoring surge, it's been led by Sessions. Turned loose for 35 minutes per game as a starter at point guard, Sessions is playing the brand of basketball that made him a coveted free agent in the summer of 2009. He's recorded five double-doubles and scored at least 20 points seven times. Sessions is shooting 56.2 percent on two-point attempts during the month, while his assist rate (11.2 per 100 plays) would put him seventh in the league. Essentially, Sessions has given Cleveland All-Star production from the point this month.

That raises the question of how Sessions' game will be affected by the addition of Baron Davis in last week's pre-deadline trade. Mo Williams, sent to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Davis, has been playing shooting guard. Davis prefers to have the ball in his hands, but it has been years since he has been as effective as Sessions has recently. Byron Scott will be challenged to find a way to integrate Davis without losing everything Sessions has been doing for the team.

League trend: Post-deadline runs

The teams in the playoff hunt that made deals before last Thursday's trade deadline share a common hope--that the newcomers will lift their performance to the next level. But for most teams, the trades won't be enough to make a noticeable difference over the final third of the season. Going back to the 2004 trade deadline, just one team per year, on average, has been better by a large enough margin after the deadline to be statistically significant.

Team             Year     Pre    Post    Diff
---------------------------------------------
Denver           2005    .463    .857    .394
Golden State     2005    .296    .643    .347
Miami            2004    .418    .704    .286
New Jersey       2005    .418    .704    .286
Philadelphia     2007    .333    .607    .274
Milwaukee        2010    .471    .710    .239
Orlando          2006    .358    .586    .228

The biggest leap of all--and the best post-deadline record of any team--belongs to a team that did not make a deal at all. Instead, the 2004-05 Denver Nuggets benefited from a coaching change, going 32-8 after George Karl replaced Michael Cooper to turn around Denver's season. It's hard to find any moves at all that explain why the Miami Heat came together down the stretch in 2004. That was more about the development of a rookie Dwyane Wade and improved chemistry from a remade roster. Meanwhile, the 2005-06 Orlando Magic really had addition by subtraction after dealing Steve Francis to the Knicks. Their marquee acquisition at the deadline was Darko Milicic.

The other four teams all made trades that did in fact make a big difference. Philadelphia struck far before the deadline, dealing Allen Iverson (who had been sitting out) for Andre Miller in late December. Same with New Jersey, which acquired Vince Carter in December 2004. The 2004-05 Warriors surged after getting Baron Davis for spare parts at the deadline. John Salmons may not have a big name like those players, but his terrific play down the stretch made the Milwaukee Bucks dangerous.

Team             Year     Pre    Post     Diff
----------------------------------------------
L.A. Clippers    2004    .423    .200    -.223
Cleveland        2005    .596    .367    -.229
Washington       2007    .588    .355    -.233
Portland         2006    .340    .103    -.236
Orlando          2005    .528    .276    -.252
L.A. Lakers      2005    .538    .200    -.338
Indiana          2007    .547    .207    -.340

At the other end of the spectrum, teams that struggled after the deadline were less likely to have made a notable trade. The 2006-07 Indiana Pacers did miss Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson after dealing them to Golden State in exchange for Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy. A swap of shooting guards proved costly for the 2004-05 Magic, which sent Cuttino Mobley to Sacramento for Doug Christie. The other teams suffered for a variety of reasons, including injuries (the 2006-07 Wizards lost Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler late in the season) and coaching changes (the 2004-05 Lakers collapsed after Rudy Tomjanovich's retirement).

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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