Cavs’ Odds of Winning Without Kevin Love, J.R. Smith

The curse of Cleveland sports is alive and well. It’s been 51 years since a Cleveland pro team last captured a title, dating all the way back to the 1964 Browns. The drought has included much heartbreak and near misses: World Series losses in 1995 and 1997, to the Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins, respectively; a 2007 NBA Finals loss to the San Antonio Spurs; The Decision in 2010 (mostly redeemed by The Decision II in 2014); gut-wrenching AFC Championship losses in 1987 and 1988, both to the Broncos.

With the return of LeBron James, the Cleveland fan base is the most optimistic it’s been in years. At the beginning of the 2015 playoffs, the Cavs were viewed as a strong candidate to emerge from the Eastern Conference. Alas, the curse struck again, with a season-ending injury to Kevin Love potentially derailing Cleveland’s title hopes. Now, the relevant question isn’t whether or not the Cavaliers can win the title, but whether or not they can advance past the Chicago Bulls in the second round.

Before the postseason began, simulated the entire playoffs 1,001 times to determine each team’s round-by-round probability of advancing. The Cavaliers were given the third-best championship odds, winning the title in 7.6 percent of simulations. Their predicted path included a victory over the Bulls, but it assumed a fully intact roster.

To determine the Cavs’ effectiveness without Love, we first need a baseline. We simulated a healthy Cavaliers roster against the Bulls 1,001 times on a neutral court. The Cavaliers are favored by a solid margin, averaging nearly three more points per game than their counterparts:

Cavaliers vs. Bulls, Full Rosters
Matchup Win % Avg. Score
Chicago Bulls 43.7 100.6
Cleveland Cavaliers 56.3 103.2

We then removed Love from the equation, inserting Tristan Thompson into the starting lineup and playing James more minutes at the four. Though the margin of victory drops, the WhatIfSports simulation engine still favors Cleveland:

Cavaliers vs. Bulls, Minus Kevin Love
Matchup Win % Avg. Score
Chicago Bulls 47.5 99.7
Cleveland Cavaliers 52.5 99.8

However, the Cavaliers added one more wrinkle with the suspension of J.R. Smith. Cleveland will be without the services of their starting shooting guard for the first two games of the series, both in Cleveland. With that in mind, we adjusted the Cavs’ lineup to account for Smith’s absence and again ran 1,001 simulations against the Bulls, this time all on Cleveland’s home court. Minus two Cleveland starters, the advantage swings to Chicago:

Cavaliers vs. Bulls, Minus Kevin Love and J.R. Smith
Matchup Win % Avg. Score
Chicago Bulls 51.5 98.5
Cleveland Cavaliers 48.5 97.8

With a nearly 50/50 split in 1,001 games, the simulation suggests that Chicago will take a game in Cleveland before Smith’s return. After that, the Cavaliers’ slight edge will be countered by the Bulls’ home-court advantage (three games in Chicago vs. two in Cleveland). In short, the series could easily go either way. We’re predicting this one to go the distance, with James and Kyrie Irving prevailing at home in Game 7 to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

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