The Lakers are Contenders Again

Posted on December 27, 2007 by


At the onset of the season the Phoenix Suns were considered contenders for the NBA title.  On Christmas Day the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Suns, and suddenly there’s talk that Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant, and company are once again among the NBA elite.

One might suspect that because this game was on national television, and this is the team from La-La land, that talk of the Lakers contending in 2008 is a bit premature.  The numbers, though, suggest that the Lakers have indeed caught the Suns.   Currently the Suns have a 4.8 efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency). The Lakers mark is currently 5.1.  Both differentials are consistent with a team on pace to win about 54 games, so it’s not the case the Lakers are necessarily better than the Suns.  But it’s also not an exaggeration to say that LA and Phoenix are now on equal terms.

Some have noted that the Lakers also got off to a good start last year.  Although the won-loss records are similar, the Lakers efficiency differential after 41 games last year was only 1.7.  So the Lakers record in the first half of 2006-07 was a bit of an illusion.

This year’s record seems like the real deal.  And so we wonder, what’s changed?

The Kobe Story

Some might look at Kobe.  Here, though, is what Kobe and the Lakers have done across the past eight seasons.

2006-07: 0.234 WP48, 15.3 Wins Produced, 42 Team Wins

2005-06: 0.209 WP48, 14.3 Wins Produced, 45 Team Wins

2004-05: 0.175 WP48, 9.8 Wins Produced, 34 Team Wins

2003-04: 0.239 WP48, 12.2 Wins Produced, 56 Team Wins

2002-03: 0.270 WP48, 19.1 Wins Produced, 50 Team Wins

2001-02: 0.213 WP48, 13.6 Wins Produced, 58 Team Wins

2000-01: 0.180 WP48, 10.5 Wins Produced, 56 Team Wins

1999-00: 0.245 WP48, 12.9 Wins Produced, 67 Team Wins

This year Kobe’s WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] is 0.247 and he’s on pace to produce 15.6.  What story do all these numbers tell? 

1. Kobe has consistently been a very good player in his career. 

2. His marks this season are quite similar to what we saw last year and across much of the past nine campaigns.

3. Despite Kobe’s production the past three seasons, the Lakers were not title contenders.

When we consider these three points we have to conclude that the Lakers resurgence is not about Kobe.  Yes, Kobe is clearly helping this team.  But he’s not the reason this team has improved.

Projecting the Lakers

To see why this team has improved, we have to consider the production of all the players on this team.  This is reported in Table One.

Table One: Projecting the Lakers after 28 games

Table One offers two projections of the Lakers in 2007-08.  The first looks at how many wins we could expect if each player plays as well as he did last year. The second estimates how many wins each player will produce if he keeps playing as well as he has this season. 

These two projections clearly indicate that the Lakers are on pace to improve about ten wins this season. And this improvement can be linked to the play of Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar, and Andrew Bynum.

Of these three, the biggest leap is seen in the play of Bynum.  Had Bynum maintained what he did last year he would only be on pace to produce 6.3 wins; as opposed to the 17.6 wins projected given his WP48 of 0.369.

Bynum and Shaq

As the following columns indicate, the productivity of Bynum this season has become a popular topic in this forum. 

Andrew Bynum is Getting Even

The Return of Bynum Gets Even

And now it’s time for another Bynum argument that at first glance might seem a bit of a stretch.  Bynum has essentially replaced Shaq in LA.

Okay, stop laughing for a moment and here me out.  Let’s start this story with what Shaq meant to the Lakers. 

Here is what Shaq did for LA from 1999-00 through the 2003-04 season:

2003-04: 0.300 WP48, 15.4 Wins Produced, 56 Team Wins

2002-03: 0.336 WP48, 17.7 Wins Produced, 50 Team Wins

2001-02: 0.359 WP48, 18.1 Wins Produced, 58 Team Wins

2000-01: 0.347 WP48, 21.2 Wins Produced, 56 Team Wins

1999-00: 0.428 WP48, 28.2 Wins Produced, 67 Team Wins

I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that Shaq meant more to the Lakers than Kobe. Just as popular perception suggests, Shaq consistently posted a higher WP48 than Kobe, although Kobe’s Wins Produced was higher in 2002-03 (because Kobe played more minutes).

Now let’s compare Shaq to Bynum.

Table Two: Shaq vs. Bynum

Table Two reports Shaq’s performance across his career, and for the 2003-04 (Shaq’s last season in LA), 2001-02 (LA’s last title team), and 1992-93 (Shaq’s rookie year) seasons.  In addition to reporting Shaq’s statistical performance, Table Two also notes what Bynum has done across 28 games in 2007-08.

When we look at all these numbers we see that both players are much better than the average center with respect to shooting efficiency from the field, rebounds, blocked shots, and assists.  And although both have trouble getting steals and hitting free throws, the Win Score of each player easily dwarfs that of an average center.

Although both are much more productive than the average center, the numbers suggest that Bynum – on a per-minute basis — has done a bit more than Shaq.  Bynum has a higher Win Score per 48 minutes and WP48 in 2007-08 than Shaq posted in any of the years noted.

Does this mean Bynum is better than Shaq?

Hmmmmm…. no.  From 1992-93 to 2004-05, Shaq averaged 18.2 Wins Produced per season.  Bynum is currently only on pace to produce 17.6 wins.  The difference between the two players is not so much what they do per-minute, but how many minutes each player plays.  Across Shaq’s first 13 seasons he averaged 37 minutes per game.  Bynum has only played 37 minutes or more in seven games in his entire career.  In sum, although per-minute Bynum can offer Shaq-like production, Bynum hasn’t shown yet that he can play Shaq-like minutes.  Hence, Bynum is not quite Shaq-like…yet.

Of course Bynum is only 20 years old.  At this age, Shaq was just finishing up at LSU.  So although Bynum is in his third year as an NBA player, it’s still too early to know what he will ultimately look like as a full-time NBA player.

Still, the early returns do tell us that this past summer Mitch Kupchak, the much maligned GM of the Lakers, was right.  And Kobe was very, very, very wrong. Remember, Kobe wanted the Lakers to send Bynum to the Nets for Jason Kidd.  Had Kupchak, Kobe’s boss, listened to his very vocal employee, the Lakers would have swapped a player who is already one of the most productive centers in the game for a guard who will be 35 years old before this season ends.  Yes, Kidd is still amazing.  But he’s old.  And as we keep learning about amazing old guys again and again, at some point they stop being amazing.

Step-by-Step Summary 

Let me conclude by summarizing the stories being told.

1. The Lakers are right now on par with the Phoenix Suns.

2. Kobe Bryant, who is a very productive player, is not the reason this team has improved on last year’s performance.

3. Kobe needed Shaq to contend for an NBA title.  Once Shaq was taken away, this team declined considerably.

4. Andrew Bynum is a big part of why this team has improved.

5. On a per-minute basis, Bynum’s production in the first 28 games of this season rivals Shaq.

6. Until Bynum consistently plays major minutes, though, he will not be quite as productive as Shaq.

In addition to these six, we have one last observation.

7. This past summer, Kupchak was right to keep Bynum and Kobe was wrong to want Bynum traded away.  And every time Bynum goes for 20 and 10, this point should be repeated.

UPDATE: Paul Oberjuerge wrote the following column after the game on Christmas (a column I just discovered):

Bynum trade offers receive big laughs

Oberjuerge column makes the same argument I make – including statements making fun of Kobe’s demand the Lakers trade Bynum — but without the numbers.  Instead he relies upon a series of quotes from people like Tex Winter and Phil Jackson.  For those who don’t want to click on the link, here are the Winter’s quotes:

“I think he’s got an unlimited future,” Lakers consultant Tex Winter said of Bynum.  And Winter was only the latest (and most astute) to scoff at a Bynum-for-Kidd deal.  “Even as good as Kidd is, I don’t believe he can have the impact on a team that a big man can have, like Bynum,” Winter added. “And I think that’s what the Lakers’ staff saw, and they were reluctant to make a trade. It’s hard to come by a guy who has the physical abilities that Bynum has, as young as he is.”

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.