Time to Call the Race?

Posted on November 13, 2008 by


On election night Matthew Yglesias posted the following after Ohio was called for Barack Obama: And that’s the presidential election, folks. McCain “could” win, but at this point in fact he can’t.

Yglesias made this call at 9:26 EST.  The networks, though, had to wait until polls closed on the West Coast to call the election.  These polls closed at 11pm EST, and within minutes Obama was declared the winner by everyone.

Of course, at 11pm EST few votes had actually been counted in California, Oregon, and Washington.  But the polling data (including exit polls) all indicated that John McCain had no chance to win those states.  Consequently, the election was over once Obama took Ohio (although the networks still had to wait until the polls closed).

One Team Surges Ahead in the Race

A couple of weeks ago Erich Doerr posted a number of forecasts of the 2008-09 NBA season.  Essentially, these are the equivalent of the polls.  And these polls indicated that two teams – the Boston Celtics and LA Lakers – are likely the top teams in the NBA in 2008-09.  And now we have some early returns on the season, and these returns suggest that we might be ready to narrow this race down to one team.

Let’s start with the numbers from the Celtics.  Boston finished the 2007-08 season with a 10.95 efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency).  Across the past three decades this mark was only eclipsed by the Chicago Bulls of 1995-96 and 1996-97.  In sum, the Celtics were amazing last year and it was not a surprise when this team won the championship.

After nine games in 2008-09, the Celtics are 8-1.  Such a mark looks outstanding.  But the team’s efficiency differential is only 6.23.  So Boston – after nine games – looks to have slipped.

The team the Celtics defeated in the 2008 NBA Finals, though, has surged ahead.  The Lakers finished the 2007-08 regular season with a 7.35 efficiency differential.  But the Lakers never had Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum together at the same time last season. With these two players together in 2008-09, it was expected the Lakers would get better.

After seven games, that expectation has been more than met.  The Lakers are currently the only NBA team without a loss.  And the team’s efficiency differential is 18.39.  To put that mark in perspective, the Chicago Bulls of 1995-96 – who set a record with 72 regular season wins – had a differential of 13.00 (the best mark since 1973-74).

Wins Produced takes what we learn from a team’s efficiency differential and uses this to evaluate individual players.  When we look at WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes], we can see which players are responsible for the Lakers’ success. 

Before we look at the numbers, let’s note that an average player posts a 0.100 WP48.   In other words, a team of average players will win 41 games.  A team of players that surpasses the 0.200 mark will win 82 games, so if a player doubles the average mark he is very, very good. 

With these benchmarks in mind, let’s look at the top nine players for the Lakers (ranked in terms of minutes played) after seven games in 2008-09. 

  • Pau Gasol: 0.312 WP48 [08-09], 0.273 WP48 [07-08]
  • Kobe Bryant: 0.207 WP48 [08-09], 0.247 WP48 [07-08]
  • Andrew Bynum: 0.272 WP48 [08-09], 0.394 WP48 [07-08]
  • Derek Fisher: 0.072 WP48 [08-09], 0.043 WP48 [07-08]
  • Lamar Odom: 0.062 WP48 [08-09], 0.253 WP48 [07-08]
  • Vladimir Radmanovic: 0.141 WP48 [08-09], -0.023 WP48 [07-08]
  • Trevor Ariza: 0.427 WP48 [08-09], 0.245 WP48 [07-08]
  • Jordan Farmar: 0.277 WP48 [08-09], 0.125 WP48 [07-08]
  • Sasha Vujacic: 0.182 WP48 [08-09], 0.113 WP48 [07-08]

Looking at these numbers we see four players – Gasol, Bryant, Bynum, and Ariza – who have surpassed the 0.200 threshold in both 2008-09 and 2007-08.  Two more players – Farmar and Vujacic – have above average marks in both seasons.  And two more players – Odom and Radmanovic – were above average in either 2007-08 or 2008-09.  In sum, the only player who is clearly below average is Derek Fisher.

With all this talent, it’s not surprising to see this team dominate its opponents in 2008-09.  And given what we have seen of these players in the past (our polling data) and the early returns this season, maybe it is time to just call this race for the Lakers.

So far Joe Dumars has already approached the podium and conceded the race.  Entering the season the Detroit Pistons were considered contenders for the title.   After just two games (and two wins), Dumars agreed to send Chauncey Billups – the team’s most productive player last year – to the Denver Nuggets for Allen Iverson.  Although Dumars argued that Iverson will help the Pistons this season, many people think (and I would be one) that this trade was motivated by Iverson’s expiring contract.  In other words, although Iverson won’t help the Pistons win a title in 2009, his expiring contract may help Detroit build a contender in the future.   In sum, it looks like Dumars is conceding the 2009 race for the chance to win in the future.

A Few Issues

Of course – despite the action of Dumars — there might be a few issues to consider before we call this race for the Lakers.  In no particular order…

  • It should be noted that the last unbeaten team in 2007-08 was the LA Clippers. Apparently being the last team to lose a game is not a perfect predictor of a team’s ultimate level of success. That being said, the past data on the Clippers strongly suggested that their early returns last season would not stand the test of time.
  • In an election, all the votes have been cast when the polls have been closed. Once you have counted a significant sample of these votes, you can forecast the outcome from the uncounted votes. Sports are different. Although the early returns say the Lakers are the dominant team in 2008-09, they are still going to have to play the remaining 75 regular season games. And to win the title they will need sixteen wins beyond the regular season. Since injuries are part of the game, it’s entirely possible that the Lakers could suffer a setback.
  • Injuries are not the only issue. One would expect that a player like Ariza will suffer a setback. At least, it’s hard to think he will finish with a 0.427 WP48. That being said, one might expect Odom to finish with a better mark than 0.060.
  • Even if players do not change what they offer in the regular season, there are still the playoffs to consider. Although the best team tends to win a seven game series, upsets can happen. So it’s possible the Lakers will not win the 2009 title.

Although the Lakers are not guaranteed a title, it certainly looks likely.  And I say this as someone who is not a big fan of big market teams like the Lakers.  Teams and players in New York and LA tend to receive far more attention than their performance would indicate.  In other words, if Kobe had spent his entire career with the Hornets (the team that drafted him), I doubt anyone would think he is one of the greatest players ever. 

Despite the issues I have with big market teams, I think the numbers – both the projections and early returns – suggest that this edition of the Lakers is likely to dominate the 2008-09 season.  And it soon it might be time for other teams to join the Pistons at the podium.

– DJ

The WoW Journal Comments Policy

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com 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.