Boston or LA?

Posted on December 17, 2009 by


With 30% of the regular season complete, the Boston Celtics lead the Eastern Conference with a 10.3 efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency).  And the LA Lakers lead the Western Conference with an 8.3 mark.  Although it’s still early, such numbers suggest that for the 12th time in NBA history the Celtics and Lakers will meet in the NBA Finals. 

Again, it’s early.  But if these numbers hold up people will be asking the following until next summer: Who is better, Boston or LA?

The Celtic Argument

Let’s start with a look at the Boston Celtics after 24 games.  Table One reports each player’s Wins Produced and WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] this season, as well as what Boston could have expected given what these players did last season.  As one can see, given what these players did last season Boston should be on pace to win 72 games this year.  After 24 games, though, the pace is only 66.4 victories.

Table One: The Boston Celtics after 24 games in 2009-10

When we look at the performance of the individual players we see that Rasheed Wallace, Ray Allen, and Eddie House have declined the most.  What do these players have in common?  All three are on the wrong side of 30 years of age.  And that illustrates the problem facing the Celtics. Six of the Celtics are more than 30 years of age and these players have played 60% of the team’s minutes. And of these six, only Paul Pierce is offering more this season (relative to last season).

Although basketball players may like to think they age like fine wine, the general pattern is that players age like milk.  So as the season progresses, the Celtics might slip some more.  At this point in time, though, the Celtics are a very good team.  And this is because of the performance of Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Pierce, Kendrick Perkins, Ray Allen, and Shelden Williams. These six players are on pace to produce nearly 68 wins this year.

There are two surprises on this list.  First, Shelden Williams has been very productive and should (but may not) make fans of the Celtics forget about Glenn Davis.  The other surprise is Rasheed Wallace, who is really not offering much at all. Once again, given his age this shouldn’t be a surprise. 

The Lakers Argument

Okay, the Celtics are good, but not quite as good as their past numbers suggest.  The story of the Lakers is the opposite.

Table Two: The LA Lakers after 24 games in 2009-10

As Table Two illustrates, what the Lakers did last season suggests that this team should only be on pace to win 52 games this year.  When we look at production this season, though, the Lakers are on pace to win 63 games. 

Both of these numbers are deflated because of the early season injury to Pau Gasol.  In projecting wins I am taking the easy way out.  Projections are simply what has happened across 24 games multiplied by 82/24.  So for Gasol, his projected minutes are only 1,596 (which essentially assumes Gasol will keep missing eleven out of each 24 game segment). Currently, though, Gasol is averaging 36 minutes per game.  At this pace, Gasol will play about 2,550 minutes this season.  Given what he did last season [WP48 of 0.256], projections based on last year’s number would increase by 5.5 wins (so the Lakers should have expected about 57 wins). 

After 13 games, though, Gasol has posted a 0.465 WP48.  Such a mark bests – by a wide margin – anything Gasol has done in his career.  And it also tops anything anyone did last season.  If Gasol can keep this up, the Lakers can expect to win about 72 games this season.

But can Gasol maintain this pace?  Again, he has never produced at this level before.  When we look at the individual numbers we see that Gasol is posting career highs with respect to free throw percentage and rebounds.  As noted in the past, rebounding tends to be very consistent across time.  So one wonders if Gasol will keep grabbing 16.9 rebounds per 48 minutes (his previous high was 13.1 in 2006-07). 

If this happens, Gasol and the Lakers will probably finish with a better record than the Celtics.  And the subsequent home-court advantage – assuming the playoffs hold to form – will give the Lakers an advantage in the NBA Finals. 

Then Again…

But if Gasol slips, then the Celtics will have the advantage.  Then again, if the aged Celtics keep aging, maybe the Lakers will be better.  Of course, Kobe is both aged and hurt.  So maybe Boston will still finish with the best record.

Okay, here is what we know. Right now, the season numbers favor the Celtics.  But there is evidence that the Lakers are better right now and could finish with better season numbers.

And all of this ignores the other teams in the NBA. I still believe it’s possible that the Cleveland Cavaliers can come back (although I recognize the distinct possibility that won’t happen).  And the Atlanta Hawks and Josh Smith continue to be amazing (9.0 efficiency differential).

In sum, it’s still early (have I said this?).  But if you are looking at the Celtics and Lakers, we can clearly see that the Celtics are better.  Or is it the Lakers?  Or… how ‘bout that Pau Gasol?

– DJ

The WoW Journal Comments Policy

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.