Is LA still the team to beat?

Posted on August 8, 2010 by


Chris Sabanty is a freelance web developer, software engineer, and sports fan from the Boston area. A lifelong Celtics fan, he’s sickened by Fisher’s flopping, Kobe’s “team-oriented” play, Sasha Vujacic, and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers. So why write about them? As the old saying goes, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. For a brief moment he’ll take off his green-tinted, Heinsohn-style glasses and objectively look at the Celtics’ biggest rivals.

After making the NBA Finals each of the last three years and winning twice, the Lakers have to be considered a favorite to win again. But are they the favorite? The Celtics took them to seven games in the Finals. Oklahoma City, Chicago, and Houston have the potential to be new title contenders. The Magic remain a threat, too, particularly if Dwight Howard can improve his low-post skills. And if you haven’t heard, two 2009 All Star starters and a bunch of role players have taken their talents to South Beach.

Out of all of the contenders, Miami’s dramatically rebuilt roster has the most questions. Will Lebron play the point? How will all of their new acquisitions mesh? Do they have a Finals-worthy post-defender? But from a Lakers’ perspective, one question looms above the others. Have the Miami Heat surpassed LA as the team to beat?

The answer to this question begins with what the Lakers did last season.

Reviewing the 2009-10 Regular Season in LA

For the first-time Wages of Wins reader, the biggest shock might be that Kobe Bryant wasn’t the most productive Laker. Unfortunately for Kobe, productivity isn’t determined by how many studio analysts claim he’s the best player in the NBA. Kobe’s still very good, but he’s probably not the elite contributor people make him out to be. For more info, check out some of the other posts from the Wages of Wins including “Most Valuable Laker? Might Not Be Kobe”, “Kobe Myths”, and “King James and Kobe”. The cliff notes summary is that Kobe may score a lot of points and make some extremely difficult shots, but there’s more to basketball than volume scoring.

Like the 2009 champions, the 2010 Lakers most significant contributors were Pau Gasol, Kobe, and Lamar Odom-Kardashian. The only major difference between ’09 and ’10 was that Andrew Bynum suited up for the playoffs this past year. Even on a hobbled knee, Bynum was a huge upgrade over the other true center on their roster, D.J. Mbenga.

Having said that, it could be argued that Odom should have been starting over Bynum. Lamar produced more wins during the regular season and was a successful starter in the 2009 playoffs. However, an important difference is that in the 2009 Finals he matched up against an undersized Rashard Lewis. Starting against Kevin Garnett, even after a decline, would have been much more difficult.

Besides Bynum lasting a full season, another big subplot was the relative productivity of Gasol and Kobe.

As shown in the table above, during the regular season, Pau has offered more — on a per-minute basis — across these past three seasons (although what he did in Memphis in 2006-07 was similar to what he did in 2008-09 with the Lakers) while Kobe has declined. Their playoff performance, despite a smaller sample size, has also generally followed the same pattern. Note that their changes are relative. An average player produces a WP48 of .100, so both have remained well above-average in all of their recent seasons.

How will the Lakers do in 2010-2011?

Despite their success, the Lakers received little contributions from anybody besides Kobe, Gasol, Odom, and Bynum. If general manager Mitch Kupchak looked at Wins Produced to craft his offseason plans, he would have tried to acquire a point guard and a small forward. This is exactly what he decided to do.

Matt Barnes and Steve Blake would likely be upgrades as starters, but the Zen master probably won’t mess with his starting lineup. Assuming this is true, Barnes and Blake will provide some nice productivity off the bench, which LA didn’t have last year after Lamar Odom.

So how good will the Lakers be this year? In 2009-10, Wins Produced suggested they’d win 53.1 games and they ended up winning 57. A simple, naive way to forecast 2010-11 would be to subtract the unsigned players’ wins and minutes from last year’s totals. After doing that, we then apply the subtracted minutes evenly to Steve Blake and Matt Barnes. This method predicts the Lakers will win 66.8 games in the 2010-2011 season.

But will they actually win 67 games? Here’s a few reasons why the Lakers will be very good but probably not good enough to win that many games.

  • The estimate doesn’t account for rookies or future transactions like the possibility of re-signing Shannon Brown (which it is reported the Lakers have done). Most other players will represent a downgrade over the estimated players.
  • The estimate only uses last year’s data. Some players may have had had an unusually good or bad year.  In other words, a forecast of the future might want to consider more than just last year’s performance.
  • Nobody knows what to expect from Andrew Bynum. He could be substantially worse or better depending on his health.
  • After three trips to the Finals, Kobe, Gasol, and Odom have played a lot of minutes in recent years. There’s a chance some of their minutes will be given to lesser players.
  • Steve Blake’s productivity may decline since he’ll be more of a spot-up shooter than a point guard in the Triangle.
  • And of course, we are not forecasting injuries (and these do happen).

A more realistic expectation is probably 60-65 wins. Either way, the Los Angeles Lakers are definitely one of the best teams in the NBA. But are they the best?

Comparing the Heat and the Lakers

Forecasting the Miami Heat is tougher, mainly because it’s impossible to guess how many minutes each player will play. However, out of all of their acquisitions, there’s a good chance Lebron, Wade, Bosh, Mike Miller, and Udonis Haslem will see the court quite a bit. Therefore, we can assume each will play the same amount this next season as they did last year, with any remaining minutes divided evenly among the role players. Note that their rookies and Shavlik Randolph were excluded due to a limited NBA sample.

So how will the Heat do next year? The quick answer is they could be historically good.

Like the Lakers’ estimate, the forecast for the Heat is far from perfect. Lebron, Wade, and Bosh will likely have their minutes reduced due to blowouts and better teammates. Also, a rotation will be established and some bench players will see more minutes than others. Either way, all contributions will be almost negligible after the top 5 players. If those 5 play the same minutes and produce the same, the Heat would be on pace to win 70.7 games. In this estimate the entire team would be on pace for 73.5 wins, which would be a NBA record.

For fans of the other 29 teams, though, don’t give up hope yet. There’s a reason the games aren’t simulated on a computer. Some players won’t perform as well as they did last year. Maybe a jump-shot forcing 2-3 zone could stifle Lebron and Wade. And again, there’s also the chance of injuries, too. But as of right now, the Lakers — who appear to have improved — have still been passed by Miami.

– Chris Sabanty