Have the Lakers declined? It depends on your perspective

Posted on January 4, 2011 by


On Sunday the LA Lakers lost at home to the Memphis Grizzlies.  Actually the defending champions didn’t just lose.  The Grizzlies – a below 0.500 team that has never won a playoff game – beat the Lakers by 19 points.  And that clearly indicates that the defending champs have taken a step back.  Maybe several steps back.

On the other hand (a phrase economists love)…

Well, one game does not a season make.  And when we look at the entire 2010-11 season — and also look back at what we saw in 2009-10 — we see a somewhat different story.

Let’s start with what we saw last year.  Our story begins with efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency).  Last season the Lakers scored 105.6 points per 100 possessions while allowing 100.7 points.  So the team’s efficiency differential was 4.9.  Relative to what we saw in 2008-09 [differential of 7.8] and 2007-08 [differential of 7.3], the Lakers had declined.  Nevertheless, the Lakers did win 57 games, and this mark was good enough to give this team the number one seed in the Western Conference.

Although the Lakers won 57 games last season, the team’s differential of 4.9 is actually consistent with a team that would win about 54 games (so this team was not the “best” team in regular season in the Western Conference last year).  And when we move from efficiency differential to Wins Produced – detailed in the following table — we can see who was responsible for these victories.

Of the Lakers 53.6 Wins Produced, 47.2 could be traced to the production of Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Kobe Bryant, and Andrew Bynum.  Of the nine remaining players employed, only Sasha Vujacic – with a WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] of 0.109 – was above average (average WP48 is 0.100).  So the sucess of this team was almost entirely traced to the play of Gasol, Odom, Bryant, and Bynum.

In the off-season the Lakers added Matt Barnes (0.201 WP48 with Orlando last season).  So it looked like the Lakers would be improved.  But with the loss to Memphis, it is clear this team isn’t better (at least, people might think this is clear).  So what happened?

Again, we start with efficiency differential.  After 34 games the Lakers have scored 107.2 points per 100 possessions while allowing 101.4.  So the Lakers’ differential stands at 5.8.  And that means, relative to last year, the Lakers are somewhat improved.  Yes, despite what Memphis did to this team, it looks like the Lakers are a little bit better than they were in 2009-10.

When we turn to Wins Produced we can see who is producing wins for this team in 2010-11.  Last year the Lakers had nine players who didn’t help much.  And as the following table indicates, the Lakers have also employed nine players this season who haven’t done much.  But there are six other players —  Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Kobe Bryant, Matt Barnes, Shannon Brown, and Andrew Bynum – who are posting above average numbers.  And these six are on pace to produced 56.8 wins.  


Of these six, Andrew Bynum – due to injury — has only played ten games.  And has only played more than thirty minutes twice.  If Bynum can stay healthy and continue to produce, one might expect the Lakers to be even better.

Unfortunately for the Lakers, the competition in the league has also gotten much better.   Here were the top five teams in efficiency differential in 2009-10.

  • Orlando Magic: 7.9
  • Cleveland Cavaliers: 6.9
  • Utah Jazz: 5.5
  • San Antonio Spurs: 5.4
  • Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks: 5.0

And here are the top five in 2010-11.

  • Miami Heat: 10.2
  • San Antonio Spurs: 9.2
  • Boston Celtics: 8.4
  • LA Lakers: 5.8
  • Chicago Bulls: 5.5

The Lakers mark this season would rank 3rd in the NBA in 2009-10.  This year the Lakers ranks fourth, and the gap between where the Lakers currently stand and the top teams in the league is even larger than it was in 2009-10.  So while the Lakers have improved, the competition this team faces for the 2011 title has gotten even better.

And that means the Lakers’ chances for a three-peat are not great.  That is not to say it can’t happen.  The playoffs are a small sample of games.  And odd things can happen in small samples.   But the odds are not with the Lakers.

If the Lakers fail to win a title in 2011, people will argue that this team got worse.  But I think that is not entirely accurate.  The Lakers –despite what happened Sunday night – are in an absolute sense a little bit better this year.  But the competition this team faces is much better.  So the Lakers have declined, but only in a relative sense. 

In other words, whether or not we think the Lakers have declined depends on your perspective.  And that is an answer that probably only an economist could love.

Update: Henry Abbott at TrueHoop offered a quick post today detailing some analysis of the last six games the Lakers have played (a post I just noticed). There is a temptation to read quite a bit into the latest performance of each team.  It is best, though, to resist this temptation.  The Lakers are probably going to lose more than twenty games this season.  We probably could have guessed that before the season started, and it seems quite likely now.  After each loss, or collection of losses, we might want to leap to some conclusion (after all, when a team loses they tend to play badly).  But remember, they are probably going to start winning soon.  When that happens, is everyone leaping to conclusions today just going to leap to another conclusion? 

Okay, they probably will.   This is not, though, the best way to do analysis.

– DJ