The Return of the Lakers?

In 2005-06 the LA Lakers won 45 games. This past summer the Lakers made very few changes to their roster, leading one to expect very little change in the outcome we were going to observe this season. After 20 games, though, the Lakers were 14-6 and appeared to be on-pace to win more than 55 games. And then Lamar Odom was hurt. Since this injury the Lakers have been playing 0.500 basketball and are no longer keeping pace with the giants of the Western Conference. Still the Lakers do appear to be a better team. What exactly has changed?

If we look HERE we can see the Wins Produced for each player on this team after 30 games. Last season the Lakers consisted of Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, and not much else. This year Kobe is again leading the team in Win Produced and Odom was contributing before he got hurt. The big two, though, are now getting a bit more help.

The Improved Play of Walton and Bynum

Luke Walton entered this season with a career Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] of 0.139 in limited minutes. This year, playing more than 30 minutes a contest for the first time, his WP48 has increased to 0.198. Such a result is consistent with what we report in The Wages of Wins where we found increased minutes were associated with increases in productivity, even after we controlled for past performance. Of course one still wonders if players play better with more minutes, or players demonstrate to coaches in practice that they have improved, and therefore are given more minutes. Either way, Walton is playing better this season.

Like Walton, Andrew Bynum has also improved. Bynum was taken out of high school in the 2005 draft, and if the NBA maintains its minimum age requirement might be one of the last players to ever make the jump from high school to the pros. In his first season he offered very little production in only 340 minutes of playing time. This season Bynum has already played 539 minutes and posted a WP48 of 0.206. Coupled with the improved play of Kwame Brown, the Lakers have turned the center position from one that was quite weak into a team strength.

The Lack of a Major “Star”

The Lakers now have an impressive collection of “very good” players. In addition to Bryant, Odom, Walton, Bynum, and Brown, LA is also getting above average play from Brian Cook, Ronny Turiaf, and Jordan Farmar. Such a collection is a testament to the scouting and coaching skills of the Lakers (by the way, like Don Nelson, Phil Jackson also appears to be a coach who can get more from his talent).

Despite this impressive collection, the Lakers – even if Odom was healthy – do not appear to be one par with teams like the Spurs, Mavericks, or Suns. Each of these teams has a player or players with a WP48 far in excess of 0.200. As I noted a few months ago in my discussion of the Washington Wizards, without that one player who can offer a very high level of productivity, it’s very difficult for an entire team to join the ranks of the NBA elite.

One might suspect that Kobe is that kind of player. Entering the 2006-07 season Kobe had produced 103.1 wins and posted a career WP48 of 0.196. This year he is offering 0.203. This is very, very good, but not quite what we see from players like Tim Duncan (0.292 in 2005-06), Dirk Nowitzki (0.281 in 2005-06), Steve Nash (0.319 in 2005-06), Shawn Marion (0.331 in 2005-06), Dwayne Wade (0.301 in 2005-06), and Ben Wallace (0.335 in 2005-06). Basically, each team at the top of the final standings in 2005-06 had a “star” player (or players) whose WP48 was at the very top of the league rankings.

Is Bryant a “star”? If we think about popularity, he’s most definitely a star. But if we compare what he offers on the court to players like Wade, we see that Bryant comes up a bit short. At no point in his career has Bryant offered a WP48 equal to what Wade offered last season. And without such a player, it’s simply very difficult for an entire team to produce enough to rank among the league’s elite.

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

Wins Produced and Win Score are 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

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