Beat LA? Dream On

Beat LA.

If you lived in Boston or Detroit – or any team playing the Lakers in the 1980s (other than the Clippers) – this is a cheer you often heard.   Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and the entire Showtime cast were clearly the enemy.  And five times in the 1980s, the enemy took the title (yes, I am a Pistons fan). 

After Magic first retired in 1991, the “Beat LA” refrain became less popular.  This is because LA started to lose with greater frequency.  With LA out of championship contention, the hatred of the Lakers declined considerably.

In 1996, though, Shaquille O’Neal came to town.  Although it took a few years (and the maturation of Kobe Bryant and the addition of Phil Jackson), eventually Shaq led the Lakers to three consecutive titles.  And once again, “Beat LA” became a popular cry (in places like Sacramento and San Antonio). 

The Shaq era, though, ended in 2004.  Despite the play of Kobe, the Lakers descended into mediocrity.  And with that descent, the “Beat LA” cries went silent.

Beat LA Returns

In 2007-08, though, the Lakers once again joined the NBA elite.   Part of this resurgence was tied to the play of Andrew Bynum (see Andrew Bynum is Getting Even).   The Lakers won 24 of their first 35 games with Bynum in the line-up.  And then Bynum suffered a season ending injury and the mediocrity of the previous three seasons returned.  But after winning only six of eleven contests, the Lakers managed to steal Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies (the Grizzlies were given a few players the Lakers didn’t want along with two tickets – and coupons for free drinks — to the NBA Finals in either 2009 or 2010). 

Gasol was not entirely healthy in LA.  But when he played the team was 22-5.  When he didn’t play the Lakers were only 5-4.  To put the entire picture together, with Bynum or Gasol taking the floor, the Lakers were 46-16 (or on pace to 61 games). Without Bynum or Gasol, the Lakers were 11-9 (or on pace to win 45 games).   In sum, the improved play of Bynum, and then the addition of Gasol, brought “Beat LA” back to the NBA.  Although it didn’t result in an NBA title in 2008, it certainly tells us that the future for those who don’t like LA looks very bleak.

How Bleak?

How bad is the future of those who shout “Beat LA”?  The answer starts with Table One.

Table One: The LA Lakers in 2007-08

Table One reports what the Lakers did in 2007-08, as well as what this team could have expected had player performance not changed from 2006-07.  As one can see, the Wins Produced for this team was 60.4 last season.  Had performance not changed, though, this team would have only expected to win about 46 games.  Much of the difference between what we saw and what was expected can be tied to the improved play of Bynum (worth about 5.5 wins) and the increased production the team received from Lamar Odom (4.0 additional wins). 

With Bynum and Odom improving, the Lakers will be employing in 2008-09 the following four players with a WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] in excess of 0.200 (average is 0.100):

  • Kobe: 0.247 WP48
  • Odom: 0.253 WP48
  • Gasol: 0.273 WP48
  • Bynum: 0.394 WP48

Last season Bynum and Gasol combined to play only 1,926 minutes in the regular season.  Assuming both players are healthy, each player should log significantly more minutes for the Lakers in 2008-09.  And if the performance of each player doesn’t change, we can expect the Wins Production of each player to increase dramatically. 

To see how dramatically, let’s imagine that next season

  • Kobe plays 3,192 minutes (what he played last year)
  • Odom plays 2,921 minutes (what he played last year)
  • Bynum plays 2,362 minutes (found by multiplying his minutes per game from last season by 82)
  • Gasol logs 2,788 minutes (found by multiply Gasol’s minutes per game with LA last season by 82). 

Given these minutes, and the aforementioned WP48, the Lakers can expect to see the following production of wins:

  • Kobe: 16.4 Wins Produced
  • Odom: 15.4 Wins Produced
  • Gasol: 15.9 Wins Produced
  • Bynum: 19.4 Wins Produced

If you add this together, these four players project to 67 wins.  And that’s the number of wins you see before you count the contribution of Jordan Farmar, Luke Walton, Trevor Ariza, and Sasha Vujacic.  Each of these players was above average in 2007-08, which tells us that the Lakers have much more than just the big four.

And here is even more bad news.  Here are the ages of these players:

  • Kobe: 30
  • Odom: 28
  • Gasol: 28
  • Walton: 28
  • Vujacic: 24
  • Ariza: 23
  • Farmar: 21
  • Bynum: 20

As you can see, only Kobe has hit the age of 30.  So unlike the Boston Celtics – who dominated the 2007-08 season – the dominant force in 2008-09 is very young.  And this means people better get used to chanting “Beat LA”.  Given the age of this team – and the productivity of these players – it very much looks like LA is on the verge of yet another dynasty.

Is there hope?

A few days ago John Hollinger provided a forecast for the 2008-09 Lakers.  In this forecast Hollinger detailed all the reasons why the Lakers might falter next season.  These reasons include the following:

  • We don’t know that Bynum can be healthy and productive for an entire season.
  • Although he does not use the phrase “diminishing returns”, Hollinger notes that this many productive players in the frontcourt (Gasol, Bynum, and Odom) likely means that somebody’s production will drop.
  • Along those lines (and a point echoed by Tex Winter), we are not sure that Gasol, Bynum, and Odom can all play together.
  • Kobe is now 30 years old. Plus he has a hurt pinkie.  So Kobe’s production might decline.
  • Vujacic, Farmar, and Derek Fisher all played better last season than they had in the past.  Perhaps last year was just an anomaly and each player will offer less in 2008-09.

Given all these possibilities, Hollinger predicts the Lakers will only win 57 games next year.  This projection, though, is almost certainly too low.  With Bynum and Gasol playing less than 2,000 minutes combined in 2007-08, the Lakers won 57 games.  With each player available for an entire season, it’s hard to see how wins cannot increase.

You Can Shout It, But You Won’t See It

Certainly I think injuries can derail this team.  And as The Wages of Wins notes, diminishing returns is a real issue in basketball.   But diminishing returns is not that big of an effect.  So that means that without major injuries, I think the Lakers are simply going to dominate in 2008-09.   In other words, expecting this team to only win 57 games seems like so much wishful thinking.

And this is bad news for a number of teams that have managed to build very impressive squads.  Boston, Utah, New Orleans (and a few other teams that I think have a chance) should expect to win more than 55 games this year.  And therefore, all should expect- if there wasn’t a team like the Lakers — to contend for a title.  

The Lakers, though, simply look to be too good this year.  So all the fans of these other teams can do is shout “Beat LA.”  But these fans are probably not going to see their teams accomplish this objective very often in 2008-09.  And given the age of the Lakers, it probably isn’t going to happen much in 2009-10 (or 2010-11, etc…). 

Back to Kobe

All of this means that Kobe Bryant is on the verge of being considered one of the greatest players to every play the game (if he isn’t already).  To see this point, let me close by repeating what I said last June:

As I have said before, if Bynum can produce as he did earlier in the year, the Lakers are the favorites to win the title next year (and the year after that as well).  When that happens, we will most certainly hear the following stories (from the very same people criticizing Kobe today).

1. Kobe is the greatest player in the game.  We heard that this year without the Lakers winning a title. 

2. Kobe is as good as Michael Jordan.  Again, we started to hear that in the playoffs this year.

3. Kobe has willed his team to another championship.

Although I fully expect to hear these three statements (assuming the Lakers win in 2009), I also think that Kobe – who is a very good shooting guard – will still be the same Kobe.  In other words, I suspect that the very same writers that are a bit down on Kobe today; will be just as high on the same Kobe in 12 months.  Remember, many of the same analysts who were down on KG 12 months ago have apparently changed their perspective on Garnett.   

Again, we should expect basketball analysts to separate players from teammates. But again and again, we see that this doesn’t happen.  With that in mind, keep track of the people writing negative stories about Kobe and the Lakers right now.  If Bynum comes back as we expect, those same people will write a different story – about Kobe – in just a few short months.

- 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.

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