The Lakers Really Are Who They Are

The Los Angeles Lakers – who won NBA titles in 2009 and 2010 and have not missed the playoffs since 2005 – are currently the second worst team in the Western Conference.  And on Friday, the Lakers lost the Orlando Magic; or the second worst team in the NBA.

Pau Gasol was quoted at ESPN.com saying the following after the loss to the Magic:

“We are who we are right now. Some nights are better than others but, bottom line, when you lose against the worst teams in the league, you got to ask yourself why and, kind of, what does that make you?”

He then went on to say:

“It just seems we can’t seem lock up consistently. We do it for spurts. Now every team in the league knows the Lakers are not very good defensively, to say the least.”

Dave McMenamin – who wrote the article at ESPN.com – seemed to concur:

“L.A.’s biggest problem has been its defense. The Lakers have allowed their opponents to score 100 points or more in each of their last 11 games.”

When we look at defensive efficiency – or points surrendered per possession – the Lakers currently rank among the bottom five teams in the NBA. So it does appear – as these quotes suggest – that defense is a problem.

But although the numbers suggest defense is the answer, I think focusing on defense may lead to an incorrect conclusion.

To illustrate, consider the following hypothetical story.

Imagine a team assembles a collection of average players (i.e. a Wins Produced per 48 minutes of 0.100).  Such a team would win 41 games.  Furthermore, we can expect their offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency to be equal.

Now let’s imagine this team replaces all its 0.100 players with 0.050 players.  If that happens, we can expect this team to win 20 or 21 games.  How would these changes impact offensive and defensive efficiency?

Again, offensive and defensive efficiency are about equal for a average team.  But as the quality of players the team employs declines, the difference between offensive and defensive efficiency would become increasingly negative.  Now this could happen because the offensive efficiency numbers get smaller (i.e.the team scorers fewer points per possession).  Or it could because the defensive efficiency number gets larger (i.e. the team give up more points per possession).  In all likelihood, though, we probably should expect movement in both efficiency numbers.  And that means, we should expect both offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency to worsen.

Or – to summarize – when you get worse players you should probably expect your defense to worsen.

So what is the problem with just saying defense has declined? People seem to think that defense is just about effort.  Therefore  a team can just try harder and win more games.  In fact, this is what Nick Young said in the article:

“We had a lot of let-ups. We don’t bring the energy all the time.”

But a different story is told when we look at Wins Produced (a model based on offensive and defensive efficiency).

LA Lakers

Minutes

WP48***

Projected

Wins Produced

Projected

WP48**

2013-14

Wins

Produced

2013-14

Difference****

Jordan Hill

870

0.150

2.7

0.261

4.7

2.0

Jodie Meeks

1452

0.102

3.1

0.086

2.6

-0.5

Wesley Johnson

1161

0.026

0.6

0.075

1.8

1.2

Steve Blake

669

0.089

1.2

0.12

1.7

0.4

Kendall Marshall

520

0.042

0.5

0.147

1.6

1.1

Pau Gasol

1295

0.101

2.7

0.045

1.2

-1.5

Jordan Farmar

456

0.086

0.8

0.069

0.7

-0.2

Xavier Henry

675

0.031

0.4

0.031

0.4

0.0

Robert Sacre

398

-0.138

-1.1

0.048

0.4

1.5

Shawne Williams

645

-0.016

-0.2

0.026

0.4

0.6

Ryan Kelly

394

0.037

0.3

0.014

0.1

-0.2

Elias Harris

11

0.032

0.0

0.122

0.0

0.0

Chris Kaman

384

-0.021

-0.2

-0.026

-0.2

0.0

Manny Harris*

105

0.069

0.2

-0.097

-0.2

-0.4

Kobe Bryant

177

0.105

0.4

-0.061

-0.2

-0.6

Steve Nash

135

0.140

0.4

-0.165

-0.5

-0.9

Nick Young

1239

0.044

1.1

-0.029

-0.7

-1.9

Summation

12.9

13.8

0.8

Summation

across 82 games

24.1

25.7

1.6

*- Manny Harris didn’t play last year so his “projected WP48” is just what he did for Cleveland in 2011-12

**- WP48 in 2013-14 is taken from boxscoregeeks.com

*** – WP48 Projected is what I did for ESPN the Magazine before the season started

**** – Difference is simply the difference between Wins Produced in 2013-14 and Wins Produced projected

The above table reports what the Lakers have done after 44 games this season and what we could have expected these players to do before the season started (based on past performance).  As one can see, the Lakers – as Gasol noted – “are who they are”.  Given what these players did in the past we would expect this team to be bad today.

And since we expected this team to be bad, it is a good bet that they probably would not be great at defense.  But the solution isn’t for this team to just “try harder” on defense.  If these players were capable of this, we would see

a. better defensive efficiency and

b. better Wins Produced numbers

In other words, these players would improve.  Although it is possible for players to substantially improve, NBA players tend to be quite consistent over time (relative to what we see in baseball or football).  This suggests that teams that count on substantial improvement from its players are likely to be disappointed.

Although it is true the Lakers are bad at defense, I doubt the story that this simply reflects effort.  I think it is more accurate that this reflects the quality of the team’s players. And that means the Lakers will get better when many other people are wearing the Lakers uniform (something that will likely happen next season).

- DJ

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