Yesterday ESPN's John Hollinger published his Per Diem entitled, "How Great Can Heat and Lakers Be?" Being an avid Lakers fan and a person whose profession deals with statistical analysis (I am an Actuary), I look forward to articles such as these. John usually presents his opinion with statistical support and the statistics reach beyond the basic box score which can often times be misleading. Imagine my dissapointment when the only line in the article discussing the possibility of what the Lakers can accomplish this season is as follows:
"...And although L.A.'s goose egg in the loss column keeps it ahead of Miami in the standings at the moment, we've already seen what this outfit can do. Win the championship? Perhaps. Win 72? Not bloody likely."
That is right, John Hollinger uses one simplistic line with no statistical support to broadly brush aside the Lakers team in terms of achieving any historically significant result. He proceeds to spend the remainder of the article, roughly 90% of it, discussing the Heat and their potential to set records. It really is poor writing to include the Lakers in the title and then not go beyond one sentence discussing them. My attempt here is to "finish" the article that Hollinger wrote by discussing the potential for this Lakers team to win 72 games.
Margin of Victory:
Statistical analysis has shown that a team's margin of victory is significantly more predictive of future performance than the simple Wins and Losses column. I derived and equation looking at the last 3 NBA seasons to relate point differential to win total and a 72 win team would have between a 12.1 and 13.7 point differential. By comparison the 1995-96 Bulls had a differential of 12.3 which is in the range. I am focused on whether there is a chance that the Lakers match the 72 win Bulls and so I am going to use the bottom of the range (12.1) as the mark the Lakers have to obtain to have a chance at breaking it. (Note: I am not saying that an average margin of victory of 12.1 points will guarantee a 72 win season).
I want to take the analysis a little further and instead of using points per game, I would like to adjust that number by the number of possessions per game in order to determine how much more efficient per possession the Lakers need to be than the other team in order win 72 games. The last 3 season the Lakers have played between 95.3 and 96.9 possessions per 48 minutes. I will split the difference and just assume they will play 96 possessions per game this year. In order to have a 12.1 margin of victory with 96 possessions then their net efficiency must be roughly 12.6 points per 100 possession. So that is the target benchmark that we will use for determining whether this Lakers team can achieve that.
The Lakers have historically been one of the best offenses in the league. In 2008 the Lakers were 3rd in offensive efficiency scoring 110.3 points per 100 possessions. In 2009 they were 3rd again with scoring 109.8 points per 100 possessions. Unfortunately last season they saw a huge decline and finished 11th in the league scoring only 105.9 points per possession. So what happened?
The struggled to shoot the ball, especially from behind the arc. The Lakers saw their team's FG% drop by 1.7%, their 3P% drop by 2.0%, and their FT% drop by 0.5% . They had virtually no change in turnover rate, offensive rebound rate, free throw rate, or three point rate. In other words, they did everything in 2010 the same way they did it 2009 but just couldn't make the same shots.
Looking further into shot selection and the Lakers were the definition of consistency. In 2009 they attempted 33% of their shots at the rim, in 2010 it was 32%. They attempted 13% on shots within 10 feet in both 2009 and 2010. Mid range jumpers were 10% and 11% in those years, Long Range jumpers were 22% and 23%, and three's were 23% and 22%. The Lakers offense was the virtually unchanged from the prior year in every way.
The Lakers FT% decline can be quickly explained so I will start there. The answer is Kobe Bryant's mangled index finger. Give Kobe credit for being a trooper and continuing to play at a high level with a finger wrapped up with so much tape, padding, and a splint that he had to learn how to shoot differently. But the finger certainly did affect his shooting. In the prior 4 season Kobe had hit roughly 85% of his free throw attempts, but last season his free throw percentage fell down to 81%. As Kobe takes roughly a quarter of the teams total free throws, a 4% drop in his FT% translates into a 1% drop for the team. That explains the teams decline from the line.
As for the three point line, obviously Kobe's finger would have an impact there too. After making over 35% of his threes the prior two years, he connected on only 32.9% of them in 2010. The more interesting story though is how many of the other Lakers suddenly couldn't connect from deep. Kobe took the most three point attempts of anyone on the team and second behind him was Ron Artest. Ron Artest hit 38% and 40% of his attempts the prior two seasons but in 2010 he connected on only 35.5%. Derek Fisher was 4th on the team in attempts and he made only 35% of his attempts, a significant decrease from the 40% he hit the prior two years. Sasha Vujacic was a career 37% three point shooter made less than 31% in 2010. Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown, while never great three point shooters, only hit 32% and 33% of their attempts. The ONLY Laker to have a good year shooting the three was Farmar who made 37.6%.
So what does this mean for this current season? Conventional wisdom would say that Kobe's shot returns to form now that the finger isn't mummified every game, Fisher, Artest, and Sasha should return closer to their normal percentage and I would anticipate some improvement from Brown as young players typically improve as their career progresses. While the Lakers lost their most efficient three point shooter last year in Farmar, he was replaced by a better shooter in Steve Blake. Most people don't realize it but Steve Blake is currently 43rd all-time in 3P% and his 39.4% career mark is just behind the 39.5% marks of Reggie Miller and Ray Allen. The other Lakers addition of Matt Barnes is also a respectable 3-pt shooter (33% career). So I would anticipate the Lakers shooting much better from behind the arc than they did last season.
Through 5 games these expectations are certainly coming to fruition. The Lakers are currently #1 in three-point percentage. While I expect the Lakers to cool off some (no way Odom continues to hit 80% from beyond the arc), it helps to validate my opinion that the Lakers should be much better from beyond the arc this season. This Lakers team could easily achieve the top 3 ranked offense again with an efficiency rating of 110+. They currently have a rediculous efficiency rating of 113.1.
Ever since the Lakers lost to Boston in 2008 they have been focused on improving the defense. They got rid of Vladimir Radmanovich and upgraded to Trevor Ariza. They then got rid of Trevor Ariza and upgraded to Ron Artest. This summer was no different in that they brought in Barnes as a back-up SF and essentially replaced Farmar with a much better defender in Steve Blake.
In 2008 the Lakers defensive efficiency rating was 102.8 (6th in the league). They improved to 101.9 (5th in the league) in 2009. The improved again to 101.1 in 2010. In fact, before Bynum got injured they were on pace to be under 100 in defensive efficiency. The Lakers two worst defenders of the regular rotation players were Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar. Steve Blake's presence will help as he is replacing Farmar and will gradually get a larger share of Derek Fisher's minutes as well. Given the roster upgrades I don't see any reason for the Lakers to not have a defensive efficiency rating of 100 or better. They currently are at 99.9 and that is still without Bynum who significantly improves the defense.
So as I have outlined, if the Lakers offense simply returns to it's old form when it comes to making shots they will have an offensive efficiency rating of roughly 110. I think the Lakers will likely be better than this given some of the residual effects of being able to stretch the floor such as more one-on-one opportunities in the post and fewer turnovers. Given the new shooters I think this team could be better offensively than the 2008 and 2009 teams by another 1 points meaning a 111 offensive efficiency rating (they are currently at 113!).
The defense should continue to improve as the only major changes have been defensive upgrades at a couple of positions. The Lakers should post a defensive efficiency rating of below 100 and if Bynum's return does translate into another 1 point improvement then 99 would be a reasonable defensive efficiency number.
Putting those two numbers together and the net efficiency rating would be 12.0 (111-99). That is right near the threshold needed to possibly be a 72 win team!
Do I think they will win 72 games? No, too many things have to go right (lack of injuries for one) but I don't think the Lakers can be quickly dismissed in the way that John Hollinger did in his article.
Only time will tell but it will be intestesting to see how these items develop. Will the Lakers continue to shoot with great efficiency? Will the defense continue to improve with the new additions? The two things the Lakers have going for them with regards to the 72 wins is 1) They are currently on pace (with a point differential of +13) to hit 72 wins and still don't have Bynum back and 2) They have very few back-to-backs so that scheduling benefit could be a little bit of the "luck" needed to reach such a historic win total.
*All statistics based on www.hoopdata.com