USA TODAY Sports
The Los Angeles Lakers aren't just incosistent. They are consistently their worst at the worst possible times, and its causing them to severely under perform what their own performances tell us they should be achieving.
The notion that inconsistency hurts a team's performance is as obvious as the sun is hot. If you have a job to do, and sometimes you do that job well while other times you do that job poorly, obviously it would be better if you just did your job well all the time. And generally speaking, it is better to play consistently at the same level instead of sometimes playing above that level and sometimes below that level, even if things average out to be equal. So if I were to say that inconsistency is killing the Los Angeles Lakers, you'd probably respond with something along the lines of "Well, D'uh".
Guess what? Inconsistency is killing the Los Angeles Lakers. No, seriously, KILLING them. The Lakers are so inconsistent, they aren't just significantly under performing their expectations. They are actually managing to significantly under perform their performance. The Lakers are currently 15-16, hovering around the .500 mark which is the very definition of average (i.e. you win as many games as you lose). So, keeping in mind that Steve Nash only just returned and the Lakers spent the first five games of the season mired in the aborted mistake that was the Princeton offense, where would you guess the Lakers ranked offensively this season? Don't cheat, don't look it up. Just guess.
Did you guess 6th? Because that's where the Lakers are currently ranked in Offensive Rating, per basketball-reference.com. Sixth. It goes OKC, New York, Miami, the Clippers, San Antonio, and then the Lakers. Those are some pretty damn good teams there, and while it should be noted that there is a significant gap between the rest of the elite teams and the Lakers (110.1 to 108.7), there is also a (less sizeable) gap between the Lakers and everybody else (108.7 to Houston's 107.9). So, from a purely offensive perspective, the Lakers are close to elite.
Then the defense must be terrible, right? I mean, if the Lakers have a close to elite offense, and yet they currently find themselves nowhere near the other elite teams, they must have one of the worst defenses in the league, right? Let's play our guessing game again. Based on what I've already told you, where do you think the Lakers rank defensively. 25th out of 30 teams? 30th? Nope. 17th. It's not good, but it's hardly terrible. It average, or ever so slightly below it. But the Lakers are surely worse than the elite teams, right? Nope. Not all of them, at least. The Lakers are better, statistically, on defense than both the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks. Hell, the Lakers are signifcantly better on defense (+1.1) AND offense (+3.6!!) than the Portland Trailblazers, who currently sit a game and a half ahead of the Lakers at 16-14. That's impressive, in a depressing, "my world record collection of matchbooks was lost when my house burned down" sort of way.
A very good, nearly elite offense. A mediocre, but hardly terrible, defense. Combine the two, and you get a team that is on the outside of the playoff hunt looking in, as of today. It just doesn't make sense. Think of it in terms of grades. If you were grading the league on a bell curve, the offense would probably be somewhere between an A- and a B+. The defense would grade out in the C/C- range. Average the two out, and you are looking at a B/B- team. Instead, the Lakers have taken their B+ offense, and their C- defense and combined them into a C- record.
How disappointing is this? Well, as bad as the Lakers have been, if they just had a record that matches their statistical performance (per Pythagorean W/L), they would sit at 18-13, comfortably in 6th in the Western Conference and in prime position to push higher. That -3 difference between the Lakers actual win total and their expected statistical win total is tied for the worst in the league, and the teams they are tied with are all terrible (Hint: the best teams in the league usually out perform their Pythagorean W/L while the worst usually underperform it). For a mediocre team (by record) or a decent team (by performance) to under perform so dramatically as compared to their own statistics is rare. Hell, if you go by margin of victory (or defeat), which as any stat head will tell you, has long been the most accurate predictor of postseason success, the Lakers are currently tied for seventh in the league with Golden State, a team that is currently six games ahead of them in the standings, at 21-11.
How has this happened? Last night's contest provided a pretty good clue. Last night, the Lakers shot waaaaay below average from the field (39% vs. 45%) and from 3 point range (14% vs. 36%). And they shot below their shitty average from the free throw line too, with Dwight Howard only responsible for 5 of the team's 11 missed freebies. And this is not an isolated incident either.
For a team with an elite offense, the Lakers sure know how to throw up a stinker. They've had four contests this season in which they scored less than 95 points per 100 possessions, and another three in which they've scored less than 100 per 100 possessions. All seven of those games were losses, but what makes things much worse is who the Lakers have failed so badly to score against ... Philly (ranked 15th defensively), Cleveland (25th), Indiana, who is ranked 2nd defensively, but against whom the Lakers scored a monumentally horrific 77.8 points per 100 in game they lost by one, San Antonio (4th), Utah (24th). the Clippers (3rd), and Dallas(22nd). San Antonio and the Clippers are understandable, and Indiana would have been as well if it weren't so bad, but three of the Lakers worst offensive performances of the season were against some truly terrible defenses, and they are among the Lakers worst losses this season. The defensive performance is the same story. In their 2nd best offensive performance of the season, the Lakers lost to a team that is under .500 (the 117-110 loss to Utah). They lost a game in which they scored 115 points per 100 possessions (which they've done only 7 times this season) by double digits (126-114 Denver). These are all wasted chances, games in which the Lakers could have, and sometimes should have, won comfortably. Instead, they pick their easiest games to under perform, and their hardest games to provide a game effort that falls just short.
The Lakers are inconsistent. We all know that. Sometimes Metta hits his threes, and sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes Dwight Howard can move, sometimes he can't. But the Lakers aren't just inconsistent, they are consistently on the wrong end of that inconsistency at the worst possible time. As bad as the Lakers have been, they are statistically a team that is still within striking distance of the league's best. That is, perhaps, the one silver lining in all this: Statistically, the Lakers are much closer to being the team we thought they were than what they are showing. If point differential is the best indicator of postseason success, the Lakers currently have the 7th best chance of any team in the NBA of doing well in the postseason.. Considering where they currently stand, I'll take those odds.
But therein lies the problem. The Lakers currently stand where they currently stand, and that is four feet deep in a six foot grave that they must dig out of. The schedule is about to get harder, and if the Lakers don't start getting better, or more lucky, quick, that grave will be their's for eternity. After all, point differential may be a better predictor of postseason success than overall record, but its not that great a predictor of overall record. And overall record is what the Lakers desperately need to improve to have any chance of salvaging this season.