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The Lakers Aren't Special: Everybody Loses Big Leads

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Apr 1, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike Brown reacts during the game against the Golden State Warriors at the Staples Center. The Lakers defeated the Warriors 112-120. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE
Apr 1, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike Brown reacts during the game against the Golden State Warriors at the Staples Center. The Lakers defeated the Warriors 112-120. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE

As the Los Angeles Lakers were in the midst of losing yet another big lead to yet another bad team last night against the New Jersey Nets, I started to wonder just how bad the Lakers were in relation to the rest of the league when it came to letting teams back into games. After all, yesterday was the 5th game in a row in which the Lakers allowed a lead of at least 12 points to shrink down to 2, and that seemed to me to be precedent that would place the Lakers amongst the worst teams in the league when it comes to taking their foot off the gas pedal.

Everybody knows this phenomenon exists in the NBA. A team goes up big early in a game, and their energy wavers. The team stops rotating on defense, stops executing on offense, and all the while, their opponents' interest in not getting embarrassed kicks their energy into overdrive. A quick 12-3 run later, what was once a comfortable lead turns back into a competitive basketball game. To be fair, some "big" leads lost are simply regression to the mean. Effort (or lack thereof) doesn't even need to play a part, because teams might be able to shoot 70% for a quarter, but can't sustain it for 48 minutes. A team might come out ice cold, but eventually all those months and years of practice are going to kick in and they'll snap out of it. There's a very good reason why each one of the players on an NBA team is paid money to play basketball. They are all highly skilled, and the difference between a bench warmer and an All-Star is not that large when compared to normal human beings like you or I.

But surely, the Los Angeles Lakers had to be one of the worst teams in the league when it came to shutting off when things are going well, right? I decided to do a little number crunching to find out, and while the Lakers are definitely poor in the area of losing big leads, they are hardly unique in that regard: Everybody loses big leads.

As with all things stats-y, criteria must be established. I pored through mounds of data (provided in database form by the lovely folks at and found out how many times each team in the league has led in a game by double digits. Then, I found out how many times the same game later ended up being within two points after a big lead has been established. So, any time a team led by 10 or more at one point in a game, and then led by 2 or less at a later point in the game, that was deemed giving up a big lead (if a team managed to build a big lead, then "lose" it, then build it back up again, that was counted as two leads, and if they lost THAT lead, it could be two leads lost as well). Or, to put it more simply:

  • Team winning by 10 or more points = big lead
  • Any team which previously had a lead of 10 or more points who's lead dips to 2 points or less = big lead lost

What did I find out in all this mindless number crunching? Every team loses big leads, and most teams do it quite a bit. Actually, let's back up a second. The first lesson is this ... the NBA game in which neither team obtains a double digit lead is a rare feat. As of the data used for this exercise, there have been 781 NBA contests this season. Only 56 of those contests saw a game be single digits from wire to wire. There have been a total of 974 double digit leads in those 781 contests, more than one per contest. For those of you following along at home, in order for there to be an average of more than one double digit lead per contest, that means the teams which are leading by double digits more often than not find themselves losing that lead. At that point, either the team that was up big goes on to build the big lead up again, or else they truly capitulate and end up losing by double digits at some point in the same contest.

So, how many of those big leads get lost? Almost 50% (49.4% to be exact). And, while the Lakers do rank in the bottom third of the league, both in total big leads lost, and in the percentage of their big leads which are lost, they are certainly not at the bottom of either list. Here's how it all shakes down.

Rank Team Leads Gained Rank Team Leads Lost Rank Team Leads Lost %
1 MIA 52 1 DET 8 1 PHI 27.0%
2 CHI 49 2 CHA 10 2 CHI 34.7%
3 OKC 44 3 CLE 10 3 IND 37.5%
4 HOU 40 4 NJN 10 4 SAS 37.8%
5 LAC 39 5 PHI 10 5 DET 40.0%
6 DAL 38 6 WAS 11 6 OKC 40.9%
7 NYK 38 7 IND 12 7 POR 41.9%
8 ORL 37 8 POR 13 8 MIA 44.2%
9 PHI 37 9 SAC 13 9 DEN 46.7%
10 SAS 37 10 DEN 14 10 BOS 47.2%
11 BOS 36 11 SAS 14 11 DAL 47.4%
12 MEM 36 12 UTA 15 12 NYK 47.4%
13 PHX 36 13 ATL 16 13 NJN 47.6%
14 LAL 36 14 MIL 16 14 UTA 48.4%
15 MIN 35 15 BOS 17 15 ATL 50.0%
16 ATL 32 16 CHI 17 16 MIL 50.0%
17 IND 32 17 GSW 17 17 PHX 50.0%
18 MIL 32 18 DAL 18 18 ORL 51.4%
19 POR 31 19 NOH 18 19 LAC 53.8%
20 TOR 31 20 NYK 18 20 LAL 55.6%
21 UTA 31 21 OKC 18 21 CLE 55.6%
22 DEN 30 22 PHX 18 22 MEM 55.6%
23 GSW 30 23 LAL 20 23 SAC 56.5%
24 NOH 23 24 ORL 19 24 GSW 56.7%
25 SAC 23 25 TOR 19 25 MIN 60.0%
26 NJN 21 26 MEM 20 26 WAS 61.1%
27 DET 20 27 LAC 21 27 TOR 61.3%
28 CLE 18 28 MIN 21 28 HOU 65.0%
29 WAS 18 29 MIA 23 29 CHA 76.9%
30 CHA 13 30 HOU 26 30 NOH 78.3%
Total 974 Total 481 Total 49.4%

What can we glean from all this information? There seems to be a loose (and obvious) correlation between being a really good team, and not losing big leads. The four teams which have far and away the best records in the league (MIA, CHI, OKC, SAS) rank 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 10th in terms of gaining big leads, and those same teams rank 8th, 2nd, 6th and 4th respectively in terms of the percentage of big leads that they are able to maintain all the way to victory. On the other end of the spectrum, only Houston prevents the bottom 8 teams in terms of % of big leads lost from looking like the expected order of the NBA draft. Great teams don't lose big leads, and really bad teams lose big leads whenever they are lucky enough to acquire them.

The Lakers specifically certainly rank on the low end in terms of being able to maintain a big lead. First off, the Lakers are only average when it comes to even building up a decent size lead, ranking 14th in that category. The purple and gold are 20th in the league in terms of maintaining a lead once they get it, losing the lead more than 55% of the time. But, with the league average at roughly 50%, the Lakers are hardly terrible in that regard. The Clippers, Magic and Grizzlies (three very decent teams) are similarly unable to maintain a big lead.

Despite the recent epidemic of losing big leads, often to sub-par opponents, the Lakers are not especially or uniquely bad at taking their collective foot of the gas pedal and allowing teams back into the contest. They may lack a certain game-in, game-out killer instinct that most of the truly elite teams seem to possess, but they are just below league average when it comes to letting the competition back in the game. So, the next time the Lakers are up big, and you get that sinking feeling in your stomach that the Lakers are going to give it all back by the 4th quarter, fret not. The Lakers probably will give up that lead, but so would just about anybody else.