The Real Reason the Lakers Are Doing So Poorly: Age

More

Pundits argue. Kobe gripes. But numbers don't lie.

kobe clippers 615 reuters.jpg
Reuters/Danny Moloshok

When Kobe Bryant was asked earlier this month to pinpoint the cause of the Lakers' struggles, his response was to the point. "We're old as shit," he told reporters.

Bryant clearly does not think that the Lakers are too old to win basketball games. He is, however, facing the reality that their abundance of seasoning requires some sort of contingency plan to remain competitive on those increasingly frequent nights when their bones display some inevitable weariness.

To judge by the punditocracy, however, it's hardly that simple. The team's splashy off-season acquisitions—which included the planet's best center, Dwight Howard, and future Hall-of-Fame point guard Steve Nash—were supposed to push Los Angeles into the rarified air of LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Instead, even despite Bryant's best season since 2008-09, the Lakers are, at 19-25, the third-best team in California. The explanations people have come up with are varied:

  • ESPN's Chris Broussard said that "Bryant's offensive blitzkrieg is actually hurting ... more than helping," pointing out that the Lakers were, at the time he wrote it, 4-11 when Bryant topped 20 shots in a game, but 8-3 when he didn't.
  • The Los Angeles Times cited chemistry, saying that this is not a team "that plays together."
  • Bill Simmons called out inappropriate play-calling, writing for Grantland that if "your system is telling you, 'I should play Earl Clark more than Pau Gasol,' you need a new system."

The Lakers themselves pinned at least part of the problem on head coach Mike Brown, who was fired after only five games. When the struggles continued under new coach Mike D'Antoni, GM Mitch Kupchak chimed in, saying in an ESPN Los Angeles report that the team simply doesn't care enough, and that he'd "like to see better effort on the court." For Howard, it's all about negativity.

As it turns out, significant analytical effort could have been saved on all parts had folks just listened to Kobe. Sure, contributing factors include the ill fit of D'Antoni's system, Howard's back problems, and Gasol's unease with his increased usage outside of the post. But the Lakers actually have a positive point differential (4,506 scored vs. 4,445 given up, through Monday), which projects to a 24-20 record instead of the 19-25 at which they reside. Bryant's play has been better than average, and they've received solid contributions from Metta World Peace and Antawn Jamison.

So how to explain the slide? It's impossible to attribute percentages of blame to any specific factors, but a big-picture analysis of what has happened since last season tells us all we need to know.

This is the point at which two immutable NBA truths start to shine: A minority of a team's players produce the majority of its wins, and a player's performance tends to peak in his mid-20s.

For that, we turn to David Berri, a professor of economics at Southern Utah University and the author of The Wages of Wins, who developed an overarching metric to measure how much a given player is worth to his team over the course of a season or on a per-game basis. To do this, he weights every line item in an expanded box score—stats relating to gaining or extending possessions, like rebounds and steals, rate positively, as does scoring; stats related to diminishing possessions, like turnovers and inefficient shooting, are negative—to come up with an overarching number called Wins Produced.

The way Berri explains it, an average NBA player produces one-tenth of a win (0.100) per 48 minutes—five players on the floor equal half a win per game, which is what an average team accumulates—while a star performs at twice that rate, or 0.200 WP48. Players' overall WP tells how many victories they were worth over the course of a season.

(Berri's is not the only system to use such measurement—John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating is probably the best known of them—but it is demonstrably close to what actually happens on a basketball court: Teams' cumulative WP stats are, on average, within about two wins of their actual results. Visit Berri's website for a full explanation.)

A look at last year's Lakers tells us that they were a good, but not great, team. Unfortunately for them, they lost four of their five most productive players in the off-season, to free agency (Matt Barnes, Ramon Sessions) and trade (Andrew Bynum and Josh McRoberts were given up in the deal that netted Howard from the Magic). Note that only one holdover, Gasol, was above average last season.

Table One: The LA Lakers in 2011-12

Players Retained

Position

Minutes

WP48

Wins Produced

Pau Gasol

PF-C

2430

0.161

8.1

Metta World Peace

SG-SF

1720

0.087

3.1

Kobe Bryant

SG

2232

0.059

2.7

Steve Blake

PG

1237

0.045

1.2

Jordan Hill

PF

82

0.234

0.4

Devin Ebanks

SF

396

0.038

0.3

Darius Morris

PG

169

-0.095

-0.3

Sum of Wins Produced

15.5

Players Lost

Position

Minutes

WP48

Wins Produced

Andrew Bynum

C

2112

0.197

8.7

Matt Barnes

SF

1440

0.202

6.1

Ramon Sessions

PG

701

0.156

2.3

Josh McRoberts

PF

718

0.138

2.1

Troy Murphy

PF

956

0.078

1.6

Derek Fisher

PG

1101

0.043

1.0

Luke Walton

SF

65

0.109

0.1

Christian Eyenga

SF

19

0.141

0.1

Jason Kapono

SF

269

-0.059

-0.3

Andrew Goudelock

SG

419

-0.085

-0.7

Sum of Wins Produced

20.8

Team Wins Produced

36.3

Actual Wins

41

Los Angeles lost more than 20 wins' worth of player performance, but added nearly 27—primarily via Howard and Nash.

Table Two: The Veteran Players the Lakers Added Before 2012-13

Veterans Added

Age

Position

Minutes

WP48

in 2011-12

Wins Produced

In 2011-12

Steve Nash

38

PG

1961

0.271

11.1

Dwight Howard

27

C

2070

0.233

10.0

Jodie Meeks

25

SG

1644

0.138

4.7

Chris Duhon

30

PG

1226

0.097

2.5

Earl Clark

25

PF

559

-0.011

-0.1

Antawn Jamison

36

PF

2151

-0.035

-1.6

These are last year's statistics, of course, and don't account for age, injury, and the currently awful play of Jodie Meeks. A comparison between this year's team at the season's halfway mark (extrapolated to a full schedule) against last year's squad confirms what we already know: Bryant has been much better than last year, while Howard and Gasol have declined in significant ways.

Still, the overall results are nearly the same. We can also see that even if the team's stars were performing like they did last year (Column 5 below), the Lakers would be sitting just outside the playoffs in the West. (When Howard was completely healthy last season, he was still only marginally better than Bynum. Based on the current season's performance, in Column 7, the team is on pace for a seventh seed.).

Table Three: The Lakers after 44 games

COLUMNS

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

Player

Position

Minutes

WP48

2011-12

Wins

Produced

2011-12

WP48

2012-13

Wins

Produced

2012-13

Difference

between

Column 7

&

Column 5

Kobe Bryant

SG

1708

0.059

2.1

0.143

5.1

3.0

Dwight Howard

C

1429

0.233

6.9

0.156

4.6

-2.3

Metta World Peace

SF

1533

0.087

2.8

0.119

3.8

1.0

Steve Nash

PG

665

0.271

3.8

0.188

2.6

-1.1

Jordan Hill

PF

458

0.234

2.2

0.226

2.2

-0.1

Chris Duhon

PG

778

0.097

1.6

0.109

1.8

0.2

Antawn Jamison

PF

752

-0.035

-0.6

0.099

1.6

2.1

Pau Gasol

PF-C

1032

0.161

3.5

0.064

1.4

-2.1

Earl Clark

PF

363

-0.011

-0.1

0.146

1.1

1.2

Jodie Meeks

SG

701

0.138

2.0

0.070

1.0

-1.0

Steve Blake

PG

182

0.045

0.2

0.085

0.3

0.2

Darius Johnson-Odom

PG

6

-0.418

-0.1

-0.418

-0.1

0.0

Darius Morris

PG

628

-0.095

-1.2

-0.007

-0.1

1.2

Devin Ebanks

SF

186

0.038

0.1

-0.125

-0.5

-0.6

Robert Sacre

C

165

-0.279

-1.0

-0.271

-0.9

0.0

Summation

22.2

23.9

1.7

These numbers, of course, reflect the myriad injuries the Lakers have suffered, primarily Howard's back issues and a leg injury that cost Nash 24 games. (Backup point guard Steve Blake has also missed nearly the entire season with an abdominal issue.)

It's a ready excuse, but there's more to it than frailty. Even had everybody remained healthy, at the per-game minutes they're currently playing Los Angeles still projects to only 53 wins on the season (assuming a nine-player depth chart, which is extremely optimistic). This is good, but hardly at the level of the Thunder, Spurs, or Clippers, who are all on pace to approach or top 60 wins—and far from the championship-caliber play people expected when Howard and Nash came on board.

Table Four: What if Injuries Never Happened?

Player

Projected Minutes Per Game

Wins Produced 2011-12

Wins Produced 2012-13

Steve Nash

32

14.8

10.3

Dwight Howard

36

14.3

9.6

Kobe Bryant

38

3.8

9.3

Metta World Peace

34

5.0

6.9

Jordan Hill

10

4.0

3.9

Pau Gasol

34

9.3

3.7

Chris Duhon

20

3.3

3.7

Antawn Jamison

16

-1.0

2.7

Jodie Meeks

20

4.7

2.4

240

58.4

52.5

On top of all this, there's yet one more way to look at the Lakers, which brings us full circle, back to Bryant's initial assessment: They're old as shit.

Nash is nearly 39, Bryant 34, World Peace 33, and Gasol and Blake are 32. Jamison, who has played the sixth-most minutes on the team, is 36. Add Howard's back problems to the mix, and it should be no surprise that the Lakers' ideal starting lineup has rarely seen the floor together. (Never mind coaching decisions like starting Earl Clark over Gasol.)

This is the point at which two immutable NBA truths start to shine: A minority of a team's players produce the majority of its wins, and a player's performance tends to peak in his mid-20s. For an example of this, look to Oklahoma City, which has 36.5 Wins Produced as a team (and 34 actual victories as of Monday). Eighty-seven percent of those 36.5 Wins Produced—31.6—are attributable to the top five players on the roster, who have an average age of 25.6. The Clippers are not far off, age-wise.

Table Five: Comparing the Lakers to the Top Teams in the West

Top Teams in the West

Wins

Produced

Top 5

Wins Produced

Average

Age Top 5

San Antonio

36.5

26.1

30.0

Oklahoma City

36.1

31.6

25.6

LA Clippers

34.5

28.3

25.8

LA Lakers

23.9

18.3

31.4

Even the Spurs, while markedly older, boast a 21-year-old—Kawhi Leonard—as their fifth-most productive player.

In contrast, the Lakers have only two productive players younger than 30: Howard (playing hurt) and Jordan Hill (lost for the season at the beginning of January). It is inevitable; regardless of performance, being old means dealing with injuries, which Los Angeles has done plenty of.

It may be obvious even without the stats, but the numbers prove that the Lakers' slide is not about chemistry, attitude or coaching. They are old, and they are thin, and that is a lot for any team to overcome.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Jason Turbow is the author of The Baseball Codes. He writes regularly for The New York Times and SportsIllustrated.com

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

'Stop Telling Women to Smile'

An artist's campaign to end sexual harassment on the streets of NYC.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

Just In