The Real Reason the Lakers Are Doing So Poorly: Age

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.

Presented by

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

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