Prying Open the LA Panic Room

Lakers fans feel emasculated. Losing to the Charlotte Bobcats was one thing. Looking listless against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that practically redefined losing this year? Pathetic. It reminds me of a classic scene from my childhood.

You’ve been called out, Lakers fans – and by the most ragtag group of rascals (and Antawn Jamison) in the NBA. By a team that lost the only pair of PF Flyers they’d ever seen this summer. By a team you vanquished earlier in the season by a double-nickel, MJ’s favorite number in New York.*

*His favorite number in Vegas? Red. Or the hard eight, if he’s feeling loose.

But to quote your own beloved scribe, Los Angeles, “Easy there, Romeo.” Slow your roll on that panic disco. Is it disconcerting that the Lakers were defeated by a team they should dominate? Undoubtedly. Does their lack of effort against the dregs of professional basketball represent the collapse of morality and competition into a black hole of vacuous indifference and switch-flipping? If that’s the gravy you want to pour on your regular season meatloaf, I won’t argue.* It clearly diminishes the significance of our 82-game buffet – something a much wiser man than I called his “favorite thing in sports.”

*Personally, I see using your energy and resources sparingly if necessary as a wise strategy, and strategy is a part of competition. But I have a poker player’s perspective, so everything I say should be viewed as underhanded and weasel-y.

Regardless of how you feel about the Lakers’ lethargy, the fact remains that the regular season and the post-season are distinctly different creatures. The lack of back-to-back games (and corresponding increase in days of rest, basketball-Sabbath style), parsing out and exploitation of tendencies and match-ups over a longer series, shortened rotations, increased minutes for the best players, stronger defense – the reasons why go on and on. The shortened rotations and increased workload carried by stars in particular has a major impact on the way the playoffs play out. And it’s for this reason that Lakers fans need to realize that they have the horses to win another championship.

Photographic evidence.

But don’t take my word for it; after all, I’m a dirty Suns fan. Listen to a man who has the most powerful ally (besides the United States military – USA! USA!) one could hope for: math.

Arturo Galletti calls the concentration of playing time in the playoffs and its effect on who wins the championship his “Half-Baked Notion.”* In sum, this idea states,

[W]hat wins in the regular season is not necessarily what  gets you the trophy. What’s the difference? Minute allocation & how wins produced are affected by that allocation. We continuously hear terms like playoff rotation & playoff minutes thrown around come playoff time. When we take a look at the data we’ll see that the pundits may just be right (hell has officially frozen over).

The half baked notion tells us that a good deep team filled with average and above average players will get you in the playoffs but to get far in the playoffs you need your wins to be concentrated in your Top 6.

*Arturo also chimes in on the importance of the regular season, noting “the true goal of any NBA season is to turn thirty teams into one champion.” Your mileage may vary.

Galletti proceeds to look at the Wins Produced per 48 minutes (from NerdNumbers.com – click through that link for an explanation of the metric) of the top six players in minutes played during the regular season for each playoff team since 2001. You can find the details for yourself by following the link above, but I’ll concentrate on his findings on the top 4 teams (that is, the conference finalists).

The results? Each year except 2006, the champion’s top six posted a cumulative WP48 greater than .900. In all five years, the top six posted a mark higher than that in the playoffs, when the rotations tighten and the best players put in more time than Charlie Sheen’s drug dealer.

While Andrew Bynum missed 25 games recovering from off-season knee surgery, he stands a decent chance at supplanting Shannon Brown in the Lakers’ top six in minutes played on the season. Even if he doesn’t, there’s little doubt he’ll be in the top six during the playoffs – barring another injury setback, of course.* Therefore, we’ll include him with the Lakers’ other five leaders in minutes played.

*Blazers fans just nodded knowingly. Rockets fans feel neglected by my mention of Blazers fans.

A total wins produced per 48 minutes of 1.004 is elite – only 4 of the 20 teams in that five year span of conference finalists bested that total. So the Lakers clearly have the talent to win a championship. Their top 6 have a better WP48 than Boston (.986, though this number rises to 1.118 if we add Kendrick Perkins and remove Nate Robinson), Orlando (.932), Miami (.919), and Dallas (.879).

(Also of note – keep an eye on the Chicago Bulls. Without Joakim Noah, who has a .297 WP48 of his own on the season, in their top six, the Bulls still post a cumulative WP48 of .921.)

While it’s clear, then, that Los Angeles is still in position to seriously contend for the championship, it’s not all roses and lollipops in LA. San Antonio (1.115), that regular season behemoth, looms large in the West. Much of their success this year, especially in out-scoring opponents in the fourth quarter, is predicated on the strength of the bench. The fact that their top six players are also elite should strike fear into the heart of Laker-faithful and make those who are quick to dismiss the Spurs as a championship contender think twice. This becomes doubly true when we consider the impact of homecourt advantage in the playoffs – perhaps the biggest sticking point in the Lakers’ quest for a three-peat.

In 2009, John Schuhmann of NBA.com broke down the significance of homecourt advantage in the playoffs from 1999 to 2008. He found,

The team with home-court advantage wins more than three out of every four series in the postseason. That shouldn’t be surprising, because in order to gain home-court advantage, you have to have a better record. So the team that starts the series at home is essentially the better team going in.

More specific results lend credence to the thought that the better team is playing at home and thus more likely to win – in the conference finals, when teams are presumably more equally matched than in early rounds, both the road and home teams won 10 games. The Lakers may match up well with the Spurs in the conference finals, should the two meet, regardless of where the majority of the games are played.

However, the Lakers may never make it to that point if they don’t shore up their regular season play and seize the second seed (they’re currently two games behind Dallas). In the conference semi-finals, the home team wins 80% of the time. Going into Dallas may be a tall task for the Lakers.

Furthermore, homecourt advantage in the NBA Finals is one of the most important factors in winning a championship – a fact that should hearten those that fret about the Lakers’ performance despoiling the regular season. Of the ten NBA Finals in Schuhmann’s study, 8 were won by the home team – not including the Lakers’ two titles in 2009 and 2010, secured in the Staples Center. As it stands now, the Lakers’ record trails the Celtics and Heat, which would leave Los Angeles in the unenviable position of an aging rock star – trying to screw someone in three straight road venues in order to prove that they’ve still got it.

So stop worrying about whether or not your team has the pieces to win a championship, Lakers fans. The more pressing matter is whether you can make hay in a barn that’s not your own.

Andrew Lynch is the lead writer of the FanSided Suns blog Sun-N-Gun. Follow him on twitter and check out his recent analysis on why comparing John Stockton and Steve Nash is superfluous. He believes that Vince Carter is a zombie.

Topics: Andrew Bynum, Kobe Bryant, Lakers Problems, Lamar Odom, Los Angeles Lakers, Pau Gasol, Phil Jackson, Ron Artest

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