In some ways, our notion about what a championship window looks like has changed over the last five years. The concept -- championship window -- became an oft-discussed idea back in the summer of 2007, when the Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to form a powerful new core trio, albeit one that appeared to be long in the tooth. How big was Boston's title window? One year? Two? Five years later, we're still asking that question.
Between the Celtics hanging in contention, the Spurs posting the best record in the league last season and the Mavericks winning the 2010-11 championship, it seems like once-great teams are having plenty of success by keeping aging cores intact. That's been true as well for the Lakers, the league's second-oldest team according to average age in 2011-12. Despite coaching changes and personnel hits, Kobe Bryant and company have won the fifth-most games in the NBA over the last two years, and advanced to the Western Conference semifinals both times.
Of course, that's not good enough for a franchise that has won 16 championships. The Lakers may have been the third seed in the West last season, but they had the same record as the Memphis Grizzlies and were just one game better than L.A.'s perennial 'B' team, the Clippers. With Bryant 16 years into his Hall of Fame career, you had to wonder about the Lakers' championship window. That is, unless something drastic were to happen.
By landing Steve Nash in a sign-and-trade deal on Wednesday without giving up any active players, the Lakers may have propped that window open for another year or two. But make no mistake, the Nash acquisition is no guarantee that Los Angeles will be able to go toe-to-toe with the Oklahoma City Thunder over the next couple of seasons.
Let's start with a projection. My system, NBAPET, uses a simple team projection system during the offseason that employs a baseline forecast for individual winning percentage and a basic formula for minutes that is based on the three most recent seasons. The minutes are auto-adjusted to normalize to actual season totals and from there, the winning percentages are used to calculate each player's forecasted Wins Above Replacement.
It's the best way to do back of the envelope calculations for the league on the fly, when rosters are in flux, sometimes by the hour. Once the rosters stabilize, we use more formalized methods of projecting rotations and minutes, and also use a model that attempts to adjust for how various lineups might fit together.
Before Wednesday's transactions, NBAPET had the Lakers pegged as about a 46-win team, or 45.7 to be exact. That assumed the questionable returns of free agents like Ramon Sessions, Matt Barnes and Jordan Hill. Enter Nash. Making that one little adjustment -- changing 'PHX' to 'LAL' -- boosted the Lakers' win forecast to an even 54 victories. It was one move that, on paper, adds 8.3 potential wins to L.A.'s bottom line.
The boost improves the Lakers from sixth in the West to second, behind OKC's forecast of 57.2 wins. Remember, wins in a sports league are a zero-sum concept. Signing Nash not only adds 8.3 wins to the Lakers' ledger, but it takes away 8.3 wins from the rest of the league. That's quite a day for Los Angeles general manager Mitch Kupchak.
If that projection comes to fruition, then the Lakers are squarely back in the title hunt. As we've written many times, the current-day NBA is about wedging your way into that group of 5-6 teams that are in the championship conversation in any given season. Once there, it comes down to matchups, momentum, coaching, injuries and luck.
Right now, it looks like the Lakers, Miami, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Boston and possibly the Clippers will be in that conversation. You also can't rule out Indiana, plus Chicago could be a threat if Tom Thibodeau can coach the Bulls to a decent seed and Derrick Rose miraculously returns to full strength by playoff time. This list of course is subject to change on a daily basis.
Of all these teams, you have to say the Lakers' projection has the most downside to it, even more so than Boston, which has fewer questions about fit. While Los Angeles may start five former All-Stars in Nash, Bryant, Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace, the league's second-oldest team just signed the league's fourth-oldest player. A few years ago, the team's collective age would have been a huge concern. It still is, but as mentioned, we've seen teams like this break through in recent seasons.
Over the last three seasons, when he was 36, 37 and 38 years old, Nash led the league by averaging an aggregate 11.1 assists per game. According to ESPN Stats & Information, no Laker has averaged more than 8.5 assists per game since Bryant entered the league.
Assists, as much as any other basketball box score statistic, is a function of a player's role as much as his talent. That's not to say there's not a difference between players in terms of things like passing accuracy and court vision, but assists in themselves are very dependent upon a team's system. No Laker or Bull was ever going to lead the league in assists while Phil Jackson was coach because that's not the way the Triangle offense works. There are plenty of assists, but they are distributed among several players.
In Phoenix, Nash ran an attack that was entirely based upon his superior playmaking skills. That not only led to some great offensive basketball, but it also padded Nash's annual assist numbers. Nash was a terrific, All-Star caliber player in Dallas, but never averaged more than 8.8 assists per game for the Mavericks. The change to Mike Brown's system impacts Nash's WARP projection, but right now we don't know by how much. For the moment, we've got a Nash forecast based on his last three years in Phoenix. In reality, you'd think it would be less than 8.1 WARP I've got him forecasted for, and not only because of his age.
Before the Lakers acquired Sessions last season, Bryant had almost never played beside a traditional point guard during his time in the NBA. According to NBA.com/Stats, the Lakers' offense was about 5.8 points per 100 possessions better with Sessions on the floor. Perhaps more importantly, Bryant's individual offensive rating was 110.3 playing alongside Sessions; without him it was 102.1. That's encouraging and you'd think that Nash would have an even more profound effect. But we've still got to see how this works on the court.
The other potential problem area with this move concerns running the pick-and-roll. According to MySynergySports.com, the Lakers had plays terminate in shots by a pick-and-roll ballhandler or roll man about 12.1 percent of the time, up from around nine percent in Phil Jackson's last season. In Phoenix@, the pick-and-roll was used 21.6 percent of the time. Sixty-one percent of Nash's shots and turnovers came when he was the ballhandler on pick-and-roll calls.
You'd think Brown will recognize the need to run the pick-and-roll more often with Nash at the helm. However, neither Bynum nor Gasol were particularly prolific nor efficient at executing as theat finisher on those sets. And if you're running a ton of pick-and-roll, where does that leave Bryant? Again, it all looks good on paper, but we still aren't sure how it's going to work on the court.
So there are some legitimate Xs and Os questions that have to make us wonder about the downside of our initial projections. And we know that four of the Lakers' All-Stars are at ages when they'll project to be worse in 2012-13 than they were last year. Bynum will be 25 and just is entering his prime, but he's the exception.
The Lakers had to add talent to move up in the West and the acquisition of Nash certainly accomplishes that. On paper, there is enough talent here to keep Los Angeles in contention. However, it will be up to Brown to make it all work, and there are no guarantees. The Lakers may be another team that is just collecting names.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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