Back when Mike Brown paid for the Los Angeles Lakers' 1-4 start with his job, the trendy comparison was to equate the Lakers with the 2010-11 Miami Heat, which also took time to start winning after adding Chris Bosh and LeBron James to Dwyane Wade to build the core of a championship team. Oddly enough, we haven't heard the Lakers-Heat analogy recently even though it's now much more apt.
During the first season of the big three, Miami's record never got as bad as 1-4. In fact, the Heat won four of its first five games. Miami's swoon came a bit later in the month of November, when a stretch of four losses in five games dropped the Heat to 9-8. With Sunday's upset at the hands of the Orlando Magic, the Lakers have now reached the same point in the season with a similar of record of 8-9.
When fans and analysts invoked Miami as a point of comparison, they generally did so to emphasize the importance of patience, which is obviously valid. However, I don't think that's the only lesson to be learned from the 2010-11 Heat, and the other one is applicable to the Lakers as well, if not as strongly.
You see, the great myth of Miami's 2010-11 season is that the Heat got substantially better after the 9-8 start. While that's unequivocally true of Miami's record, a deeper look suggests the Heat was always playing at a high level. On the morning of November 28, the schedule-adjusted point differential measure I've used to evaluate teams showed Miami as the league's fifth-best team, 6.4 points per game better than an average squad. Typically, a team with the Heat's actual point differential (+5.9) would win about 12 of its first 17 games. Miami's record at the time was wildly misleading.
The same is true to a lesser extent of the Lakers. Even after Sunday's defeat, the Lakers are outscoring opponents by 3.8 points per game, which should translate into between 10 and 11 wins over 17 games. That's the difference between potentially ranking as high as fourth in the West rather than tied for eighth, where the Lakers currently sit.
That solid differential has to be tempered a bit by a friendly schedule, which has given the Lakers 12 of their first 17 games at home. Adjusting for schedule drops the Lakers to 2.1 points per game better than an average team, good for ninth in the NBA. While that's not nearly as impressive as the Heat two years ago, it's still a lot better than the Lakers' below-.500 record.
In 2010, Miami had both markers of a team underrated by its winning percentage--blowout wins and close losses. The Lakers haven't had as many of the latter, although both their games decided by fewer than five points have been losses--by two points apiece to San Antonio and Indiana. Instead, the Lakers have built their point differential on the strength of blowout wins. Half of their eight wins have come by at least 19 points. Elsewhere in the league, just two teams--the New York Knicks (5) and the Spurs (4) can match that total. If you dislike that admittedly arbitrary endpoint, add the L.A. Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder to the list of teams with at least three 20-point wins.
More than anything else, the Lakers have been wildly inconsistent, with this weekend serving as a microcosm. On Friday, they rode unsustainably hot three-point shooting to a 19-point win over a Denver Nuggets team that also happens to be playing better than its record; two nights later, the Lakers sleepwalked their way through a home loss to the Magic. As tempting as it is to write them off due to opposition, the big wins have historically proven telling, as Justin Kubatko demonstrated in a 2006 study for CourtsideTimes.Net. Fittingly, our Neil Paine trotted out something similar in support of the Heat in November 2010.
None of this is to suggest the Lakers are just fine. Indeed, there is still a long list of issues Mike D'Antoni must address. Pau Gasol continues to struggle to find his place next to Dwight Howard in the frontcourt, and right now he doesn't look healthy at all after admitting last week that he's battling tendinitis in both knees. Increasingly, D'Antoni has relied on Antawn Jamison rather than Gasol to finish games next to Dwight Howard, which exposes the Lakers defensively.
Possibly because of health, Howard has been inconsistent in his own right, and his difficulty making free throws will open up the Lakers to continued intentional fouling like Jacque Vaughn used Sunday. D'Antoni also must settle on a rotation, which has been difficult for all three of the team's coaches this season. With Jamison stretching the floor at power forward and Gasol getting minutes behind Howard, right now Jordan Hill looks like the odd man out of the frontcourt despite being effective this season. Meanwhile, Jodie Meeks' role has fluctuated. After coming off the bench to make seven three-pointers in Friday's blowout, he played just nine minutes Sunday as D'Antoni favored the athleticism of Devin Ebanks on the wing.
Certainly, the Lakers hope to eventually be much better than a little above average, a process that will be aided at some point in the not-so-distant future by Steve Nash's return at point guard. What point differential tells us is that they have less room to go than a below-.500 record would indicate. The Lakers need to get better on their off nights, but at their best they are already performing at the level of a championship contender.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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