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August 10, 2012
Howard Trade
How Elite Are the Lakers?

by Bradford Doolittle

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We've been placed on Dwight Howard Watch so many times over the last nine months that it seemed inevitable that when a deal finally went down, there would be a seismic shift in the NBA. Now that Howard has reportedly been moved in a four-team mega-trade, it's kind of surprising to consider that the top of the league doesn't look that much different than it did at this time yesterday.

Don't tell that to Lakers fans, who were pounding their chests in unison last night in various social media formats. When the league's marquee franchise nabs the league's preeminent big man, who can blame them for their collective hubris? Nevertheless, on paper, the Lakers' roster is still chock-full of concerns.

The Lakers' history is dominated by a lineage of big men acquired from other teams who went on to lead them to championship glory. It started with George Mikan, who was selected by a Chicago franchise in the old National Basketball League that went under, leaving the Lakers to pick up the game's first dominant big man in a dispersal draft. The Lakers won five titles with Mikan in the middle.

L.A. didn't win another title until 1972, when Wilt Chamberlain anchored the paint, leading the league in rebounding, muscles and dates with the ladies. Chamberlain had been picked up from the 76ers a few years prior for a small pack of stooges. The Lakers bobbed up to the top again in the 1980s, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominated the pivot. He'd been picked up in the mid-1970s from Milwaukee for about half of Southern California, and it was well worth it.

After a quiet decade, the Lakers returned to prominence in the late 1990s led by Shaquille O'Neal, who had been signed away from the Orlando Magic because Shaq's personality was just too big for central Florida. It's a scenario that must seem very familiar to Magic fans this morning.

That's the modus operandi of the Lakers' franchise: Leverage the star-power of La-La Land to land the biggest fish from the NBA pond at any point in time. Maybe that's why they retained the Lakers nickname even after migrating from the land of 10,000 lakes a half-century ago. It wasn't until Andrew Bynum started at center on the Lakers' two most-recent championship teams that L.A. won a title with a big man the team had drafted.

If history is any guide, there are more championships on the way. Howard is the game's best big man and his throne is fairly unchallenged even though in some respects Bynum had a better season in 2011-12. Howard is still just 26 years old and will be playing for the next max contract in the NBA, so he should be at his best in the season to come, provided his surgically-repaired back doesn't get in the way.

As inevitable as the Lakers' 17th championship might seem this morning, chances are it's not going to happen this season. And given the collective age of the Steve Nash-Kobe Bryant backcourt, the next batch of rings might not be so easy to earn.

In a vacuum, the Lakers are improved. They brought in Howard and as far as current, rosterable players go, lost only Bynum and Christian Eyenga. (Think about that for a second.) However, in terms of closing the gap with the champion Miami Heat -- not to mention the Oklahoma City Thunder, the top team in L.A.'s conference -- how much did the Lakers really accomplish? From a statistical standpoint, the answer to that depends on how much more valuable you think Howard is than Bynum.

Over the three seasons prior to 2011-12, Howard was a total of about 40 wins better than Bynum, which is exactly why Lakers fans are so excited today. However, that gap closed considerably last season when Bynum enjoyed the first healthy season of his career and Howard struggled with injuries and motivation. Howard posted an 11.9 WARP last season compared to Bynum's 9.8 mark. Bynum played six more games, but just 45 more minutes, so the playing time difference was minimal. Howard was still the better player, but the gap had narrowed.

Now consider that Howard is entering the portion of his career in which his development is likely to be stuck on a plateau. We call these peak seasons because they are likely as good as a player is going to get and he's going to maintain that level of performance for a campaign or three. Bynum, on the other hand, is a full two years younger meaning that he's got a season or two left on the upward arc.

As a result, it's possible -- not likely, but possible, that there will be no gap at all between the league's two top centers over the next few years. We have to throw the "not likely" qualifier in there because of the gap between the players prior to last season. That disparity can be looked at two ways. Bynum's past knee trouble may cloud your opinion of his future, or it may make look his pre-2011 numbers look that much better. As for Howard, chances are he'll bounce back to pre-2011 form, but backs are tricky and that is certainly not guaranteed.

This is all to say that those expecting a huge leap in the Lakers' projection this morning are going to be disappointed. Those who shun statistics and prefer to discuss the basketball implications of the change may scoff at this and they may have good reason to do so. We'll touch on that.

First, let's talk projections. We've got two projections systems at Basketball Prospectus, NBAPET (mind) and SCHOENE (created by Kevin Pelton). It's always telling to compare the two because while they usually spit out similar results, the differences that do emerge are informative.

Prior to yesterday, NBAPET had the Lakers as the fifth-best team in the West, while SCHOENE placed L.A. in the fourth slot. After shuffling around the 11 players reported to be involved in the four-team Howard transaction, our systems tell us this: the Lakers are still fifth in West according to NBAPET. SCHOENE says they've jumped all the way to ... fourth. Still.

NBAPET in particular gives extra weight to the players on top of the roster and make no mistake, the Lakers have an extremely top-heavy roster. Of course, we just saw a top-heavy roster roll to an NBA championship, so that's not necessarily a bad thing. There are two basic reasons for the Lakers' relatively-pessimistic forecast: the bottom of the roster is really bad, and L.A. plays in a very strong conference.

A lot of people are writing down the Lakers' potential starting lineup and noting that it's made up of former All-Stars: Howard, Nash, Bryant, Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol. That's true, but other than Howard, each of those players was markedly better five years ago than they are today. Peace projects to be replacement-level or worse this season, so his presence in the lineup isn't necessarily a good thing.

Beyond that it's ugly. Jordan Hill, Steve Blake and Josh McRoberts are the only reserves that project to add even a single win to the bottom line. Hill and McRoberts will battle to be the third big man, while Blake will be the third guard. The Lakers are relying heavily on Antawn Jamison, an exceedingly inefficient player ill-suited to be a role player.

Right now, we've got the Lakers pegged as the ninth-best offensive team in the league and fifth-best on the defensive end. That's not chopped liver, but it's also not the kind of forecast that has the Heat shaking in their proverbial boots. And one could argue that because the Lakers project to be the oldest team in the league, the solid defensive projection has nothing but downside.

In the end, the Lakers still project to be about 3-4 wins worse than the Heat and Thunder. That may prove to be worse considering that Oklahoma City's core is comprised entirely of players still on the ascension. L.A. projects to be better than every non-Heat team in the East but to get a shot at Miami in the Finals, the Lakers not only have leapfrog the Thunder in the West, but also the Nuggets, Clippers, Spurs and -- just maybe -- the Timberwolves.

The caveat to all this is that the acquisition of Howard will probably improve the Lakers more than it appears in the spreadsheets. Howard is a better pick-and-roll partner for Nash than Bynum, who is more of a pure low-block player. Gasol should be a nice complement to Howard. Indeed, the Lakers' projection would be much worse this morning if they had sent Gasol out of town in the effort to land Howard. Also, Bryant's projection may be understated because the inefficiency he showed last season could have been a function of being asked to do too much on the offensive end, something that should no longer be the case.

Lakers fans should be excited this morning because their team is in the championship conversation. But they were in that chat yesterday as well. While Los Angeles has improved itself in the margins and added a degree of certainty to its outlook, the Lakers are no sure bet to escape its conference, much less knock off the Heat.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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