Will the Lakers make the playoffs this season?
It’s a key question of the offseason, but it’s one usually answered with more questions. Is Kobe Bryant healthy? Is he the same Kobe? Are Pau Gasol and Steve Nash actually on the floor? Is Phil Jackson involved somehow?
With so many unknowns, the consensus has been that the Lakers will miss out on the postseason this year. In a recent ESPN.com panel, the Lakers were not only pegged to miss the playoffs, but were ranked 12th in the Western Conference.
It seems a little unsettling -- particularly to Kobe -- if only because the shift from known entity to wildcard happened so quickly. While it’s difficult to predict where a team with so many question marks will finish, we can look at the precedent set by teams of a similar makeup and style.
Healthy or not, maybe the only thing that’s safe to assume right now is that the Lakers will be a below average defensive team.
The first (and biggest) reason for that is the loss of Dwight Howard. Although he was far from the one-man defensive anchor he was in his Orlando days, Howard still had a positive impact defensively last season, as the Lakers allowed 5 more points per 100 possessions when Howard was off the floor than they did when he was on the floor. Last year was a poor defensive effort by Howard’s standards, but it was still among the league’s best.
Maybe losing a great defensive player could be overcome on its own, but let’s not forget that the Lakers ranked 20th in defensive efficiency last season with Howard. It’s also tough to ignore that Mike D’Antoni has only coached one above-average defensive team (better than 15th in defensive efficiency) in ten seasons, or that Pau Gasol and Steve Nash are both now a year older. New additions Nick Young and Chris Kaman aren’t exactly renowned for their defensive prowess, either.
Add all that up, and it would be somewhat of a miracle for the Lakers to finish above 15th in defensive efficiency this season. Assuming that miracle doesn’t happen, where does that leave the Purple and Gold?
A look at the offensive and defensive efficiency marks for the playoff teams of the last decade is a good starting point.
There have been 160 playoffs teams in the last ten years. 53 of those teams ranked below 15th in the league in offensive efficiency during the season. Basically, one of every three playoff teams had a below-average offense in terms of efficiency. Those aren’t bad odds for teams that struggle to score.
It’s much tougher to make the playoffs for below-average defensive teams, though. Of the 160 playoff teams, only 32 ranked below 15th in defensive efficiency. Exactly 80 percent of the league’s below-average defenses have missed the playoffs over the last decade.
It’s an uphill battle for bad defensive teams just to make the playoffs, but the outlook is even worse once they get there. Of the 32 playoff teams who ranked below 15th in regular season defensive efficiency, only 11 advanced to the second round. Four made it to the Conference Finals. None made it to the Finals.
That may not sound promising, but there is another way of looking at it -- which is something Mike D'Antoni has been doing for a long time.
Of the 32 below-average defensive teams to make the playoffs in the last decade, D’Antoni has coached five of them (’04 Suns, ’05 Suns, ’07 Suns, ’10 Knicks, ’12 Lakers). No one has a better success rate of taking defensively challenged teams to the postseason than D’Antoni does. At least in that regard, he’s probably the best coach for this roster.
Of course, Steve Nash has plenty of experience alongside D’Antoni with teams of that ilk. There is something to be said for having a coach and point guard who are experienced winning with such a drastically tilted style of play.
Kobe Bryant actually has some experience taking a poor defensive team to the playoffs as well. Back in 2006, the Lakers finished a ghastly 24th in defensive efficiency, but still made the playoffs thanks to Bryant’s crazy scoring efforts.
In a season with plenty of uncertainty ahead, we can reasonably expect the Lakers to be a below-average defensive team regardless of everything else. That’s not a death knell for their playoff chances, but it does remove some margin for error offensively.
To that point, only one Western Conference team in the last decade has made the playoffs with a defensive efficiency mark ranked below 15th and an offensive efficiency outside of the top 10. You may remember that team as the “We Believe” Golden State Warriors that upset the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round.
What we know about the Lakers right now probably isn’t enough to make you believe, but the silver lining is that for this group, being the statistical outlier would be nothing new.