Let me start by first disclosing that I would consider myself a Lakers fan. Definitely.
Today is Friday, April 10, 2009. The Lakers are in Portland waiting to play the Blazers this evening. The last time the Lakers visited Portland was March 9, 2009, where the Blazers spanked them by 17 points, and the game wasn’t as close as the score would lead you to believe. In case you are tempted to blame that loss on the absence of Andrew Bynum, the Lakers have lost in the Rose Garden 7 straight times now. In fact, the last time the Lakers won in Portland was February 23, 2005.
And this time the Lakers will attempt to win in Portland without hall of fame coach Phil Jackson, who didn’t make the trip due to pain and swelling in Jackson’s leg is caused by plantar fasciitis.
I’m sure most people favor the Lakers to win this time, but you shouldn’t sleep on the Blazers. Not only are they just a half a game behind 3rd seeded Houston, but all season the Trailblazers have played a half court, defensive style that tends to do well for teams in the playoffs.
But this article isn’t about the Blazers, it is about the Lakers.
The TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown has been won the last two years by Justin Kubatko of Basketball-Reference.com for correctly predicting the outcome of the playoffs. He uses a computer to simulate games based on regular season statistics and runs the simulation 1,000 times. Again, Justin Kubatko has accurately predicted the 2007 and 2008 playoffs and…
This year, he puts the probability of the Lakers winning the Finals at 23.4 percent.
The probability of the Celtics winning the Finals is 19.3 percent.
The probability of the Cavaliers winning the Finals is 33.4 percent.
I don’t do predictions as a policy: I think it is pointless, immature and people who do make predictions are prone to tilt their analysis to favor what they’ve already declared in their predictions, and I like to be objective in my analysis. Besides, I don’t have the chops for it that Justin has and I can read his stuff on basketball-reference.com.
But last year I did some research and wrote an article entitled, Does Defense Really Win Championships? and found that, in the last 14 years, whenever it came down to the last two teams, the team with the better regular season defense has one the NBA Finals every time except for 3, and one of those 3 times is skewed because of injuries to major players during the regular season.
In fact, in the last 28 years (which is all I wanted to research back to), except for 2 teams with extraordinary regular season injuries, the NBA Champion was always in the top 10 defensively. And in 14 of those 28 years, the NBA Champion was in the top 5 defensively.
After I wrote that article, the Celtics went on to beat the favored Lakers in the NBA Finals, making it the 15th year that the better defensive team won it all, and the 29th year of NBA championships coming from the top 10 defenders in the regular season, and the 15th time out of the 29 that the Champion was in the top 5 defensively.
So how do the big 3 look in terms of defense in the regular season this year?
#1 = Cleveland
#2 = Boston
#16 = Lakers
Of the Lakers 16 losses so far this year, 5 of them came from teams that won’t even make the playoffs. I call that defensive A.D.D. (attention deficit disorder). Here are the Lakers most recent losses, the ones in the month of March:
31 Mar 09 – Charlotte (for the 2nd time this season)
29 Mar 09 – Atlanta
19 Mar 09 – Golden State
17 Mar 09 – Philadelphia
09 Mar 09 – Portland
01 Mar 09 – Phoenix
Do any of those opponents strike fear into the hearts of the league?
How could the Lakers beat Boston and Cleveland every time this year and yet fail to close these lesser teams out and assure their home court advantage in the Finals?
Additionally, even when the Lakers win they’ve struggled to beat lesser teams, often requiring extraordinary 4th quarter efforts to win. The most recent examples include Sacramento on April 7, the Clippers on April 5, Milwaukee on April 1, Golden State on March 19, etc.
In short, the Lakers’ on and off commitment to defense this year puts the odds against their winning an NBA championship in 2009.
However, over the course of the regular season the Lakers have shown they can certainly defend when they make up their minds to. Out of the 16 losses they have so far this year, none of them were to the Cleveland Caveliers or the Boston Celtics, their two most probable opponents should the Lakers make it to the Finals. For instance, the Lakers held Boston to 83 points Christmas day 2008, and Cleveland to 88 points on January 29, 2009.
The trouble is, of the Lakers 16 losses, 5 of them were to teams that didn’t even make the playoffs this year. If teams that didn’t even make the playoffs can upset the mighty Lakers, whose to say teams that did make the playoffs couldn’t steal a game in Los Angeles, taking home court advantage and making the Lakers job much more difficult.
Can the Lakers overcome their defensive A.D.D. and defend for 16 to 28 games in a row to win a championship?
That remains to be seen, but they didn’t put together 16 games of great defense in a row during the regular season, as evidenced by their current ranking of #16 in the league in team defense.
But in addition to the saying that “defense wins championships” is another axiom for playoff basketball: “this is a game of match ups.”
For all the buzz about the importance of having home court advantage, we can’t lose track of the importance of match ups.
Remember in 2007 when 1st seed Dallas, with 67 wins, the best record in the league and home court advantage throughout the playoffs fell to 8th seed Golden State, the last team to qualify for the playoffs? No one saw that coming but perhaps we should have, seeing as Dallas lost all three of its games to Golden State in the regular season.
And so we arrive at where we started, talking about match ups. Yes, the Blazers give the Lakers fits, however both Cleveland and Boston have lost to the Lakers in all their games this season. In fact, Cleveland’s ONLY home loss came at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers.
So maybe this year we’ll be able to see which axiom will prevail. Will it be the defense of the Cavs or the Celtics? Or the match ups of the Lakers?