We are roughly a month and a half from training camps opening and a 10+ weeks until the dawn of the regular season. A lot can change between now and then. Free agency (or what’s left of it at this point), trades, and injuries all can shape the trajectory of a team between now and mid-October.
We all understand this. Still, though, it’s always interesting to me to know what forecasting models and group-think projections say about how good or bad teams will be next season. I have participated in large sample group projections in the past for ESPN. I was part of the early iterations of the NBA Rank project (I stopped after the first two years) and I have offered win projections as part of their summer forecast series that has outperformed Vegas bookmakers.
This isn’t to pat anyone on the back. My point is to say that there is value in what these projections say, even if they’re not always right. And, to be clear, they’re not always right.
So, in saying all that, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton has released a stats only win projection for every team in the league for the 2017-18 season.
It’s under ESPN’s Insider umbrella, so it is paid content. You can read the entire thing here, if you have a subscription. I do. So I read it. This article is actually free. So, better for you!
Before we get into the Lakers, piece, though, here’s Pelton explaining the model:
As in past seasons, I’ve put together projected playing time based on a formula that estimates games missed by taking into account the number missed over the past three seasons (adjusted for any offseason injuries/suspensions) and my own guesses at how rotations will shake out.
Most veteran players are rated using the multiyear, predictive version of RPM, adjusted for the typical aging curve. Newcomers to the league and players who played too little for an RPM rating are rated using their projected offensive and defensive ratings from my SCHOENE projection system, which incorporates translated performance in the NCAA and professional leagues besides the NBA.
For those who are not aware, RPM prefers to ESPN’s metric of Real Plus Minus — a sort of “all in one” stat which balances player production against the players he shares the court with (both teammates and opponents). It is supposed to wade through some of the noise which comes from various lineup configurations, strength/weakness of teammates and/or opponents, etc.
The top of the RPM metric often mirrors what most observers would say are the best players in the league. It also rates other players higher or lower than counting stats or the eye test might presume they should. You’ll find varying opinions on how good a metric RPM is. I have no hard opinion on RPM, but thought I should at least give a snapshot.
Now, to the Lakers.
The stat based projection says the Lakers will win 33 games, or 7 more than they did last season. Based on the full projection for the West, this would put them 13th in the conference and about 12 games behind the 8th seed. Here’s Pelton putting analysis to what the stats say:
Baby steps for the Lakers, as they move back toward competitiveness after the worst four-year stretch in franchise history. With the additions of No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball, guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and center Brook Lopez, RPM projects the Lakers to improve nearly to league average on offense. They still look like one of the NBA’s worst defenses (28th).
Pretty straight forward stuff and, honestly, nothing to get worked up over. I do anticipate the Lakers being better on offense next season even though they’ve lost D’Angelo Russell, Nick Young, and Lou Williams (who was traded last year, but was great offensively for nearly 50 games). I think they’ll be better balanced, have more spacing, and play with much more pace across both units. All of this should help their efficiency.
I also agree there will be a lot left to be desired defensively. Having Caldwell-Pope will help. As will Ingram having a full year of experience under his belt. But Lopez is not a good defender in space even if he can protect the rim some. And as much as I love Randle, he needs to show he can defend with some consistency before he gets any benefit of the doubt. Losing Tarik Black will hurt on the second unit and it remains to be seen how players not named Larry Nance can play team defense on that bench unit.
So, all in all, I think the stats projection sounds reasonable enough.
What it cannot account for is any sort of true culture shift, chemistry upgrade, or element of adjustment opponents may face when playing a Lakers team which is likely to have a fairly unique style (if summer league carries over — a big if, I know). How much these variables matter in the end — either positively or negatively — could impact that projection. Time will tell how it goes. We still have a ways to get there.