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Wednesday
Feb022011

A Close Look At The Chances of a Lakers' 3-Peat

Can LA complete another threepeat? The numbers say yes. Observation says no.In the 54-year history of the NBA, eleven teams have won at least two NBA titles in a row. Of that number, five fell short the following year, five went on to win another title (or another six, in case of the 1959-66 Celtics), and one is playing this season in search of its third consecutive championship: the Los Angeles Lakers. If it seems surprising how often an NBA team completes a three-peat, that’s because it is. In other sports, winning three in a row has proved more challenging: in the NHL, 15 teams have won multiple titles in a row, but just five have won three or more. In MLB, 14 teams have won multiple titles in a row; just four have won three or more. The NFL has the worst rate of all: eight teams have won two Super Bowls in a row, but none has gone on to win a third.

Intuitively, these numbers make sense. Basketball, with a roster size of just 15, is by far the smallest of the four major sports. Football, at 53 players per squad, is the largest. So it makes sense that these two sports sit on the opposite end of the three-peat spectrum—it’s much easier to build a contender and keep the key parts together when you have less bodies to worry about. As the Lakers prepare to take on their chief rivals out West--the Spurs--tonight, let’s take a look at their chances to three-peat and how they stack up against three-peaters of season’s past.

To three-peat, the Lakers must first make the Finals, which would be an extraordinary accomplishment in and of itself. LA’s been to the Finals three years in a row already, and the list of teams to make four straight Finals appearances is even shorter than the list of three-peaters. Boston made 10 straight Finals from 1957-66—I think it’s safe to say that we won’t see anything like that ever again. LA made four straight from 1982-85, and Boston did the same from 1984-87. That’s the whole list.

It’s arguably even more difficult to do so now, with high-level international basketball tournaments such as the Olympics and World Championships taking on greater prominence. Of the Lakers’ key players during their run, Kobe Bryant played in the FIBA Americas tournament in 2007 and the Olympics in ’08, Pau Gasol played in the European Championships in ’07 and ’09 as well as the ’08 Olympics, while Lamar Odom suited up for the U.S. this past summer at the World Championships. Add to that the fact that the Lakers have played the second-most games in the NBA over the past three seasons (307, three behind the Celtics, whose only international participant in that span was Semih Erden, their fourth-string center), and the Lakers are looking at a lot miles on those legs.

How much has all that high-intensity basketball affected the Lakers this season? Let’s compare their start this year with the last three teams to three-peat: the 2001-02 Lakers, the 1997-98 Bulls, and the 1992-93 Bulls.

Records through 49 games:

* 2010-11 Lakers: 34-15

* 2001-02 Lakers: 35-14 (began 16-1)

* 1997-98 Bulls: 34-15 (began 8-7)

* 1992-93 Bulls: 33-16

All four teams had near-identical beginnings. The ’98 Bulls picked it up a little to finish 62-20. The ’02 Lakers won 58 games, while the ’93 Bulls won 57. But the ’11 Lakers record is a little deceiving; they had by far the easiest schedule of any of those teams, and have gone just 9-9 against teams with a winning record. Their best wins have been over Chicago (3rd-best record in the East) and Oklahoma City (5th-best record in the West). Comparing each of the three-peaters against each other is not really what we want to do, though. A better way to look at the teams might be compare each team versus its two previous title teams. If we choose to look at it that way, we see (offensive and defensive ratings are for entire season except for 2010-11 Lakers):

Wins through 49 games, Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating

LAL '08-'09 40 113 105

LAL '09-'10 37 109 104

LAL '10-'11 34 113 105

 

Wins through 49 games, Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating

LAL '99-'00 38 107 98

LAL '00-'01 32 108 105

LAL '01-'02 35 109 102

 

Wins through 49 games, Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating

CHI '95-'96 44 115 102

CHI '96-'97 43 114 103

CHI '97-'98 34 108 100

 

Wins through 49 games, Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating

CHI '90-'91 35 115 105

CHI '91-'92 40 116 105

CHI '92-'93 33 113 106

 

Now to get a better sense of what these numbers mean, let’s compare each of the third-title teams against each other again, this time comparing the difference in each category versus their respective title teams. I’ve done this by averaging the numbers from the first two titles and comparing them against the numbers from the third season. So for example, the Bulls averaged 43.5 wins between the ’95-’96 team and the ’96-97 team. Compare that against 34 for the ’97-’98 team, and the average difference is -9.5. Here’s the complete set of numbers (remember for Defensive Rating, a lower number means a better defense):

DIFF: Wins through 49 games, DIFF: Offensive Rating, DIFF: Defensive Rating

LAL '10-'11 -4.5 2 0.5

LAL '01-'02 0 1.5 0.5

CHI '97-98 -9.5 -6.5 -2.5

CHI '92-'93 -4.5 -2.5 1

 

Reviewing this data, the 2010-11 Lakers appear to be on track for a three-peat, as they compare favorably with all three teams. The ’98 Bulls numbers are a little screwy considering that the ’95-’96 and ’96-’97 Bulls recorded the two highest win totals in NBA history. And though the Lakers have added mileage due to an extended 1st round of the playoffs (moved to best-of-7 format in 2003) and international appearances, their numbers didn’t drop off any more than the other three squads, and their offensive rating improved the most of any team (currently sitting at a league-leading 113). While all this data is nice, any intelligent observer of the NBA knows that numbers tell only part of the story. The other part, the on-court product that we see with our own eyes night-in and night-out, is just as, if not more, important than simply analyzing data.

For the 2010-11 Lakers, the on-court product has been disappointing so far. That’s not to say that LA can’t turn it on in the playoffs, much like Boston did last season—no one is better at understanding when to push his body than Kobe Bryant—but the Lakers problems appear to be deeper than what the Celtics faced last season. Consider the Celtics’ 109-96 victory in LA on Sunday, the teams’ first meeting since Game 7 last June. Though a regular-season game, it had a playoff-type feel to it; it was a chance to see what’s changed from last year as well as serving as a midseason measuring stick on national TV. Neither team would be giving less than 100%. Yet the Celtics pulled away easily down the stretch, magnifying several of LA’s flaws this season. Ron Artest has been a different player than he was last season, and it showed Sunday as he was badly outplayed by Paul Pierce, who torched him to the tune of 32 points. LA’s advantage on the boards last season was nullified, as Boston easily outdistanced them, grabbing 43 rebounds to the Lakers’ 30. And the Lakers’ offense looked dysfunctional in crunch-time, as Bryant took the first shot on ELEVEN consecutive possessions during one stretch in the fourth quarter. Even when Bryant was in his prime, running Kobe versus the world at crunch-time never worked for the Lakers; it’s no surprise that it doesn’t work now, as Bryant doesn’t get to the rim nearly as much.

If the Lakers want to get back to the Finals, Kobe has to follow the pattern that he used the last two seasons—keeping teammates involved on offense. Pau Gasol only had 12 points despite a team-high 39 minutes. Gasol’s minutes have been high all season, and Phil Jackson has publicly stated that he’d rather not use Gasol as much to keep him fresh for another long playoff run. But despite the Lakers’ struggles on Sunday, as long as they can keep Bryant, Gasol, and Odom healthy for the playoffs, there’s no reason to think that they won’t be in the thick of playoff action again out West. That’s not to say that the Lakers path will be easy, though. During their three-year run to the Finals, the Lakers have been the number one seed in the West each season. No other Western team won more than 56 games; LA averaged 60 victories. This year, their competition figures to be tougher. The Spurs are on pace to win 68 games; Dallas was on pace to win 63 until Dirk Nowitzki went down and the team went on a six-game losing streak. Now that Dirk’s returning to form, the Mavs have won six of seven, including a 109-100 victory over LA. As it stands, they’re still on pace for 56 wins. The Lakers certainly won’t have home-court advantage if they face the Spurs and might not have it against the Mavs either.

Even though the Lakers remain outwardly confident that they could win a potential Game 7 on the road, that’s not a scenario that LA has had to face since Gasol joined the team in 2008. Switch Game 7 of the 2010 Finals to TD Garden and chances are good that it could have swung the other way. The same could be said for Game 7 of the Rockets series in 2009. It’s one thing to say you’re going to win a Game 7 on the road, but its different in the heat of the moment, especially with a squad that hasn’t faced a situation like that before. And that’s just to get out of the conference. With a much-improved East (Boston, Miami, Orlando, and Chicago are all capable of taking down the Lakers in a playoff series), even if LA gets to the Finals, a three-peat is by no means assured. Their best hope is that whoever emerges from those four teams is so spent from playing the others that they won’t have anything left for the Lakers. Ultimately, the 2010-11 Lakers come down to numbers versus performance. Looking at the Lakers season so far from a numerical perspective, they would appear to be fine—right on track for title number three. But watching their games, especially the way they perform against good teams, they don’t seem to be at that championship level yet. As to whether that’s because they are waiting until the playoffs or because they simply can’t perform at that level anymore—only time will tell.

 

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Reader Comments (4)

Good article. As a Laker fan I think you make some very strong points. I would point out that Dallas, San Antonio, and Utah have not exactly performed well recently in the playoffs, each losing series they were favored on paper. Getting to the finals will be difficult, especially with OKC looming. If the Lakers are healthy, which they have not been in the playoffs the last 3 years, they should be ok. I magine if Bynum and Ariza were healthy in 08 this could be a chance at a 4 peat.

February 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJamesD

while we're imagining things...what if KG wasn't a cripple last year and perkins played in game 7? I'd say boston wins, which sucks, cos I don't like green, yellow or purple.

JamesD pretty much summed up the defining factor for these two potential championship teams: health. A fit lakers or celtics team going into the post season are favorites to win their conference. If both are healthy then you've got your odds-on bet for the final series. Whoever ruptures their ACL first, loses.

February 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJW

@JW

I think LA wins easier if Bynum is healthy going into the playoffs and finals. Perkins was getting outplayed by a 50% Bynum when Bynum was on the court. Perkins played the 1st 5 and a half games against a 50% Bynum. Boston lost games 1 and 5. Had they won those games, game 7 is moot. If all sides are healthy its hard to argue Boston wins.

February 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJamesD

i'd still argue boston wins. Bynum may be a better player than perkins 1 on 1 but I believe perkins and KG are a better defensive unit than bynum and gasol. It's a shame we'll probably never see those two frontcourts go head-to-head whie fully fit.

February 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJW

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