Statistical Test: LeBron’s Lakers, By The Numbers

LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers are a motley assemblage of who-dats and castoffs, somewhere between a Rucker Park team and a G-League roster, with one of the worst No. 2 overall draft picks ever to lace up the sneakers in an NBA arena and with a Shaqtin’ MVP quite possibly set to be the starting center.

But just how bad are the Lakers, really?

Well, let’s imagine a world where LeBron James is replaced by a mid-tier starting small forward. Not a G-League replacement, not a guy who couldn’t crack the roster on the 2016 76ers or anything, just a mediocre, serviceable NBA starting small forward.

To find the guy best suited to this experiment, I went over to Basketball Reference, told it to rank all of the SG/SF/stretch-4 type players who played at least 2,000 minutes in 2017-18 (so, basically, workhorse starters; B-Ball Ref found 40 such players) by Win Shares per 48 minutes, then looked at the guys in the middle of the pack.

Nos. 17-23 inclusive: Trevor Ariza, Khris Middleton, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Jaylen Brown, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Klay Thompson (seriously, remind me again why Thompson is an All-Star? It sure ain’t his advanced stats.)

And when you think of an average, middle-of-the-road, not-great-not-awful NBA small forward, Bogey kind of fits the bill, especially when you remember the guy running the statistical test is a Pacers fan, right?

So we’ve got our 2018-19 Lakers roster. All other things equal, LeBron James is out and Bojan Bogdanovic is in.

Now, the question whose answer seems obvious: Just how bad is this team?

We’ll start with Win Shares, and try to shoehorn WS/48 into a rough approximation of how the Lakers would distribute the 240 minutes of a typical NBA game among their starters and bench.

Judging from last year’s season averages, LA plays its starters about 34 minutes each, with its sixth and seventh men getting another 50 minutes and the remaining guys on the roster distributing the last 20.

Which, in turn, means we’ll learn a lot from the top 7 guys on the roster in terms of WS/48 in projecting the overall value of the team.

Let’s first set the Lakers starters:

PG Rajon Rondo
SG Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
SF Bojan Bogdanovic
PF Kyle Kuzma
C JaVale McGee

Your sixth, seventh, and eighth men? In likely order of minutes, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Lance Stephenson, but this is wide open to debate, as Ball/Rondo is sure to be a massive point guard controversy, Bogdanovic would probably fight for minutes with Ingram depending on how small a lineup coach Luke Walton wanted to use, we haven’t even mentioned Michael Beasley yet…

Have I mentioned the Lakers are a disaster of Roland Emmerich movie proportions yet? Because the Lakers are a disaster of players who, even with LeBron on the team, don’t fit together.

The point is, here’s that eight man rotation’s WS/48 counts from 2017/18.

Rondo: .101
KCP: .103
Bogey: .105
Kooz: .077
McGee: .212 (wait, what?! LeBron was at .221!)
Lonzo: .053
Ingram: .068
Lance: .045
(and, because it’s going to come up)
Beasley: .069
Josh Hart: .111
And JaVale, when he wasn’t on the Warriors: His career number is .133. He’s not awful.

The first thing you see is, by Win Shares at least, JaVale McGee is the best player not named LeBron James on the 2018/19 Los Angeles Lakers.

Dear gods, you guys.

But if you just do some back-of-the-envelope math, assign 75 percent of the minutes to the starters, 20 percent to the prime reserves, and 5 percent to everyone else, assume the “everyone else” mainly means garbage time, massage the numbers a little to fit them into an 82-game season estimate where a team-wide .500 WS/48 equals a 41-41 record…

Well, you get .426 WS/48, broadly consistent with a 35-47 team, which is exactly what the Lakers were with a decent but not great NBA small forward starting with this wretched roster in 2017-18.

“Well, Fox, that’s great, but what about LeBron? He IS on this team, after all.”

I’m glad you asked, random person I made up to push the narrative along.

LeBron’s WS/48 in Cleveland was .221 in both 2017 and 2018.

Adding him into this mix and assuming he’d play a few more minutes than would Bogdanovic, he’d be worth, at minimum, an instant oh, let’s call it .100 rise in the Lakers’ winning percentage.

Which turns them from a .426 (or 35-win) team into a .526 (or 43-win) team.

Put another way, LeBron is, by one single metric, worth eight wins by himself, all other things being equal.

Let’s track that against another catch-all wins stat, Value Over Replacement Player.

Bogdanovic clocks in at 0.8, and that’s points’ worth of Net Rating per 100 possessions a player contributes over some guy they dragged out of the G-League. Multiply that by 2.7 and you get Estimated Wins Added, or something along the lines of Wins Above Replacement in baseball.

LeBron pulled an 8.9 in Cleveland last year; in other words, he was, by himself, worth 24 wins to the Cavaliers, who tracked as a 26-56 team without him.

If this is the case, then LeBron James will be worth 20 wins over our theoretical Lakers team with Bojan Bogdanovic as a placeholder.

If that’s the case, then these Lakers are a 55-win team.

Really? Does anyone seriously believe that outside of Los Angeles?

What we’re left with is a case where one of three things is true.

A: The Lakers are so utterly putrid that without LeBron they’d be the worst team in the league and with him they’re going to win something in the mid-40s like Kobe’s 2007 Lakers or Russell Westbrook‘s 2017 Thunder.

B: LeBron can only do so much with the roster he’s given and as such he won’t bring the big improvement they’re paying him for (really? Hard to buy that), or

C: A Lakers team that isn’t very good but nor is it atrocious gets a massive shot in the arm from the Greatest of All Time, wins 55 games, storms into the playoffs as a 2 seed after the Rockets fade badly thanks to having Human Clubhouse Carcinogen Carmelo Anthony in their locker room, makes the Western Conference Finals…

…and gets swept by a Warriors team that has DeMarcus Cousins as their fifth-best player, leading to a bunch of think pieces that mostly involve “if LeBron had stayed in the East, at least this sweep would’ve been in the Finals, but hey, bring on the Celtics!”

Personally, if I were betting my own money on it, I’d put the chips down on A. I think this Lakers team is horrific, I think that any team where statistically speaking JaVale McGee is your best player is a 20-win team at best, and I think LeBron elevates the Lakers not to contention but to missing the playoffs entirely when they win 45 games and the 8 seed in the West wins 47 like the Timberwolves did last year.

But there is a semi-plausible best case scenario at least, and it involves LeBron James doing what he’s spent 15 years of his career doing: the impossible.