Sometimes, in the wonderful world of NBA Twitter, you see something so brain-explodingly silly that all you can do is laugh your little head off at it.
Like this tweet from Magic Johnson, for example:
Laker Nation, I’m dreaming about the 4th quarter Lakers team with LeBron, AD, Danny Green, Avery Bradley, and Kyle Kuzma. That’s almost unbeatable!
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) July 8, 2019
But OK, Magic, I’m a man of science when it comes to my roundball takes, so let’s take a good, hard look at the Lakers’ dream lineup of yours and see how it holds up to statistical scrutiny. After all, I’ve made something of a brand here at Pace and Space out of translating advanced stats to win expectations, so let’s put the numbers into the cooker and see if Ted Allen tells Magic he’s been chopped, shall we?
By Win Shares/48
We’ll start with the sum total of those five guys’ WS/48 in 2018-19, a simple enough formula (just multiply the total by 82 and you get a win expectation):
Expected W-L: 51-31
So…umm…yeah. It could’ve been worse, too; Bradley had negative Win Shares for the Clippers before posting a more respectable .074 WS/48 in Memphis.
But 51-31 isn’t exactly “unbeatable”, now, is it? It would’ve been good for the 5 seed in the West last year and was just three games better than the 48-34 8-seed Clippers. And that’s the death lineup!
But let’s change gears here and consider Value Over Replacement Player. Your totals on that front, per 82 games:
Expected W-L (formula for wins: (2.15*VORP/82)+19): 55-27
OK, that’s more optimistic and gets the Lakers all the way up to the 2 seed ahead of the 54-win Nuggets, but it’s still far from “unbeatable”; 55-27 would’ve been good for the fourth-best record in the NBA last year and ranks only three wins above dropping all the way to seventh.
Sure, being top quartile in the league is good, but if you are the fourth-best team in basketball, you should lose in the conference finals. If you’re the fifth-best team in your own conference, as the WS/48 prediction says the Lakers are, you lose in the first round.
And if you split the difference, that’s a second-round playoff exit. Hardly an unbeatable lineup.
The Elephant in the Room
And there’s just one other problem with that whole measuring a lineup by WS/48 or VORP thing for creating a win expectation:
Advanced stats are relative to the whole league. Death lineups play against other death lineups.
To illustrate this point, let’s take the three teams—Denver, Portland, and Houston—that are closest to the Lakers’ split-the-difference 53-29 expectation if you compare stats like WS/48 and VORP to the league absent the bench players who tend to drag such averages down. Denver won 54 games. Portland and Houston each won 53. The Lakers’ expectation is “between 51 and 55”, so the average is right smack in that range.
We’ll take the five guys who started the most games at each position to generate a death lineup for each of these three teams and take their WS/48 and VORP/82, then compare.
(OK, Denver is a mess as far as figuring out exactly who the starters were during the regular season since so many of them missed time due to injury, so I’m going to go by playoff minutes to break the deadlock and decide who the death lineup would be)
So What Have We Learned?
Well, for one thing, Magic Johnson is out of his damn mind when he considers the Lakers’ death lineup “unbeatable” when even if you stack the statistical deck in their favor they come out no better than the underdog in the conference finals and at worst look to crash out in the first round.
And for another thing, when you compare them death lineup to death lineup, they’re worse in five out of six statistical tests against the other three teams with the same number of total team wins as the Lakers’ starters would be expected to get if they played 82 games a season and 48 minutes per game.
The Lakers have to play the other eight guys on the roster too, and those guys aren’t nearly as good as even the three starters not named LeBron or Anthony. What kind of win expectation will those guys have? (Spoiler: It’s a lot less than 53.)
Magic Johnson is out of his damn mind. The Lakers’ “death lineup” will scare absolutely nobody come playoff time and won’t even be close to the best starting five during the regular season.