Role Reversal: Clippers and Lakers

This is the 43rd NBA Season for the Los Angeles Clippers.  Over the first 42 years of their existence (in Los Angeles, San Diego and Buffalo) they won 36.7% of their games.  They had a winning record in only 7 of their first 42 seasons and have never won more than 50 games in a single season.  Their typical season has been 30 wins and 52 losses.  This year’s team has the best record in the NBA and has won 28 of their first 36 games.  The Clippers of old, with a 36.7% winning percentage, would be expected to start the season this well once in every 1.65 million seasons.

The Los Angeles Lakers have been playing in the NBA for 65 seasons (including Minneapolis).  They won 62% of their games in their first 64 seasons and had a losing record in only 12 of those seasons.  The typical Laker team has a record of 51 wins and 31 losses.  In fact, the Lakers have won at least 50 games in 32 different seasons.  This year’s team has won only 15 of their first 35 games and is in danger of missing the playoffs.  The Lakers of old, with a 62% winning percentage, would be expected to get off to that poor of start once in every 60 seasons.

The Costs of Labor Unrest and the NBA’s Compressed Schedule

The NBA has twice attempted to fit more games into a compressed time period in a strike-shortened season so that fewer regular season games (and less revenue) would be missed.  This year the NBA squeezed 66 games into a regular-season schedule between Christmas and the last week of April.  The lack of rest days led to greater player fatigue, less efficient scoring and possibly more injuries.  The season-ending injury to reigning MVP Derrick Rose over the weekend has raised questions about the wisdom of a compressed schedule.  NBA coaches tried to mitigate the impact of the compressed schedule by resting their star players more this season.  The best NBA players sat out 5% more of regular-season games than in 2010-2011 and 11% more than a decade ago.  The league’s labor strife led to lower quality play, less participation by NBA superstars, and may have increased the risk of injuries.  Next time there is a strike or lockout the NBA and its Players’ Association should be honest with their fans, and either reach an agreement sooner, or compress the schedule far less than they have in the past.

In an earlier post I illustrated that shooting percentages in the NBA are lower in strike-shortened seasons.  Effective shooting percentages in the NBA have been fairly stable since the three point shot was introduced in the 1979-1980 season.  Ignoring strike-impacted seasons more than 75% of the year-to-year changes in shooting percentage have been between -0.6% and +0.6%.  In contrast, shooting percentages declined by 1.1%, on average, during the two strike-shortened seasons in the past 14 seasons.

The next chart shows that the number of minutes played by the 50 top scoring NBA players has been trending down for more than a decade.  A decade ago the top 50 scorers played the equivalent of just less than 61 complete games (48 minutes in length) over the course of a season.  By 2010-2011 the number of minutes played fell to the equivalent of 56.7 full-time games (a decline of about 6.5%).  In the just completed strike-shortened season, the number of minutes played fell by 5% in just one year.  After extrapolating minutes played to the usual regular-season schedule, this means that this season top players were on pace to play the equivalent of 53.8 complete games over an 82 game schedule.

Top scoring players have been sitting out more minutes and more games in recent years compared to a decade ago.  This may be because benches are deeper or that coaches are resting their players more for the playoffs than they did just 10 years ago.  Even after accounting for the declining trend in minutes played by NBA stars, the strike reduced the participation of top players by 5% (the equivalent of three 48 minute games).  Whether one looks at minutes played by stars or shooting percentages there is little question that the quality of play in the NBA in 2011-2012 was diminished by the lockout.

The NBA and its Players’ Association could have mitigated the deterioration in the quality of their product by reaching an agreement a week or two before their 11th hour deal last December, or by scheduling fewer games and a few more off-days in their already-shortened season.  Strikes and lockouts are costly because of the revenue foregone by management and the union.  NBA management and players tried to shift some of these costs to fans by providing lower quality entertainment in a compressed schedule instead of playing fewer games and charging fans less.

NBA Players Can’t Shoot Straight after the Lockout

All the excitement generated by Jeremy Lin seems to have distracted fans from what’s really happening this NBA season.  Charles Barkley is paying attention, and he said “As a NBA fan, I want to apologize to the fans.  I cannot believe how bad the NBA is right now.” Offenses are performing poorly this season and there is a simple explanation, the lockout that delayed the start of the season and all but eliminated team practices.

This is the second NBA lockout serious enough to result in limited training camps and a shortened regular season; in 1999 the NBA played a 50-game schedule.  NBA lockouts reduce shooting accuracy and these negative effects may persist for several seasons.  Basketball productivity probably declined because pre-season practices, mid-season practices and rests days were curtailed in order to fit 66 games between Christmas and late April.

The following figure illustrates the average effective shooting percentage in NBA regular seasons from 1980, when the 3 point shot was introduced, to the current season (so fare).  The effective shooting percentage is a weighted average of 2 point and 3 point shooting percentages, where each 3 point shot receives one and a half the weight of a 2 point shot.  The figure indicates that although shooting accuracy varies from year to year, it dropped shortly after both work stoppages, and remained lower for several seasons after the 1999 lockout.

I estimated a simple regression that allows for differences in shooting accuracy among teams and correlation in the fluctuations in a team’s shooting percentage from one year to the next.  The regression model suggests that lockouts cause a 1.5% decline in the effective shooting percentage in the first season after a lockout.  The model also predicts that shooting percentages will remain lower because of the time series correlation in shooting accuracy.

The statistical model can be used to predict how the most recent lockout will reduce NBA scoring over the next few seasons.   Combined scoring by both teams is expected to drop by 5.5 points in 2012 and 3.3 points in 2013 due to the reduction in shooting accuracy.

NBA coaches and teams can adjust strategies to mitigate the impact of the prolonged lockout.  For example teams can attempt more (or fewer) 3 point shots and slow down (or speed up) the pace of play.  If these adjustments are made scoring reductions could be somewhat smaller than the model’s predictions.

Some fans believe that the NBA’s 82-game regular season is too long, so that a silver lining of the 2011 lockout is a shortened 66-game schedule.  Whether or not the regular season is too long, compressing a 66 game season into four months has a negative impact on offensive efficiency.  Practices and rest days are important, even for the world’s best athletes competing at the highest level.  The elimination of rest days and practices appears to be relatively more important for basketball offenses.

Linsanity: Why the NBA Eastern Conference needs Jeremy Lin

Jeremy Lin, New York Knicks point guard and Harvard economics graduate, has become an overnight sensation.  He has averaged almost 27 points and 8 assists per game over the past five Knicks games(all wins), including 38 against Kobe and the Lakers last Friday night.  It may sound strange but the Eastern Conference, home of LeBron James and reigning MVP Derrick Rose, needs Lin, who Magic Johnson compared to Steve Nash and John Stockton.

Magic Johnson and Steve Nash are arguably the NBA’s two best point guards in the past 35 years and they played in the West.  Outstanding point guards raise their team’s offensive efficiency by creating better shot opportunities and increasing shooting percentages.   Magic’s Lakers led the NBA in effective shooting percentage six times in the 1980s and never ranked lower than third in the league.  Nash’s Suns led the NBA in shooting for six straight seasons from 2005 to 2010 until Tony Parker’s Spurs led the league in 2011 (four of the top five teams last year were from the West).

Over the past 32 years the average Western Conference team generated 0.8 more assists per game, made 1/2 of one percent more of their shots, had 1.3 more possessions and scored 2.4 more points per game than their Eastern Conference rivals.  (All of these differences are statistically significant with probability values less than .00001).  The Western Conference has been the home of more efficient offenses, as the result of better point guard play, since the introduction of the three point basket.

The Nets will probably lose Deron Williams, their star point guard, if they do not attract Dwight Howard to Brooklyn.  Another outstanding Eastern Conference point guard, Rajon Rondo, has been the subject of trade rumors since the lockout ended.  The East/West imbalance in point guard play will be exacerbated if Williams or Rondo moves to a team in the West.   But if Jeremy Lin continues on the pace he established in the past five games, the East will begin to narrow an offensive efficiency gap that has lasted for years.

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