Game after game, the great mystery that is this Lakers team receives a new explanation. When they win, it is evidence that they should be better. When they lose, it is proof that they are as bad as they have looked all along. But the Lakers are really a whole lot easier to figure out than many people assume.
They have not improved. From game to game they might, such as when Bryant went off Sunday with 38 points against the Mavericks, but then they come back the very next night and give up 33 fastbreak points to the Nuggets. Overall, despite winning four of their last six games and 11 of their last 16, the Lakers are just as mediocre as they have been all along. Their recent “improvement” is merely a boring mathematical trend.
The Lakers entered Wednesday with a 28-30 record, three games behind the Rockets for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. With two straight winnable home games coming up, the Lakers conceivably could reach .500 by the beginning of next week. And it will not mean jack squat.
Based on the expected win-loss record compiled by Basketball Reference, the Lakers’ points scored and points against should give them a 31-27 record, a three-game turnaround from their actual record. Coaches love to say, “You are what your record says you are,” but for much of the year, the Lakers haven’t been. Now, more with the season more than two-thirds gone, they are gradually working their way up to that expected record. This is known as “regression to the mean,” and it is not nearly as encouraging as Lakers fans might like to believe.
“Regression to the mean” refers to the statistical phenomenon in which extreme initial variables — like a basketball team with four All-Stars losing four of its first five games — eventually give way to normalizing variables, like winning 11 out of 16. It is dull, which is why this article does not dedicate more than a paragraph to explaining it, but it is the most concise way to explain the Lakers’ recent “improvement.” (If you really want to read a comprehensive analysis of the numbers, check out Tom Ziller‘s work at SB Nation.) The alternative is the Warriors, who have played well above their expected win-loss record all season and are now regressing — some might say “tumbling” — back toward the mean.
In other words, the Lakers are not getting better. They are merely moving gradually up from awfulness to mediocrity. As if that were not discouraging enough, not even that “expected” win-loss record of 31-27 would put the Lakers into the playoffs. They would still be tied with Houston’s actual record, and trail in the season series 1-2.
So while everyone agonizes over Howard’s shoulder and a shaky defense, the Lakers are turning out to be precisely what they should have been all along. They are an utterly average team on the fringe of the playoff picture, and still a monumental disappointment.