Jan 21, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) against the New Orleans Pelicans during a game at the Smoothie King Center. The Pelicans defeated the Lakers 96-80. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
The weekly power rankings have become something of a staple here at Nylon Calculus, wherein I use a consistent formula to try and measure and rank teams based off of how the popular perception of them is at any given time (and so the formula is inherently a little subjective and biased, just like us).
This week, since it’s Kobe Week here at the Hardwood Paroxysm Basketball Network and since we have a pretty good sense of where the league is at this point I think (last week’s rankings should hold up rather well), I decided to eschew the normal format and give the people what they want: it’s time to power rank Kobe’s Lakers.
I tried to use at least roughly the same power ranking model with these Lakers teams as I do with the normal power rankings. The model is primarily based off of Net Rating (or the margin by which teams win games per 100 possessions) with a small adjustment for difficulty of schedule. In this case, though, as opposed to normal, there’s also an adjustment to the Net Rating to compare the value to the league average. A modest point differential meant a lot more in the mid 00’s when defenses were stifling and the point margins were much smaller on average than it would now.
In the normal power rankings, I also usually have a “recency bias” element, where I actually take the Net Rating of the last 25 games as a way of modeling how we think about the team. Since we’re taking teams that have finished their whole season, though, this seemed inappropriate. Instead, I adjusted the rankings for ultimate postseason success (so teams that won the championship got the biggest bump, teams that got the Finals the second biggest, etc) to average out to roughly the same degree that teams’ Net Rating tends to fluctuate over smaller periods.
Finally, in the normal power rankings I have a “rate of change” element, where I find the direction the team is trending in from a regression of their last two weeks of games. As with the recency bias element, this didn’t totally fit: the seasons are all (mostly) over, so what’s the point of them “trending” in any direction?
Instead, I decided that since this is Kobe week, and we’re talking about Kobe’s Lakers, I would add a “Kobe performance” element. The final score was adjusted by adding Kobe’s VORP (Value above Replacement Player) to the value, adjusted to have roughly the same impact on the ranking, again, as the “Rate of Change” element from the normal power rankings.
The results are a mildly arbitrary, but hopefully pretty fun and certainly somewhat valuable, way of looking at and comparing Kobe’s different Laker teams. For clarity, I included the team’s best Non-Kobe players by VORP as a way of differentiating the teams, and I included both the team’s actual win% and the team’s expected win% from the team’s Net Rating, as a way of seeing if they under or overperformed. Lets check it out.
Instead of discussing just the top 10 and picking otherwise. I’m gonna take some time and talk about every team, here. Because, really, there’s so much to discuss.
2000: This was the Shaq and Kobe Lakers squad. This was that team’s first championship together, and in most ways it was also their best. People like to talk about the 2002 team as coasting through the regular season and being particularly dominant in the playoffs (though I think people just really like talking about that Kings series) but this 2o00 Lakers squad was by far the most dominant team the league had seen since Jordan, and maybe the most overwhelmingly dominant since, with the possible exception of the Miami Heat in its LeBron-led prime, this season’s Warriors.They coasted through to the championship with nary a scratch, behind the utter, incredible dominance of Shaq, and, perhaps more importantly for the purposes of these rankings, behind the true-blue arrival of Kobe Bryant as a genuine superstar. This season I think tends to not get talked about as much because its the kind of season that’s so dominant that it’s borderline boring. No one was ever going to stop the Lakers. It was foretold, it was fate. I mean, what’s the fun in that?
2009: I think it’s probably fitting that this is the team ranked second. This was Kobe’s first post-Shaq championship, and that Kobe-Pau-Odom combo was simultaneously so alike and so unalike those Shaq Teams. All three worked off of the “Transcendent Wing—Post-Up Big—Creative and Flexible Four” triumvirate, but did so radically differently. What the 2000 Lakers did with brute force, the 2009 Lakers did with finesse. What 2009 Kobe lacked in raw aggression and pure force he made up for with post footwork and one of the most elegant looking jumpshots in the NBA. What Pau Gasol lacked in sheer overwhelming physicality as Shaq had, he made up for with beautiful passing and one of the best elbow jumpers in the league. Coupled with the subtle brilliance of prime Lamar Odom, this team had a simple beauty that those 2000 Lakers lacked. Sometimes, as a result, it felt like they weren’t as dominant, or like they weren’t as in control, but that was never true. They just weren’t as mean about it.
2002: The last of the Kobe-Shaq three-peat, the final hurrah of the first true Lakers dynasty since Magic, the ’02 Lakers are perhaps the most memorable and most fun of any team on the list. Shaq came into the year overweight, unwilling to work himself into basketball shape during his vacation time, and the team “coasted” through the regular season as a result (a 70% win% is coasting?!). For all that though, their slowing down bred their rivalry with the Kings, which led to the most epic conference finals showdown in recent memory. It led to one of the most incredible runs through the playoffs that we’ve seen in forever, too, as Shaq adjusted to the basketball season with about 20 games to spare. Most importantly, though, it led to the team, for however briefly and however tangentially, becoming Kobe’s team. Kobe’s competitiveness, his aggression, and his fire became the defining characteristics of the team as he sniped at Shaq repeatedly for not working hard enough. Whether or not Kobe was fair in his assessment of the big man is still up for debate, but while Kobe’s performance surged and Shaq’s briefly receded, the team became about Kobe’s demands and Kobe’s desires, a shift that would eventually lead to Shaq’s departure.
1998: This is, in the name of complete honesty, the first Lakers team that I don’t know much about. I’m a youngin, and my memory of these Lakers teams starts very distinctly with the 2000 team. This was the first Lakers team on the list to not win a championship, and in fact they lost out in the West conference finals, behind a not-yet dominant Shaq and a sophomore Kobe yet to hit his stride. Eddie Jones, though, was phenomenal that year, an underrated talent, and the team had an insane win total (61 wins!) buoyed by an even more impressive point differential against difficult competition. It’s easy to look past this team, but in retrospect, its easy to see where the Lakers’ three-peat came from.
2008: This was the Laker’s first Pau-Odom year, and it’s in many ways disappointing that they didn’t win this year, robbed of a three-peat the one year when they were at their peak (though many incredibly smart people would argue it was never the Lakers who were robbed of a championship, here, and that’s probably true). But of all the years with prime Gasol, prime Odom, and prime Kobe, this is the year outside of 2009 when they were at their best, and this was perhaps Kobe’s best season as a Los Angeles Laker. This was the season where he put everything together as an athlete, a shooter, and a defender, a true whirling dervish of a player.
2011: It’s easy to forget how dominant this Lakers team was because they were so expertly dismantled in the sweep by the Mavericks in the second round (this is the earliest playoff exit of a team so far). But these Lakers had the same record and an even better point differential from their championship season the year prior, and they were a lot of analysts’ favorite to make it to the Finals that year going in. They had looked outrageously good all year behind the rise of Andrew Bynum, in addition to their core of Gasol, Odom, and Artest, and this team had a ton of potential. As the years have progressed though, especially recently, “a ton of potential” can only get you so far, and the fury from Kobe as the team failed to keep up with his incredibly high demands was palpable.
2010: Kobe’s last championship, this year was one of the worst of the Pau-Odom era by point differential but was buoyed by an easy path through the Western conference against the mediocre Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz; finally seeing the Phoenix Suns, who were beaten on a memorable, if perhaps silly, tip in by Ron Artest of a Kobe Bryant airballed shot to ultimately win the series. After this they saw an aging Celtics team that couldn’t quite keep up with these Lakers. That’s not to say they were bad though: this Lakers team was the first seed, and ran the league. But every team above them here ran the league. Kobe’s Lakers have a long history of excellence, and its a testament to their greatness that this, a championship squad, is ranked seventh.
2004: It’s always a bit eerie to remember that Gary Payton was on the Lakers as he chased that championship, but it’s also probably a bit disingenuous to insinuate that that’s all The Glove was doing in L.A. His defense and vision was invaluable to this squad, and he played really well, especially for his old age. This team was very, very good, despite losing in the Finals. Shaq’s unwillingness to work to the degree Kobe wanted, though, and the degree to which they grated on each other, was becoming clear, and having a tangible effect on the team. This was probably a championship team, though, or at least championship caliber, but fate decided to give the Detroit Pistons their well-earned, single championship to commemorate their years of Eastern Conference dominance.
2001: This was the last championship left on the board, and while it seems odd to have this year follow so many second round and Western Conference Finals exits, it was just such a boring year. Kobe was going through growing pains, Horry played below his usual standards, and Shaq carried the team to the title. As a result, though, the team played below its usual standards in the regular season, even if it coasted along to the Finals without a lot of difficulty. It was just, for all the success and dominance, an unremarkable year.
1997: Kobe’s rookie year. Kobe came off the bench that season, only playing a paltry 1103 minutes. Still, it’s actually fairly remarkable that an unproven high schooler taken in the middle of the first round with most of his experience coming from Italy was even getting that much time on a team that won 56 games. There were shades, then, of what this team might become. Teams that had seen Shaq in Orlando knew what he was capable of, and there were already whispers that Kobe had been a steal for LA. The team lost out quickly in the second round, but was building itself into the eventual dynasty it would become, and was remarkably impressive even then.
2003: The Lakers’ first loss after the three-peat, this was the beginning of the end for Shaq in LA. This was the first season where Kobe led the team in both scoring (30 ppg) and shots (23.5 FGA per game) and in retrospect it was the first season where Kobe led the team in VORP. Shaq’s tendency to come in to the season underprepared was out of hand this year, leading to unusual struggles for the team and Kobe’s relative psychosis taking over. Their losing in the second round signaled the changes to come, even if they came close to salvaging the situation the following year.
1999: Despite the success of 1998, getting to the Western Conference Finals on the heels of a dominant regular season, and the standard-setting success that would come in the next season, 1999 was a down year for the squad. They won fewer games by a smaller margin, and despite this year being the first season with Kobe performing to the team’s high standards, they couldn’t put it together for whole stretches. In large part, that’s probably due to a shaken up core; Kobe was finally getting huge minutes, and the team had replaced the talented Nick Van Exel with an aged Derek Harper and added Dennis Rodman long after he was effective. It took time to integrate the new parts, or lose them, depending, before they gelled into the planet-destroyers they would become in 2000.
2006: Smush Parker had the third highest VORP on this team that year. Smush Parker. This is the middle of the Lakers’ dark ages, the deepest depths into which they sunk before finally bringing Pau Gasol into the fold and finding their former greatness. More than anything, it’s a testament to Phil Jackson and Kobe’s all-time greatness — this was statistically Kobe’s second best season — that this team even made the playoffs. The team may have been only vaguely competitive, but Kobe was an artist on the court.
2013: The Dwight Howard experiment might have been a complete and total disaster, but it could have been worse…probably. The biggest problems ended up being injury, between Kobe tearing his achilles tendon to end the season — and his career as we had known it, though it continues in interesting directions now — Dwight Howard struggling with torn muscles in his back and back problems in general, and Steve Nash more or less suffering from age-related malaise. There’s some evidence to suggest that this team could have been the powerhouse we all hoped it would be, they were really, really good at the end of that season before Kobe hurt himself, rather than the flaming, horrible wreck it was.
2012: Maybe Kobe’s last “prime” season, and certainly the last vintage one, this team was good without being anything else. Demoralized by their dismantling at the hands of Dallas the season prior and neutered by the loss of Lamar Odom, they were fine, but sort of uninteresting, and definitely no longer scary the way they could be sometimes in 2013. They barely beat the Nuggets in 7 in the first round, and were handled swiftly in the second, and this heralded the beginning of the end for Kobe’s Lakers in a number of ways.
2007: It is not a typo that Kwame Brown is included in a list that is labeled with the words “best players.” This team was so bad that Kwame Brown was the third best player. If Jordan hadn’t already ruined Kwame in Washington, Kobe ruined him here. This was one of the sisyphian struggles of Kobe’s career, climbing towards greatness while stumbling with this horrible team towards embarrassing mediocrity. Somehow, this team, too, made the playoffs. In some ways, I think we undervalue what Kobe did with these horrible teams. They somehow won 42 games that year!
2005: The first season of Kobe’s career where he didn’t make the playoffs, and it happens to correspond with Shaq’s departure. For however people like to frame the period it’s pretty clear that Kobe struggled running the team on his own, though his shockingly poor supporting cast — Odom had yet to become who he would become later — certainly didn’t help matters.
2014: Last year, it was pretty safe to say that those Lakers were the worst in modern franchise history, and their badness has only been outdone by this season’s abomination. Nick Young was one of the team’s best players. Kobe only played 10ish games and wasn’t close to himself. It was, truly, a dark time for us all.
2015: This team is a joke. Truly, truly horrible. There is very little redeeming it, but we can all hope (or not, depending on how you feel about the Lakers) that they can get a top-six draft pick this year and right the ship. There’s something entrancing about Kobe’s slow, sad dance towards basketball demise.