Stat proves even these Lakers are 'lucky'

Using Expected Wins shows us that the Lakers have been truly fortunate to stay in the playoff hunt this year.

Updated: March 18, 2005, 11:51 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN Insider
"They got lucky."

The oft-heard loser's lament is normally sour grapes more than anything else. But in the chase for the Western Conference's last playoff spot, luck really could be the difference. If the Los Angeles Lakers squeeze into the West's final playoff spot ahead of the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves, they can chalk it up to Lady Luck as much as their own skill.

The Lakers have been fighting to stay alive in a tight three-way chase for the No. 8 seed. Competing for the "prize" of getting smacked around like a piñata by the San Antonio Spurs, the Lakers are in a three-way race with the Nuggets and the Timberwolves.

On Friday, L.A. was dealt a 103-97 setback at Indiana and the Timberwolves lost 88-83 at Memphis. The Nuggets, however, strengthened their hold on the eights spot with a 115-96 home victory over the Clippers.

Nevertheless, the Lakers are fortunate even to be in this position. Based on points scored and points allowed, Minnesota's margin is more than a hundred points better than L.A.'s. Yet the two are in a dead heat in the standings.

How could this be? It turns out that the Lakers have been unusually fortunate in close games, going 13-8 in contests decided by five or fewer points. Conversely, they're 8-17 when the final margin is 10 or more. That explains how they've stayed at .500 despite giving up 73 points more than they've scored this year.

What the Lakers are doing is uncommon since a team with their scoring record normally would be 28-35, not 32-33. This can be illustrated with a tool I call Expected Wins, which describes the correlation between victory margin and wins.