The Lakers are finally winning, and they still aren't that great

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Lakers are quickly approaching .500 and closing on a playoff spot. But that says more about the nature of regression and luck in the NBA, and less about some great improvement the team has made.

There has been a quiet truth about the L.A. Lakers this season that rarely carries above the din of Laker peril and schadenfreude. That truth is that the Lakers were never as bad as their win-loss record indicated. For much of the season, the Lakers' point differential has been that of a slightly above average team ... which is in total disagreement with a win-loss record that showed a fairly bad team. Here's a look at the team's cumulative average point differential this season.

Lakers_ptdiff_medium

It's totally unspectacular ... but totally not bad. And look how far it goes back: the Lakers haven't had a negative cumulative point differential since early November. Yet they are still under .500. Typically we would attribute the disparity between what point differential indicates the team should be (a little above .500) and what the record actually shows (substantially below .500 until this week) and chalk it up to luck, or the lack thereof. Given the Lakers' extraordinary fortune over the past 40 years, perhaps this time we'll just call it regression to the mean.

Speaking of which ...

When we look at the Lakers' recent rise in the standings -- L.A. has gone 11-4 since the last week of January, and is now just one game under .500 and 2.5 games out of the No. 8 seed -- we may want to see a team that has cracked the code, figured it out and will now proceed to soar. Instead, we see a team playing pretty much playing like it has been all season long ... but it picking up wins instead of losses.

According to NBA.com/stats, over the last 15 games (11-4 record) the Lakers are scoring 1.04 points per possession and allowing 1.02. Over the entire season (59 games, 24-25 record) the Lakers are scoring 1.05 points per possession and allowing 1.03. The team's efficiency differential for the season is +1.9; over the last 15 games it is +2.3. The Lakers are barely different. It's hard to look at the data and ascertain that anything has clicked into place. This is essentially the same team that it has been: a slightly above average club. But the Lakers' unlucky record from the first half of the season is now regressing to the mean, which the data indicates is still far short of expectations.

That should be good enough to make the playoffs. The Lakers are actually No. 11 in the NBA in point differential, and No. 7 in the West, well ahead of the Jazz, Warriors and Blazers. (Yes, the Warriors: a 33-23 team with the point differential of a .500 club. Mon dieu.) But unless the Lakers either swing to the far side of the luck pendulum -- meaning their point differential remains between +1 and +2 per game but their record continues to tick upward -- or L.A. actually improves by performing better game after game and improving its cumulative numbers, the team will need to rely on the Jazz or Warriors regressing to the mean or the Rockets getting unlucky. The Warriors had a string of nasty losses that severely impacted their point differential, but have rebounded with two wins (Sunday's unbearably close).

There may also be another explanation for disparities in win-loss record and point differential: consistency. The Lakers have had more good defensive games over the past 15 than not, and the bad ones tended to get out of hand. (The Lakers have held opponents to below those opponents' cumulative Offensive Rating in 12 out of the past 15 games.) The end result was an 11-4 record but a static, unremarkable point differential. I believe you'd rather play good defense for 12 games out of 15 than great defense for eight and mediocre defense for seven. But this theory hasn't really been developed, nor do we know what besides health and effort you can really credit consistency for. (Breaking news: health and effort may matter!)

For now, Lakers supporters should revel in the improved record and the proximity to that sweet No. 8 spot. But don't be surprised if things stall out soon. Even over these last 15 games, no data indicates that the Lakers are terribly good.

BOXING OUT

There were some stellar performances in Wolves-Warriors on Sunday -- a game Golden State nearly coughed up -- but I'd like to give a long nod to Derrick Williams, who thrashed David Lee. Williams had 23 points on 9-15 shooting with 12 rebounds, four of them on the offensive end. The Wolves were +12 in Williams' 38 minutes and -13 in the 10 minutes he rested. He was just 1-4 outside the paint and 8-11 within 10 feet of the rim. He's shooting 36 percent on long twos and 32 percent on threes this season. If he could improve those a bit and continue to attack the offensive glass and maybe pass a little bit more, he can be a good NBA forward. He's certainly much better this year than he was as a rookie.

More in the NBA:

Mark Cuban is worried about the future

Mike Woodson calls out Carmelo Anthony

The unfortunate twists of Derrick Rose's return

Ziller's NBA trade deadline winners and losers

Grading every deadline deal

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