The Los Angeles Lakers have struggled 15 games into this season, underwhelming lofty expectations for this "Big Four" fueled roster. Some are citing caution, pointing to the early-season struggles of the 2010-2011 Miami Heat.
Though the Heat did not win the title in 2011, they came close enough. A play or two goes differently, and Miami is up 2-0 in that NBA Finals series. To cite the Heat as a Lakers comparison is to preach patience, reject panic. But just how similar are these two teams after 15 games?
There is some amount of panic regarding the 7-8 Lakers record, but their point differential tells a different story. For those who don't know, point differential is a team's average margin of victory. It's a stat that tends to be more predictive of a team's future record than the team's current record.
This makes a lot of sense when you pause to mull it. Losing 99-100 is not the same as getting blown out 99-145. Point differential corrects for some bad luck to tell a clearer story about a team.
As for the Lakers, their point differential is plus-3.7. This is a good margin, though I'm sure many fans expected a bit better (plus-3.7 is good for only eighth-best in the NBA). When the 2010 Heat were 15 games into the season, their point differential was an even healthier plus-6.8.
Fun fact: The 2010 Miami Heat and the 2012 Los Angeles Lakers are separated by one game through 15 games. Los Angeles is currently 7-8, the Heat were 8-7. The Heat actually kicked up a bit more national scrutiny at this juncture, as they tumbled into 8-7 after losing three games in a row.
This is also near the point where Miami turned their season around. Two games later, the Heat went on a 12-win-streak rampage, stoking fear and loathing around the league. Can these Lakers pull it together as quickly and as impressively?
This is a big difference between how Miami and Los Angeles handled their respective 15 games and also why the media storm around the Lakers has calmed down some. L.A. has already been through three coaches this early into the season.
The media storm has calmed because, after firing Mike Brown, gutting through a Bernie Bickerstaff interim and giving Mike D'Antoni a hefty new contract, nobody expects the Lakers to make another coaching move.
It was different with the Heat. Roughly 15 games into the season, and even before that, there was much speculation about who would replace Erik Spoelstra. A favorite rumor was that Pat Riley would swoop in and take the position, much in the same way Phil Jackson almost scavenged Mike Brown's job.
The Lakers have had some bad luck (we'll get to that later), but not so much in the close-loss department. Though they recently ceded a close one to the Indiana Pacers, it's one of two games they've narrowly given up (the other one was a one-point defeat to the Spurs, also at home).
Now, there is a talent to winning close games, but losing them is often more reflective of luck than skill. Also, just because a team loses close games early in the season doesn't mean they'll keep making mistakes like trapping Pau in the corner and expecting him to shoot.
In those first 15 scraps, the Heat lost a three-point game to the Hornets, an overtime miracle Millsap three-pointer defeat at the hands of the Jazz, a two-point loss to the Grizzlies on account of Rudy Gay's buzzer beater and a five-point defeat to the Celtics. This tells you much about why Miami had a superior point differential despite claiming a similar record.
This gets to the heart of why the Lakers are so difficult to analyze. There are confounding variables galore, with injuries being chief among them. How healthy is Dwight Howard coming off of back surgery? Does anyone know?
Whenever Dwight Howard plays poorly, his back rehab is cited. But Dwight Howard would have the occasional bad game in the past. We simply don't know whether to chalk Howard's games up to playing badly, or to his healing back.
Similarly, whenever the Lakers struggle, you hear people say, "Wait till Steve Nash comes back." He's been out for almost every game with a shin injury, so this is a fair reminder. But will Steve mesh with this star-laden offense? Will he be the same Steve Nash we remember? Nobody knows.
In contrast, the 2010-2011 Miami Heat were lucky in the health department. The team we saw in those first 15 games was the team we saw in the playoffs. With the Lakers, we just don't know much about what this "Big Four" looks like together, or will look like come spring time.