Lakers vs. Magic: A Mathematical Breakdown of Matchups

Roger PAnalyst IJune 3, 2009

I've developed a method of graphing players in order to compare styles and performance—and I can't think of a better way to give it a maiden voyage than comparing the two NBA Finals teams, the Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic.

The graphs are designed to give an overall view of a player in a single glance, based on their statistics from the regular season. It's interesting to see the differences between players, and in this series, the graphs especially give unexpected insights into one-on-one mismatches.

I'm going to skip over my technical methodology and cut right to the charts.

If you do care, or if it doesn't make sense (it likely won't), skip down and then come back up.

I'll start at point guard, since it's easily the least interesting matchup in this series, and then move up from there.


Neither Derek Fisher nor Rafer Alston is a presence that requires building a game plan around, but they can both do some damage when they get rolling. Here they are, graphed:

Their graphs overlap quite a bit, and are so similar that we can't expect one player to dominate over the other.

Alston is more of a creator, shown by his slightly higher scoring and assist values, whereas Fisher relinquishes that role to Kobe and is more of a spot-up shooter, as shown by his slightly higher shooting percentage.

Alston is quicker than Fisher, too, which comes out mostly in his higher steal percentage (that seems unusual at first, but we're going to see it two more times as we go).

The area of both players' graphs is small, suggesting that neither player has been a real statistical producer this season.

The pick: I pick Alston to win this matchup because of his quickness, but it could go either way. Ultimately, I don't see the outcome of the series depending on success at the point guard position.


Kobe has an impressive and well-balanced graph, as you might expect—he's an impressive and well-balanced player.

Kobe's graphed area completely encompasses Courtney Lee's, which will typically mean complete positional dominance. It's slightly deceptive in this case as Lee only started 41 games, but Lee is a rookie (you didn't remember that either? weird), and we can be pretty sure that this matchup will be unfair.

Take a look at how Lee's graph spikes out on steals. Memorize that shape as we take a look at small forwards.

The pick: Kobe.


This is a great matchup, and this is where the graphs become very useful in distinguishing player styles. Hedo Turkoglu and Trevor Ariza's graphs are very different for two players who supposedly play the same position.

See the spike on Ariza's graph for steals? It's just like Courtney Lee's, and in fact, their graphs are almost the same shape. This particular shape suggests that they are quick, athletic players who create for themselves. They have similar shapes for three reasons:

  • The steals are up, which I've found to correlate with quickness.
  • The assists are down, suggesting that they're not passing first.
  • Finally, field goal percentage is up, implying that they'll take it to the hole over settling for a jump shot.

Now, look at Turkoglu instead. His field goal percentage is lower, so he's probably taking more jump shots, and his assists are up so he's looking to pass. His charted shape is actually closest to Alston's, and it's true that Turkoglu plays more like a point than most small forwards (Ariza especially included).

Now, remember that these charts are descriptive, not proscriptive. They only reflect the players' statistical accomplishments over this season, and they do so mathematically.

A low field goal percentage doesn't mean they're jump shooters, or vice versa, and the connection between steals and quickness is not direct—the assertions I make here are based on my own observations from analysis of a few of these graphs.

The pick: Turkoglu wins this matchup, unless Ariza steps up—he has the tools to stop Turkoglu defensively, but Turk's not going to miss if Ariza has lapses on defense.


The power forward position is just as interesting as the small forward when graphed, because again we're dealing with pretty different players.

With Rashard Lewis, we see a few things we've seen before. He has the field goal percentage of a jump shooter, and more steals than we'd expect from a big man.

Well, what do you know—Lewis doesn't play the game like a typical power forward.

With Pau Gasol, however, we start to see the hallmarks of a big man. More blocks. More rebounds. And a blazing-high field goal percentage.

This matchup is interesting because Gasol will play the post (as he always does) and Lewis will hang out on the perimeter to cause problems (as he always does). Watch for Lewis and Turkoglu to try to pull Gasol and Ariza out to the perimeter, to open up the middle a bit for Howard to work one-on-one.

The pick: Gasol. I see Gasol using his height advantage and having good success against Lewis in the post. He'd better, if the Lakers are hoping to take home the trophy.


We've always said that Andrew Bynum is the embryo of Dwight Howard. He's an athletic, physical center, with the ability to physically dominate the middle—he's just not as far along as Superman. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in their graphs.

Because Bynum's graph is almost entirely on the left, it points to him being a strong, physical-type center. Notice how his graph sits a little lower than Gasol's—it's because Bynum is a better defensive presence, altering shots and grabbing boards, where Gasol is a better offensive player.

Most important to note, though, is that Bynum's graph closely resembles Howard's in shape, suggesting they play similar styles. The difference, however, is obvious—Howard's swallows up Bynum's, as we might expect Howard to swallow up Bynum in the paint.

Howard's graph is an anomaly. Look at that area; it's bigger than Kobe's. While these graphs don't reflect leadership, or clutch shooting, or any of those unmeasurable qualities that Kobe overflows with, you can't deny Howard's performance over this past season. At least from a statistical sense.

The pick: You have to pick Howard.


I'm not going to chart the bench players, but it's worth giving a nod to these guys—especially since both teams have such strong benches.

Orlando should get quality minutes from Mickael Pietrus, and Marcin Gortat has done a great job when Dwight is sitting.

Los Angeles has Lamar Odom, and often its success depends on him having a big game. The backup point guards, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown, can also expect to get plenty of action.

The pick: It all depends on Odom—but he has been so inconsistent that I just can't rely on him producing every night. I pick Orlando's bench, mostly because Pietrus has been playing great basketball lately.


I've surprised myself—Orlando wins three out of the five matchups, and four if you count the bench. It'll be a battle of the Magic's consistency against the Lakers' explosiveness. If the Lakers all show up every night, they'll be unstoppable; if they don't, there's a solid Magic team ready to run them out of the building.


For each statistical category, the number graphed is a percentage of the highest value in the league for that category. For example. Dwyane Wade had the highest points per game average with 30.2. Kobe scored 26.8 points per game, or 88.7 percent of Wade's league high—so Kobe's graphed value for PPG is 88.7.

The purpose of doing this is to normalize the graph, so that every category has a minimum of zero and a maximum of 100.

Field goal percentage is calculated slightly differently. The lowest FG% in the league is roughly 25 percent, so 25 is subtracted from each player's FG% before taking the percentage. This means that a zero on the graph represents a 25 percent shooting average, and a 100 represents the league high of 60.9 percent.

These values were then plotted on a six-axis radar graph, with zero at the center. The area covered by a player's graph roughly correlates to ability, as measured by standard statistics.

Note that the top of the graph represents offensive statistics, and the bottom represents defensive.

Also note that the bottom left of the graph is the typical domain of big men (FG%, rebounds, and blocks), whereas the upper-right tends to be the home of smaller players (scoring, assists, and steals).

Any suggestions for improving this graphing method are welcome—it's a work in progress. Feel free contact me if you have any questions or if you'd like to see my numbers.

Edit: It has been suggest that I affix a copyright to this work. Until I can add copyrights to the individual images, this will have to do:

© All images are copyright Roger Pimentel, 2009. All rights reserved.

Edit: A follow-up to this article, incorporating some of the suggestions in the comments, has now been posted here.


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