LeBron, the Lakers and Playoff Sweeps Examined

The Lakers are on the verge of being swept by the Nuggets for the second year in a row.  Last year, there was talk that, despite the sweep, that the Lakers were competitive and in every game.  For what it’s worth, this year, the Lakers have blown several big leads and are arguably just as competitive.  That got me wondering whether the 2022-23 Lakers were truly the “closest” sweep ever.  There are a lot of ways to quantify the competitiveness of a swept team but I thought we could measure it by the most conventional way, point differential.

We took a look at all the seven-game series sweeps since the NBA went to the 16-team playoff format in 1983-84 (h/t Basketball-Reference).  We found 75 sweeps during that span and the average point differential per game was about 12 points per game. Here are some notes on the data:

-The 2022-23 Lakers were on the pretty competitive side for a swept team.  They were outscored by six points per game, which ranks sixth out of 75 teams over the past 40 years.  This year’s Lakers are currently being outscored by 6.7 points per game, which is roughly the same spread.  But not the best of the sweepees.

-The closest sweepees were actually the 2016-17 Pacers, who lost to LeBron’s Cavs in the first round by a mere four points per game.  Close behind at 4.5 points per game were the infamous 2021-22 Durant/Irving Nets, who freaked out after this sweep.

-The biggest margin of victory belongs to the 2009-10 Magic, which whipped the Hawks by 25.3 points per game in the second round.  It could’ve been worse but Orlando won Game 4 by “only” 14.  The 2018-19 Pistons were blown out by 23.8 points per game against the Bucks.

-Forgotten crazy sweep: Shaq and Kobe faced the Tim Duncan/David Robinson Spurs in an anticipated Western Conference Finals in 2000-01.  The Spurs had the one seed but had lost their best perimeter player, Derek Anderson, on a cheap shot foul the previous round.  Still, the Spurs were blitzed so decisively that Anderson wouldn’t have helped.  They lost the first two games at home by about 10.5 points per game.  It got even worse in Los Angeles when the Lakers won 39 and 29 the next two games.

-The Jordan Bulls legendary sweep of the Bad Boys Pistons in 1990-91 was by 16.7 points per game, which was the most dominant Conference Finals sweep besides the 2001 Lakers/Spurs sweep mentioned above.

-Of the five Finals sweeps, the Spurs/Cavs in 2006-07 was the closest at six points per game.  The 1988-89 Pistons sweep of the hobbled Lakers was nearly as close.

-The franchise with the most sweeps: the Cavs with 10 (nipping the Spurs who had nine). The Hawks, Hornets/Bobcats, Grizzlies, Clippers, Blazers, and Kings haven’t yet won a seven-game sweep in the past 40 years.

-The most swept team over this span is the Lakers, with six sweeps, and they are working on a seventh this year.

Full data below:


NBA Playoffs 2024: Quick Thoughts

It feels like old times!  In olden days, the NBA was a little more predictable than it has been since Covid hit in 2020.  For the first time since 2018, coming into the playoffs, the likely NBA Finals match up seems relatively clear.  The Celtics have been so dominant that it would be a huge upset if they don’t cakewalk to the Finals.  Out West, Denver is the best playoff team and they have more competition but I agree with the consensus that they should be meeting Boston in June.

This doesn’t mean the 2024 playoffs will be boring.  Sometimes, the journey is its own reward.  Several teams have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in showing some playoff success.  Making the second round or the conference finals might be enough to keep a team paying the tax.  At least as important as the money are the emotions and effort some big stars have invested in not crapping out in the first round (or not getting swept in the second round).  Eruptions from disappointed owners or huge stars are inevitable.  So, these stakes are high, and they make these playoffs fascinating to watch.  Having said all this, let’s dive in and give our quick two cents as to what we think will happen…

Eastern Conference First Round

1.  Boston v. Miami:  I realize the Heat have tortured the Celtics in the playoffs for years.  The Heat are without Jimmy Butler and, even if he were healthy, Boston has hit another level.  The Celtics went 64-18 and had an insane 10.74 SRS, fifth best of All-Time.  The Heat have moxie, but they are running into a buzzsaw that is particularly pissed about last season’s upset.  Prediction: Boston wins 4-0.

2.  New York v. Philadelphia:  Pity the Knicks.  They do everything right in terms of team building and refuse to tank out of the two seed and the reward is having to play the best player in the conference in Joel Embiid.  New York is the slowest paced team in the NBA and relies heavily on Jalen Brunson’s creativity in the half court, coupled with the best offensive rebounding in the NBA.  The key question will be whether Embiid is healthy.  He looks slower than pre-knee surgery but here’s how the slower Embiid has done before and after surgery:

Pre-Surgery: 34 games, 34.0 mpg, 35.3 ppg, .533 FG%, .366 3FG%, 11.3 rpg, 5.7 apg, 1.1 spg, 1.8 bpg, 3.7 topg, 2.9 pfpg

Post-Surgery: 5 games, 30.5 mpg, 30.4 ppg, .495 FG%, .481 3FG%, 9.2 rpg, 5.2 apg, 1.4 spg, 1.2 bpg, 4.8 topg, 2.8 pfpg

Embiid is quite rusty but the rusty version is still an inner circle star (though he is clearly shooting threes to avoid contact on offense).  Even diminished, Embiid could be enough to win this series himself.  The problem is Embiid seems to get hurt every playoffs, even when he enters healthy.  My sense is that this pattern will continue.  This issue combined with the fact that Philly is playing a good and deep team, with home court advantage, means New York is the favorite.  These are probably the second and third best teams in the East but one will go home early.  Prediction: New York wins 4-3.

3.  Milwaukee v. Indiana:  This could be a bit ugly.  The Pacers’ high-octane offense and weak defense usually doesn’t translate well in playoffs and Tyrese Haliburton was gimpy in the second half.  Nevertheless, the Bucks’ awfulness in the second half cannot merely be expressed with stats.  They seem old and tired and have repeatedly blown huge leads and lost to terrible teams.  Giannis Antetokounmpo’s calf injury further mucks the Bucks’ outlook.  Under normal circumstances, Milwaukee should win this series, but they seemed to have surrendered already.  Prediction: Indiana wins 4-2.

4.  Cleveland v. Orlando:  This series is a throwback series to the 1990s.  We have two defense-first teams that score just enough to win.  Orlando’s defense is better (2nd to 6th) but their offense is worse (22nd to 18th).  The teams split their season series 2-2 as well but haven’t played each other since February.  The other factor is whether Donovan Mitchell, by far the best scorer in the series, is healthy.  Assuming moderate health for Mitchell, I think Cleveland has a few more efficient scorers and that will be the difference.  Prediction: Cleveland wins 4-3.

Western Conference First Round

1.  Oklahoma City v. New Orleans:  We have two young and athletic teams but OKC’s stars will be available, and Zion Williamson will not.  Even if Zion would be available, the Thunder is the better team.  OKC’s weaknesses are lack of size up front and relative playoff inexperience but they won’t be tested here.  Prediction: Oklahoma City wins 4-1.

2. Denver v. L.A. Lakers:  The Lakers are legitimately a good team, but this is a horrible match up.  Anthony Davis, an incredible player and the core of the defense, just isn’t big enough to stop Nikola Jokic (few are).  What LeBron does after losing the series will be more interesting than the series itself.  Prediction: Denver wins 4-1.

3.  Minnesota v. Phoenix:  The key stat seems to be that the Suns went 3-0 against Minnesota, including a big win to the end the season.  All three wins were by at least ten points.  That seems like a bad indicator.  Despite these facts, I remain a skeptic of the Suns’ depth, as well as whether Kevin Durant has enough gas in the tank for a long playoff run (he averaged over 37 mpg this season).  For the Timberwolves, this just appears to be a bad match up and, absent injuries or Anthony Edwards going crazy, they are going home early.  Prediction: Phoenix wins 4-2.

4. L.A. Clippers v. Dallas:  This is another intriguing match up between teams that are deep with stars but seem headed in opposite directions.  At one point, the Clipps were 34-15 but they finished up 17-16 and now Kawhi Leonard’s troublesome knee is acting up again.  Conversely, Dallas started out 26-23 and finished up 24-9 and Luka Doncic is nigh unstoppable.  If Kawhi is healthy, the Clipps could win but this seems like everything is pointing Dallas.  Prediction: Dallas wins 4-2.

Second Round

Boston over Cleveland, 4-1

New York over Indiana, 4-2

Oklahoma City over Dallas, 4-3

Denver over Phoenix, 4-2

Conference Finals

Boston over New York, 4-1

Denver over Oklahoma City, 4-2


Boston over Denver, 4-3

MVP Voting and the 65-Game Rule Examined

The NBA’s new 65-game minimum to be eligible for awards has met mixed reviews.  Adam Silver passed the rule to try to encourage meaningful participation in the regular season.  During the All-Star break, Silver posited that the rule had been a success: “I can tell you that the number of games that players have participated in is up this season, and interestingly enough, injuries are actually down.” 

I’m not sure what data Silver is specifically relying on, but it does seem that some older stars are playing more but there have been notable problems.  Specifically, Joel Embiid appeared to have injured himself trying to play through injury based on the pressure to stay eligible for the MVP race.  Also, in a quest to have All-NBA eligibility, Tyrese Haliburton played part-time through injuries, instead of just sitting until he fully recovered from a hamstring pull.  Haliburton didn’t play great during this span and his minutes clock led to some awkward game play (he had to sit in close fourth quarters sometimes).

Still, no rule is without a downside and, arguably, these two instances are worth it for the overall good.  I thought we could review the 65-game minimum and how it would’ve applied in the past MVP races, FAQ style…

Has a player ever won the MVP with fewer than 65 games played?

The only player to win an MVP with fewer than 65 games played in an 82-game season was Bill Walton in 1977-78.  Walton played only 58 games before breaking his foot, which effectively ended the star portion of his career.

For posterity, let’s address whether Walton deserved the MVP that season.  It has been widely assumed that Walton was the runaway winner because Portland was 48-10 when he played and 10-14 without him.  In fact, the vote was pretty close.  Walton beat George Gervin 96 to 80.5 in the voting and SI wrote near the end of the 1977-78 season that “if Bill Walton is not basketball’s MVP, Gervin certainly is.”  But SI did not explain the debate further. 

Let’s take a look at the stats to see how the top candidates, Walton, Gervin, David Thompson, and Kareem compared with each other:

-Walton: 58 games, 33.3 mpg, 18.9 ppg, ,554 ts%, 13.2 rpg, 5.0 apg, 1.0 spg, 2.5 bpg, 24.8 per, .209 ws48, 8.1 bpm, 4.9 vorp

-Kareem: 62 games, 36.5 mpg, 25.8 ppg, .589 ts%, 12.9 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.7 spg, 3.0 bpg, 29.2 per, .257 ws48, 9.3 bpm, 6.5 vorp

-Thompson: 80 games, 37.8 mpg, 27.2 ppg, .578 ts%, 4.9 rpg, 4.5 apg, 1.2 spg, 1.2 bpg, 23.2 per, .202 ws48, 4.8 bpm, 5.2 vorp

-Gervin: 82 games, 34.8 mpg, 27.2 ppg, .594 ts%, 5.1 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.7 spg, 1.3 bpg, 24.7 per, .201 ws48, 4.8 bpm, 4.9 vorp

So, Thompson and Gervin were in a near dead heat but were a notch below the centers in terms of efficiency.  Kareem also missed the two months of the season when he broke his hand on Kent Benson’s face two minutes into the season.  The Lakers were 37-24 with Kareem (we aren’t counting the season opening two-minute cameo) and 8-13 without him.

Kareem accrued more VORP in his 61 games than either of the other candidates and his counting stats and BPM were off the charts.  Walton’s argument rests on the dominance of his team putting him over the top.  Not a crazy argument but it appears, to me, that Abdul-Jabbar was the best player in the NBA and would’ve gotten my vote (though it would be rational to give Kareem demerits for his self-inflicted injury that cost his team dearly).  In either case, the rightful MVP was a guy who played fewer than 65 games.

How would the 65-game rule have affected voting in the before times?

From 1983-84 through 2018-19, 33 players that played fewer than 65 games received MVP votes (we are excluding the two lockout shortened seasons).  Of that group, most received a few stray votes and didn’t place particularly high in the rankings.  Here’s the list:

PlayerYearGamesMVP Rank
Baron Davis2006-076315

The players with the fewest games played were Jordan and Magic during their brief comebacks but they only received a few token votes.  Four other players finished as high as seventh:

-Chris Webber in 2001-02 played only 54 games but was clearly the Kings’ best player. 

-Bernard King was seventh as well and played a ton of minutes in 1984-85 before a catastrophic knee injury ended his season after 55 games. 

-Chris Paul 2013-14 (62 games) and Joel Embiid 2018-19 (64 games) played a bit more for their seventh-place finishes.

The highest finish of the group was Shaq in 1997-98, who was fourth, despite playing only 60 games.  O’Neal actually got a first-place vote that juiced up his totals but he finished behind MJ and Karl Malone, who were quite clearly better.

MVP Voting, post-Covid

Before the Covid season, the distribution of MVP votes for players with fewer than 65 games played was pretty stable:

1980s: 4

1990s: 17

2000s: 6

2010s: 9

When Covid hit, things changed.  Both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 aren’t really fair data points because full seasons weren’t played and Covid forced rest on players as well.  Nevertheless, the 2020-21 season featured Embiid coming in second in the MVP vote with only 51 games played (and down ballot, James Harden, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard tied for 13th despite playing between 44 and 52 games). 

The past two full seasons, the trend seem to expand as eight players received votes despite playing under the 65-game limit:

PlayerYearGamesMVP Rank

From an MVP perspective, most of these players were receiving back-end votes, which is no different than what was happening back in the 1990s (the only player with a reasonable case to win the MVP with fewer games played was Giannis last season).  Based on the data, though, there is no serious reason to have a 65-game limit to be eligible for the MVP.  The voters have already sorted out this issue and have already considered games played.  Perhaps the rule makes a bit more sense in the All-NBA context but I see no benefit in the MVP voting system.

Sidney Moncrief’s Forgotten Comeback

In the past, we’ve done deep dives on the comeback attempts of some Hall of Famers like Magic, Jordan, and Cousy.  I recently was reminded of another comeback attempt by a Hall of Famer that I thought was worth an examination.  The only difference is that this guy is more marginal a Hall of Famer and his comeback is almost totally forgotten. I am referring to the comeback attempt by Sidney Moncrief with the Hawks in 1990-91.  Moncrief’s return isn’t particularly well-documented so let’s give it a little bit of attention because it was relatively fruitful and interesting.

A Little Background Moncrief

Most fans remember Moncrief as the tough two-way guard from Arkansas who was a key star on the 1980s Don Nelson Milwaukee Bucks.  He wasn’t merely a good player. Moncrief was a five-time All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year.  Moncrief’s peak was from 1981-1986, when he put up some eye popping stats:

21.0 ppg, .592 TS%, 5.8 rpg, 4.7 apg, 20.5 PER, .212 WS48, 4.8 BPM, 24.0 VORP.

Those are impressive numbers.  In a world without Jordan and Drexler, Moncrief’s 1981-82 BPM is the second best by a shooting guard of the 1980s and 1990s (MJ & Clyde have the top 17 slots).  While Andrew Toney and George Gervin have arguments, to me, Moncrief was best shooting guard in the NBA for most of the early 1980s. 

Moncrief’s End in Milwaukee

It took until 2019 for him to finally get in the Hall of Fame.  This delay relates partially to Moncrief’s comeback in a roundabout way.  After his excellent 1985-86 season, Moncrief hurt his knee and was never the same player again.  He played only 39 games in 1986-87 and had only 11.8 ppg.  He played a little more and a little better the next two seasons but was not re-signed after the 1988-89 season.

Moncrief was turning 32 and his last season was not horrible but way below his prior standards: 25.7 mpg, 12.1 ppg, .591 TS%, 2.8 rpg, 3.0 apg, 16.4 PER, .151 WS48, 2.6 BPM

One would think those stats would be enough to earn Moncrief another deal somewhere but he really struggled in the playoffs:  

20.4 mpg, 6.1 ppg, .500 TS%, 2.9 rpg, 1.4 apg, 9.7 PER, .062 WS48, -2.9 BPM. 

In other words, Playoff Moncrief looked totally cooked.

Playoffs aside, shouldn’t a two guard who could put up 12 ppg at age-31 be able to get a job for age-32?  Well, not so much.  From 1973-74 to 1985-86, only 15 players defined as shooting guards played more than 1,500 minutes at age-32 and the norm was to write off these players, rather than keep them around.

According to an October 1989 UPI report, the Bucks wouldn’t offer Moncrief any deal because of the state of his knees.  Moncrief announced his retirement at the time as follows: “’I think my injuries played a role in my decision but more importantly I think the market pretty much dictates that your services are no longer a very hot commodity….I think the market told me and my body told me because the last couple of years I’ve had a number of injuries.”  Yup, no team wanted to give Moncrief a good contract because of his troublesome knee.

Return to Atlanta

Moncrief sat out the 1989-90 season but was contacted by the Hawks to be an assistant coach for the 1990-91 season.  He told The New York Times in October 1990 article that he would try a comeback instead because “”I wanted to know if I could still play.” 

In this January 1991 Chicago Tribune article, Moncrief gave more detail around his thought process for returning: “I felt I could still play when I retired, but I was just burned out on basketball.  I had knee problems, but nothing that threatened my career. I just had played a lot of minutes, and with the number of games and travel, I found everything was bothering me…. I felt I still could play so I didn`t think I`d be a good assistant. I`d be looking to project myself on the court.” 

Interestingly, both the Nets and the Hawks offered him a tryout but he chose Atlanta because the Nets were in a deep rebuild (they had just drafted Derrick Coleman).  Moncrief had a good camp and even hit a game winning three-pointer in an exhibition game and made the team as a fourth(ish) guard.

Moncrief played in 72 games averaged about 15 mpg.  His overall stat line reflected that he imparted some value:

15.2 mpg, 4.7 ppg, .620 TS%, 1.8 rpg, 1.4 apg, 13.5 PER, .142 WS48, -3.1 BPM.  

He also showed adaptability.  Whereas previously, like most 1980s players, Moncrief barely took any three-pointers, in 1990-91, he made 33% on threes (21-64) and took them at the highest rate of his career.  Some of his other highlights for the season were as follows:

-On January 18, 1991, Moncrief scored a season high 16 points in a win against MJ and the Bulls.

-On February 22, 1991, Moncrief scored 14 points on 7-8 shooting and 5 assists in a win against the Magic Johnson Lakers.

-The 1992 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball wrote that he “held Reggie Miller to one shot in 12 minutes in [a] game where [the] Pacer guard was toasting the Hawks.” It’s not clear which game this was from the logs.

-Moncrief’s best moment came in Game 4 of Atlanta’s first round series against the Pistons.  He put up 23 points on 8-11 shooting, as well as 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals and helped force a deciding Game 5 (Detroit walloped Atlanta by 32 in Game 5).

Moncrief retired for good after the season but with a sense that he showed he still could play.  Moncrief assessed his play as follows: “I feel I`ve performed well.  People see points as a barometer of how well you`re playing, but I`ve always been one to look at helping a team win. Do you pick up the team, or does it lose ground when you`re in there? Are you playing hard, and are you focused?   I`ve been very pleased at what I`ve been able to do, and that it might be a different way each night is exciting.”  Sure it was a low stakes return but, in many ways, Moncrief’s return was as successful, on its own terms, as most other comebacks we have reviewed.

A Quick Look At Some Older Stars

The main question going into the stretch run of the season is whether any team can beat the Celtics.  We’ll come back to that question in a few weeks but, for now, I was interested in the durability of and performance of the old stars in the Western Conference.  While they aren’t quite the top of the conference, the Clippers, Suns, Warriors, and Lakers are riding old stars in a way that NBA team rarely have since the time that the Jordan Bulls, Stockton-Malone Jazz, and Hakeem-Barkley-Drexler Rockets did so in 1997 and 1998.

Unlike those teams, most of the current teams aren’t serious contenders.  This isn’t the fault of these older stars, who are still playing great.  I thought we’d take a quick look at how these stars are doing this year versus their last few years to see how close they are to their established norms and what, if anything, this tells us about the future.

The Clippers Stars

The Clippers are playing much better than the other teams noted above.  Their stars are also a little younger but let’s review their Big Three (Russell Westbrook doesn’t really count any more) because they each have had significant durability (or other issues) in the past.

Kawhi Leonard, age 32: 23.6 PER, .199 WS48, 6.1 BPM

Kawhi’s advanced stats are in line with his 2022-23 stats overall.  He has shown an ability to get more shots in the 3-10 foot range (20%, highest of his career), while finishing the 0-10 foot range shots at the highest percentage in his career and has dunked the highest percentage of his shots (.078%) since 2013-14.  He has also has nearly stopped taking any long twos (career low .092% of his shots).  Kawhi is still near his peak, assuming his knee can take the rigors of the playoff schedule for the first time since 2020.

Paul George, age 33: 18.3 PER, .128 WS48, 2.1 BPM

PG13’s advanced stats are a little down from the last few years, though that seems to be a function of losing shots to a more available Kawhi and the acquisition of James Harden.  George’s passing and usage are down but his turnover rate has also dropped to a career low 9.7% (he was at 13.4% last year).  He has also turned into more of a 3-point shooter, taking a career high .480% from three and making them at a .394% clip.  In short, he’s still good but the change in personnel makes him a second or third banana on offense.

James Harden, age 34: 19.5 PER, .185 WS48, 5.1 BPM

Can we actuallymake any conclusions from Harden’s year-to-year stats?  He’s constantly changing his role and his (ahem) intensity level.  While his usage is way down this year (20.6% versus 25.0% last season), the plus-minus data has been largely consistent since he left Houston in 2020.  In terms of shooting, Harden is not getting to the rim (.146% of his shots), a number that’s been cratering since 2021-22.  But, man, is Harden adaptable.  He’s shot a career high .594% of his shots from three and made a career high .416%.  Look, I wouldn’t want to pay his next contract either, but the guy is super talented.

In sum, the Clipper Crew has been as good as ever this year and the results seem fully sustainable.  The Clippers can do damage as long as Kawhi stays healthy (TBD). 

Kevin Durant, age 35: 22.5 PER, .161 WS48, 5.1 BPM

It’s hard to criticize KD but his advanced stats are simply a notch below what he did in Brooklyn (26.0 PER, .199 WS48, 7.1 BPM).  The decline seems to be pretty evenly distributed among the statistical categories too.  Nor does KD have the explanation that his stats are down because he’s deferring to teammates on the shallow Suns.  Also troubling is that KD is playing 37.2 mpg, the highest since 2021-22, when he clearly ran out of gas in the playoffs from high minutes.  Durant is still awesome but there are warning signs that Phoenix could flame out.

LeBron James, age 39: 22.9 PER, .144 WS48, 6.2 BPM

LBJ is fairly amazing.  His decline is real but quite gentle.  He has matched his 2022-23 stats, which are a notch below his peak but still great.  His usage is slightly below 30% for the first time since he was 20 years old (his percentage of shots made off assists are near the career highs set in his teenage years with Cleveland).  LeBron still gets to the rim and finishes and he is somehow shooting a career high .408% from three.  The Lakers look like their playoff chances are tenuous but James is doing his part.

Stephen Curry, age 35: 20.9 PER, .145 WS48, 5.4 PER

The major problems in Golden State have nothing to do with Steph and they have seemed to correct the rotation issues recently.  Still, a focus on Curry’s stats show a little erosion in assists, despite his high usage.  The real decline, though, is his ability to get shots near the rim.  He is taking a career-low .070% at the rim and the number has descended 20-30% each of the last four seasons.  Steph has been much more three-point reliant.  This is not too big a deal because threes are Steph’s thing but this decline in layups bears watching going forward. 

Revisiting The Almost Trade of Worthy for Aguirre

The 1986 Draft is best remembered for the tragic death of Len Bias, the 76ers’ execrable trades, and quite a few other historical ripples but I wanted to focus on one big deal that almost happened that day but ended up being aborted at the lats minute.  The huge deal on the table was the trade of James Worthy from the Lakers to the Mavericks for Mark Aguirre and the seventh pick in the 1986 Draft, who would’ve been the talented but troubled Roy Tarpley.  I thought we could do a deep dive to understand the context in which the trade arose and what might’ve been.

At the outset, it seems unthinkable that the Lakers would trade Worthy, the rising star who would become a legend and famously clinched the 1988 title with his Game 7 triple-double.  Nevertheless, a trade in 1986 seemed quite imminent and we can indulge in some hypotheticals.

What was the state of the Lakers in June 1986?

The Lakers’ mood was bleak following the 4-1 upset loss to the Rockets in the 1986 Western Conference Finals.  The Lakers had been 62-20 and the clear class of the West.  They had  won the Conference the prior four seasons but the Rockets upended them behind Hakeem Olajuwon, who was a force of nature in that series (31.0 ppg, .520 FG%, 11.2 rpg, 2.0 apg, 2.2 spg, 4.0 bpg).

Worthy’s performance in the series basically equaled his regular season stats (20.2 ppg, .524 FG%, 4.8 rpg, 3.6 apg).  Looking at his game lines, Worthy struggled the first two games of the series but finished very strong the final three games (44.7 mpg, 24.7 ppg, .615 FG%, 6.3 rpg, 4.3 apg). 

If there were scapegoats in the series for the Lakers, they were the frontcourt players who couldn’t slow down Hakeem and Ralph Sampson.  Also, Byron Scott shot poorly by his standards (.441% in the WCF versus .525% the prior two rounds).  Certainly, Worthy had done nothing to get himself branded as a problem.

So, Worthy was good but did a trade make sense anyway?

Aguirre was a great scorer and getting him plus a top pick for Worthy sounds reasonable in the abstract.  Let’s see the stats of the two players as of the end of the 1985-86 season to see how they compared:

Aguirre: Age 26, 33.8 mpg, 22.6 ppg, .547 TS%, 29.0 USG%, 6.0 rpg, 4.6 apg, 19.2 PER, .090 WS48, 0.3 BPM

Worthy: Age 24, 32.7 mpg, 20.0 ppg, .613 TS%, 22.6 USG%, 5.2 rpg, 2.7 apg, 20.4 PER, .185 WS48, 3.9 BPM

Worthy was younger and a much more efficient player.  In fairness to Aguirre, he was trying to create shots as a primary scorer while Worthy was essentially a third option who got a ton of points in transition.  Aguirre likely would’ve been much more efficient in the same context but it’s clear that Worthy fit that role better AND defended much better.

On top of the fact that Worthy had advantages in age, defense, and fit on offense, Aguirre had other issues.  He was not easy for coaches to deal with.  A great summary of Aguirre’s constant beefing with Coach Dick Motta can be found here but let’s tick through a few highlights:

-“[D]uring the 1984-85 season…Motta and Aguirre had a locker-room blow up in front of players and note-taking reporters. Motta called Aguirre a quitter. Aguirre told Motta he wanted a trade. Motta scoffed, ‘Nobody wants you.’  [Aguirre was forced to apologize].”

-In 1985-86, “miffed at Motta, Aguirre refused to play in the second half of what turned into a blowout loss. The Mavericks suspended Aguirre [again].” 

-Ironically, the Mavs ended the 1985-86 season with a loss to the same Lakers in the second round of the playoffs.  Sam McManis of the L.A. Times described the Aguirre-Motta relationship during that series as follows: “A pout almost always adorns Mark Aguirre’s face on the basketball court. It may be Aguirre’s most prominent feature, even more distinctive than a lower body that should have a wide-load sign attached…. The usual unfolding of these well-publicized tiffs: Aguirre does something on the court that irks Motta. Motta yells and then yanks Aguirre from the game. Aguirre sulks. Motta fumes. They exchange words in the locker room afterward. They meet later and, temporarily, patch up differences.”

McManis then stumbled across this gem of a quote from Aguirre that presaged the potential trade coming 6 weeks later: “[i]f I had been drafted in Los Angeles, it probably would have been looked on as a positive thing. I mean, Byron Scott is flamboyant. James Worthy is, Kareem is, in a way. They are allowed to show their emotions. That’s partly because (Pat) Riley is a player’s coach.”  And then, as if to perfectly capture the value proposition, McManis wrote that: “In Aguirre’s mind, there are only three small better small forwards in the NBA–Larry Bird, Alex English and Worthy.”  (Note that Aguirre was 15th in small forward VORP that year, and was 9th the prior season).

So, there you have it: contemporaneous reporting that Worthy was considered better than Aguirre and that Aguirre longed to play in the Lakers’ system.  As a side note, the notion that Aguirre would score more with the Lakers seems silly (as was the notion that Riley would be a friendlier coach).  Aguirre scored about 25 ppg as a Maverick and his shots and usage were sure to go down with the Lakers.  Still, it was not unreasonable that Aguirre might be happier playing in Los Angeles and winning more with Magic and Kareem, even with fewer shots. 

What was the rationale for the Lakers to make this trade?

In all, Aguirre was a talented but distressed asset and Worthy was a budding star.  The x-factor was Magic Johnson, who was tight with Aguirre and they clearly talked about playing with each other.  All the reporting at the time pegged Magic with being the driving force for the potential trade.  In November 1987, Curry Kirkpatrick wrote in Sports Illustrated that Magic, Aguirre, and Isiah Thomas were “buddies”  and  that “Johnson reportedly—though he denied it—once tried to get his fellow Laker…Worthy traded to Dallas for Aguirre.”   The same story quoted Michael Jordan as saying that “James is getting too good for Magic’s taste.”  Yep, that’s quite saucy.

Jeff Pearlman wrote in “Showtime,” that Magic “thought Aguirre would be an upgrade” and went directly to owner Jerry Buss to get a deal done.  Buss deferred to Magic and negotiated a deal without consulting GM Jerry West.  Dallas thought a deal was done and The Dallas Morning News reported that “Tarpley’s agent was reluctant to allow Tarpley to come to Dallas for a press conference because he was certain that Tarpley was going to be traded to the Lakers.”  When West heard about the trade, he “went beserk” and killed the deal.  West’s perspective was that “Aguirre—while talented—was a me-first player who would destroy the Lakers’ chemistry {while] Worthy…could do twenty different things to help a team win.  If Aguirre wasn’t receiving the ball and scoring, he was useless.”

There was truth to the idea that Aguirre was only a scorer and that Magic’s relationship with Aguirre was influencing his opinion.  The trade, however, was not totally crazy.  After getting pummeled by Hakeem, the Lakers did need a body like Tarpley to help out and Tarpley would’ve been a great help if he was sober (it’s not clear if West had intelligence indicating that Tarpley had a problem at that time).  Putting Tarpley aside, West clearly did the right thing in killing the deal because the difference in value and fit between Worthy and Aguirre was not evened by the seventh pick.

What would’ve happened if the Aguirre/Worthy trade had gone through?

 Obviously, we can’t know for sure but we do know that it’s unlikely that the Lakers would’ve done better than they did by standing pat (as a reminder, the Lakers won the next two titles and lost in the Finals the third year).  It’s possible that the Lakers would’ve gone back-to-back with Aguirre and Tarpley but much less likely.  Aguirre was just not nearly as versatile a player as Worthy (though it should be noted that Aguirre played selflessly and filled a lesser role in Detroit when he was ultimately traded). 

It almost seems sad and fruitless to predict how Tarpley would’ve handled Los Angeles.  He lasted two good years in Dallas before his career was derailed and it’s not likely he would’ve been anymore together elsewhere.  Putting all these unknowns on the table, here are the principals’ aggregate stats for 1986-87 and 1987-88:

Aguirre: 33.6 mpg, 25.4 ppg, .550 TS%, 31.5 USG%, 5.5 rpg, 3.4 apg, 22.0 PER, .162 WS48, 3.4 BPM

Tarpley: 23.8 mpg, 10.6 ppg, .527 TS%, 20.4 USG%, 9.6 rpg, 0.9 apg. 17.9 PER, .141 WS48, -0.6 BPM

Worthy: 34.9 mpg, 19.6 ppg, .575 TS%, 22.5 USG%, 5.4 rpg, 3.3 apg, 18.3 PER, .151 WS48, 2.4 BPM

Aguirre’s black hole offense was really good the next two years and that efficiency, even scaled down a bit to fit with the Lakers, would’ve been an asset.  Tarpley was very raw but also a useful body.  At the end of the day, though, it’s hard to see the Aguirre/Tarpley Lakers winning a title.  In 1986-87, they would’ve faced the peak Celtics front line in the Finals and Aguirre couldn’t guard Bird or McHale and I strain to see a good match up for Aguirre in that series.  In 1988, Aguirre could’ve matched up with Detroit but would he have played better than Worthy?  The Lakers needed an epic game from Worthy to win that title.  This is not to say that the Lakers wouldn’t have won either title with Aguirre but it would have made it much less likely.