NLL Championship: The Interesting Case of the Colorado Mammoth

The NLL Championship series is set, which means at long last a champion will be crowned to take the mantle from the 2019 Calgary Roughnecks. Nearly 36 long months of winding roads and unlikely stories have lead to a collision between Colorado and Buffalo. Even better, the match up seems to be an accurate representation of truly the best from each conference. 

However, the advanced stats have a funny way of disagreeing with the general consensus. This is another instance in which there is a canyon between what the advanced stats and lacrosse media are saying. Let’s get into it.

The Mammoth are the champions of the West Conference, which is a distinction they have unquestionably earned. But when we consult the LaxMetrics advanced numbers, the reality of Colorado’s season is far more complicated than that of a typical conference champ. While Buffalo was arguably the most dominant team in the NLL this season, the Mammoth have over-achieved empirically more than nearly every other franchise in the league this year. In fact, multiple metrics paint the Mammoth as a group of over-achievers moreso than a dominant force.

When we think of Colorado, we think of the absurd offensive performances throughout the season from their big three of Ryan Lee, Eli McLaughlin, and Connor Robinson. Through the playoffs, Dillon Ward has stolen the show, while the duo of McLaughlin and Robinson have ascended to another level in Lee’s absence. Zed Williams, who was statistically one of the least valuable players in the league during the regular season, has evolved into a dynamic and dangerous weapon in Lee’s place on the right side.

From a predictive analytics standpoint, the Mammoth overachieved their projected Pythagorean win-loss record by a full win. Despite a true goal differential of zero, the Mammoth found a way to finish in a three-way tie for first place in the West. For most of the season, Colorado actually over performed its projected win total by 2.5-3 full wins, which was the most significant mark in the league at that time. At season’s end, only Calgary (2.43), Halifax (1.74) , Panther City (1.64), and Philadelphia (1.58) overachieved their projected win total by more than the Mammoth.

But where things get really interesting is when we create a WAR aggregate for each team and apply said aggregate to evaluate playoff teams. By adding up the individual WAR numbers of every player to appear in a game for a given team, we can create a “Team WAR” figure.

Six of the top eight Team WAR finishers made the playoffs. Only Georgia (8th) and Saskatchewan (3rd) finished in the Top-8 of Team WAR, yet did not make the playoffs. In the East Conference, Philadelphia (11th) snuck in as one of the league’s biggest over-achievers. In the West, Colorado (13th) leapfrogged Saskatchewan, Vancouver (9th), and Panther City (10th) to land a playoff spot.

But it’s their ranking of 13th out of 14 Team WAR scores that is so striking about the Mammoth. As much credit as they deserve for rallying through the postseason, it’s mildly shocking that they made the playoffs at all given how much better Saskatchewan was in the advanced metrics. Sure, Ryan Lee had a remarkable season, but even so he finished second in WAR on the Mammoth to goaltender Dillon Ward. Furthermore, two players who have become playoff linchpins were statistically two of the least valuable players in the league this season. In terms of WAR, Zed Williams (-0.0990) and Tyson Gibson (-0.1042) ranked 351st and 353rd respectively out of 357 players in the NLL. The unlikely duo combined for 12 goals in the West Conference Finals and nine points in the decisive Game 3.

The idea that those two have combined to do what they have in the playoffs is fairly shocking, particularly in the absence of Ryan Lee. You’d think that Williams and Gibson would benefit from Lee’s being in the lineup, not the inverse scenario. 

From this, we can make the implication that Colorado’s offense actually hinges on the success of its lefties (McLaughlin and Robinson) rather than the righties (Lee). It’s a heavy lift of an idea to sign on to, but the numbers are pointing in that direction. For Williams and Gibson to be able to step into Lee’s place and perform at roughly the same level as Lee, an MVP candidate, surely makes for a confusing circumstance. 

When we zoom out and consider these nuggets as part of the season’s story, it’s only fair to praise the Mammoth for what they’ve managed to accomplish. None of this is intended to insinuate that the Mammoth are undeserving of their berth in the Championship Series. To the contrary, their winning the West is all the more impressive. Managing to upset Buffalo in the finals would make the story all the more incredible.

But that’s sports. There is a degree of chaos present in high-level competition, and the beauty of winning is that the path to raising a trophy doesn’t have to make sense. In Colorado’s case, they have a shot to be one of the unlikeliest NLL Champions in league history, despite what the standings might suggest. Just because they don’t seem like over-achievers, doesn’t mean that they aren’t. 

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