Searching for Greatness in Portland

When we last left our story I was comparing the Blazers of today to the Nuggets from the early 1990s.  Just to review… the Nuggets from the early 1990s were built around a dominant big man – Dikembe Mutombo.  The Nuggets surrounded Mutombo with a collection of young talent that was believed to be endowed with a great deal of “potential.”  As time went by, this potential turned to reality. And the reality was that even with Mutombo – who was a very good center – the Nuggets were at their best an average NBA team.

The Blazers today might have a dominant big man in Greg Oden.  We will not know this for sure until 2008-09 (or perhaps later).  What we do know is that this team has been built on youth.  Brando Roy, LeMarcus Aldridge, Channing Frye, Martell Webster, Rudy Fernandez, Petteri Koponen, Sergio Rodriquez, and Jarrett Jack are all players with less than three years experience.  In fact, only Darius Miles, Joel Przybilla, and Raef LaFrentz have been in the league longer than six seasons.  So this team is definitely young. How much potential, though, does this collection of youth have?

The Blazers the Past Two Seasons

To answer this question, let’s start with where this team has recently been.  That story is told in Table One, where we can see what this team had done each of the past two seasons. 

Table One: The Portland Trail Blazers in 2005-o6 and 2006-07

Two years ago the Blazers won 21 games. This record was a bit of illusion.  When we look at Wins Produced – or offensive and defensive efficiency – we see a team that should have won about 15 games.  The most productive player on this team was Przybilla.  And although Przybilla is capable of being above average, if he is your most productive player then you have problems.

Last season Przybilla produced five fewer wins.  Despite this decline, the team was eleven games better in the standings.  Much of this improvement can be tied to two players: Zach Randolph and Roy.

Roy – who was named Rookie of the Year – produced 6.7 wins.  His WP48 (Wins Produced per 48 minutes) was 0.159, which is above the average mark of 0.100.  So Roy was definitely good.  However, if we define “great” as a player with a WP48 in excess of 0.200, Roy was not “great.” 

Randolph was also “good” – but not “great” — last year, producing 7.4 wins with a WP48 of 0.147.  But in the off-season he was traded to the Knicks for Channing Frye.  Frye has produced a combined -0.7 wins in his first two seasons.  So moving from Randolph to Frye is not a step up.  

The Search for Greatness

Okay, Frye doesn’t look like a player who can help. But maybe that doesn’t matter.  Every player on a good team doesn’t have to be good. In fact, we have seen that most wins on a team tend to be produced by the top three players on the roster.  So all you need is a few great players, and you will indeed have a good (and perhaps great) team.  So do the Blazers have a few “great” players?

Again, I am defining “great” as a player who has posted a WP48 in excess of 0.200. The Blazers currently have nine players on the roster who have played at least two years in the NBA.  These nine players have combined to play 40 NBA seasons.  When we look at all these seasons, we see only one year where a player posted a WP48 in excess of 0.200. That one “great” year was offered by Przybilla in 2004-05. 

If we look for “good” performance, we see thirteen instances where a player posted a WP48 above 0.100.  And here are those players (other than Przybilla) who have accomplished this feat (last time and WP48 posted in parenthesis):

Darius Miles (2003-04, 0.116)

Raef LaFrentz (2004-05, 0.185)

Jarrett Jack (2006-07, 0.112)

Steve Blake (2005-06, 0.122)

When we look at these players we see that Miles and LaFrentz have recently been injured.  Blake and Jack are both young and healthy.  But each play the same position and neither has been anywhere near “great.”

Okay, the veteran talent offers little help.  What of the youth movement?  Again, there is Roy.  And Sergio Rodriguez posted a 0.160 WP48 last year. Of course, that was in only 862 minutes, so it remains to be seen what he can do with extended playing time.  In fact, given the other young guards on the roster, it remains to be seen if he will even get extended playing time.

One player who will get extended time is LeMarcus Aldridge.  Aldridge finished his rookie season with a 0.064 WP48, which is below average.  His primary problem, and this was an issue in college, is that he is not a good rebounder (in college he was above average for an NBA player, but not as far above as you would expect an above-average NBA player to be, if that makes sense). 

And the Blazers could have chosen differently.  Tyrus Thomas, Shelden Williams, and Paul Millsap all posted better numbers last year.  And all three posted better numbers in college. So the Blazers didn’t have to take Aldridge and try and build around this talent.   But they did, so they have to hope his college and rookie season are not the best predictors of the future. 

Putting it All Together

Let’s put it all together.  Of the nine players with two or more years of experience, only one has ever been great.  So these players have thus far not shown us that they can lead the team back to respectability.

Turning to the three rookies from last year, Roy and Rodriguez were both good.  But neither was great and it’s not clear Rodriguez will get much playing time.  Aldridge will get playing time, but so far we have no evidence that he can either “good” or “great.”

After Oden there are four other rookies on the roster: Fernandez, Koponen, Taurean Green , and Josh McRoberts.  Fernandez and Koponen are international players and I don’t have data on these players. Both Green and McRoberts did play college basketball, but each ranked towards the bottom of their respective positions in the 2007 draft.  So neither Green nor McRoberts is expected to offer much help next season.

When we put it all together, we don’t see much “greatness” on this roster.  Yes, I know.  It’s all about potential.  As these players grow they will become “great.”  Certainly this is possible, but the early returns on this roster are not promising.

Of course, there is one other argument.  One could say that this roster, as it is presently constructed, will not be the one that takes the floor when Oden finally appears.  In other words, one could argue that the Blazers will be adding more productive players later.  Such an argument is fine, although I would note, every team at the bottom of the league could tell the same story.  Unfortunately, until more productive players are added, you tend to stay at the bottom of the league.

One last note… I am falling behind on my team reviews.  Look for these to happen a bit more frequently until the beginning of the season.  Not tomorrow, though.  Tomorrow it’s the QB Rankings (and RB rankings) for Week Three.

– DJ

For a discussion of other teams see NBA Team Reviews: 2006-07

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

Wins Produced and Win Score are Discussed in the Following Posts

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

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