Why the Blazers Have Improved

When the Blazers won the draft lottery and the rights to Greg Oden, people immediately expected Portland to improve in 2007-08.   Even when the Blazers gave Zach Randolph to the Knicks (for Channing Frye and the chance to cut Steve Francis), people expected the Blazers to take a step forward.

And then Oden had to undergo season ending surgery.  When that happened, expectations for Portland were revised downward and plans for the 2008 draft lottery were put in place.

After starting 5-12, it looked like Portland “were who we thought they would be” (channeling Dennis Green).  Then suddenly the Blazers won 13 games in a row, and this team — with tickets to the top of the 2008 draft seemingly already printed — was in the middle of the Western Conference playoff picture. 

So how was this possible?

The Improvement

Before answering this question, let’s detail the improvement. Last season this team won 32 games. The team’s efficiency differential – offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency – was -4.6. When we turn to Wins Produced, we see that this team was led by Zach Randolph, who produced 7.4 wins.  As noted, Randolph was sent to the Knicks for Channing Frye. Frye’s Wins Production was in the negative range last year, so without Oden this team should have declined.

But after 32 games, this team’s efficiency differential stands at -0.1 and this team is on pace to win 41 games.  In sum, this team has gotten better.

The Play of Roy and Aldridge

To explain this improvement, let’s first turn to an article by AP writer Anne Peterson.

“(Brandon) Roy, last season’s NBA Rookie of the Year, has been the spark. He has scored 20-plus points in nine of the Blazers’ games during the streak, and has been honored as the NBA’s player of the week twice during the span.

Over the 12 games, Roy is averaging 22.9 points. Fans chant “M-V-P! M-V-P!” at the Rose Garden whenever he comes to the line.

“He’s unbelievable,” forward James Jones said. “He’s humble and that’s the best component of everything he has. He’s just a humble guy who comes in and works, plays hard and he is so unselfish. When you have that mix of talent and unselfishness you normally have a great player, and that’s what he is.”

So the key is Roy, the team’s leading scorer.  Of course, it might not be just Roy.  One might also focus on the second leading scorer on this team, LaMarcus Aldridge.  Both Roy and Aldridge were chosen in the lottery in 2006, and one might suspect that these two scorers are why this team might avoid the lottery in 2008.  

Although this might be our suspicion, the data tells a different story.  Specifically, when we look at all the individual box score stats we come to a surprising conclusion.  Roy and Aldridge have not really improved upon their rookie campaigns.  

This can be seen in Table One, where each player’s 2007-08 performance is compared to what each player did in 2006-07 (and the average at the player’s position). 

Table One: The Careers of Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge

Relative to the average shooting guard, Roy was above average his rookie season with respect to shooting efficiency, rebounds, and assists.  In his sophomore season he has improved with respect to assists, turnovers, and personal fouls.  But Roy is hitting a lower percentage of his shots.  When we add up where he has improved and were he declined, we see a Win Score per 48 minutes that’s only slightly higher. 

Now it’s important to note, Roy was very good his rookie season.  He’s certainly an above average performer and currently leads this team in Wins Produced.  But we are trying to explain why this team improved.  And if Roy hasn’t really improved much, he can’t be the reason this team is winning so much more.  

Turning to Aldridge we see a similar story, except the “above average” part.  Aldridge was below average with respect to rebounds, steals, and assists as a rookie. As a sophomore he has improved his shooting efficiency, but his rebounds have declined.  Like Roy, the net effect is only slight progress in overall production.

Again, the team has gotten much better.  Aldridge has not, he’s still below average.   And perhaps not surprisingly, Aldridge actually missed a substantial portion of the team’s recent winning streak.  So clearly Aldridge is not why the Blazers have managed to win more often.

Okay, that’s interesting (I think).  But if Roy (or Aldridge) is not the reason why the Blazers have improved, who is responsible?

Why the Blazers Improved

For an answer we turn to Table Two.

Table Two: The Portland Trail Blazers in 2007-08

Table Two presents three forecasts of the Blazers.  The first forecast assumes that each player performs as he did in 2005-06 (except for players who began their career after this season).  The second forecast looks at 2006-07 performance.  And the final forecast looks at what happens if players keep performing as they have in 2007-08.

When we look at the 2006-07 performance we see why it was expected that this team would struggle.  The Blazers 2006-07 performance results in a prediction of only 18 wins in 2007-08.  Again, when we forecast 2007-08 performance to the end, we see a team on pace to win 41 games.  So clearly the Blazers improved over what we should have expected if all we looked at was 2006-07 performances.

And this improvement is linked to a number of players, including Joel Przybilla, James Jones, Channing Frye, Steve Blake, and Travis Outlaw. These five players are responsible for 21.5 of the 22.8 change in projected wins.

When we turn to performance in 2005-06, though, we see that what Przybilla, Frye, and Blake are doing this year is quite similar to what each player did two years ago.  Last year Przybilla was hurt, Frye was playing for the Knicks (which doesn’t seem to help a player play better), and Blake was wandering through the NBA (playing for both Milwaukee and Denver).  This year all three have found a happy and healthy home and returned to what we saw two years ago.

In sum, when we consider more than just last year’s performance, only Jones and Outlaw are performing dramatically differently from what we have seen in the past.  And of these two, only Jones is above average.

The play of Jones has been truly amazing.  Jones has already played four years in the NBA and has never been above average.  This year, though, his WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] has surpassed the 0.200 mark (twice the average mark of 0.100).  Not surprisingly, when Jones did not play early in the season, the Blazers struggled.  When he returned this team started winning more frequently.

Of course, it’s not all about Jones.  This truly is a team.  The top three players in Wins Produced – Roy, Przybilla, and Blake – have only produced 54% of the team’s wins (not the 80% we normally see from a team’s top three players).  Jones, Frye, Aldridge, Jarrett Jack, and Martell Webster are all producing wins this year.   In fact, 43% of this team’s Wins Produced is tied to these five players.

So what have we learned? 

The Blazers are led in Wins Produced by Brandon Roy.  But last year’s Rookie of the Year is not the driving force behind the team’s improvement.  No, this team’s progress is truly a team effort.  A number of players have returned to what we saw in the past, and one player – James Jones – has improved substantially.

And perhaps if he keeps playing well someone might someday say the following about Jones:

“He’s unbelievable. He’s humble and that’s the best component of everything he has. He’s just a humble guy who comes in and works, plays hard and he is so unselfish. When you have that mix of talent and unselfishness you normally have a great player, and that’s what he is.”

- DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also 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

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.

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