Yes it is Early – But Portland is the Best in the West

Who is the best team in the West?  If we consider preseason hype, it’s the Lakers.  If we consider won-loss record, it’s the surprising Phoenix Suns.  But if we consider efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency), the top team is the Portland Trail Blazers.  Yes, the Phoenix Suns have the best record (9-2).  The Suns’ differential, though, is only 3.90 (the Lakers without Pau Gasol have a 2.02 mark).  The Trail Blazers, with a mark of 7.89, clearly lead the conference (second is the Dallas Mavericks with a mark of 6.76).

So why are the Blazers doing so well?  Last year the Blazers finished second in the conference in efficiency differential with a 5.93 mark.  In the off-season, the team added Andre Miller and let Channing Frye and Sergio Rodriguez depart.   These moves left the Blazers with the following depth chart (Wins Produced and WP48 numbers from 2008-09):

Potential First String

Steve Blake: 2,188 min., 5.3 Wins Produced, 0.117 WP48

Brandon Roy: 2,903 min., 15.3 Wins Produced, 0.253 WP48

Nicolas Batum: 1,454 min., 3.7 Wins Produced, 0.123 WP48

LaMarcus Aldridge: 3,004 min., 6.7 Wins Produced, 0.107 WP48

Greg Oden: 1,314 min., 4.2 Wins Produced, 0.154 WP48

Potential Bench

Andre Miller: 2,976 min., 11.1 Wins Produced, 0.178 WP48

Rudy Fernandez: 1,993 min., 6.9 Wins Produced, 0.167 WP48

Travis Outlaw: 2,246 min., 2.6 Wins Produced, 0.055 WP48

Joel Przybilla: 1,952 min., 11.7 Wins Produced, 0.288 WP48

Average WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minute] is 0.100. So last year, eight of the nine players the Blazers were planning on employing in their regular rotation in 2009-10 were above average.

Before this season started, Nicolas Batum was hurt.  His replacement – Martell Webster – only played five minutes last year; and in 2007-08 he only posted a 0.057 WP48 (that was his best season ever).  So losing Batum hurts, although not too much.  In fact, as noted, the Blazers are better this year.  And when we look at the team’s depth chart, we can see who is responsible for Portland’s early success.

Potential First String

Steve Blake: 354 min., 0.053 WP48

Brandon Roy: 441 min., 0.192 WP48

Martell Webster: 246 min., 0.091 WP48

LaMarcus Aldridge: 390 min., 0.171 WP48

Greg Oden: 291 min., 0.271 WP48

Potential Bench

Andre Miller: 348 min., 0.087 WP48

Rudy Fernandez: 262 min., 0.270 WP48

Travis Outlaw: 231 min., 0.015 WP48

Joel Przybilla: 232 min., 0.231 WP48

These numbers are from the first 12 games of the season. So once again we need to remember that the sample is still small.  In other words, forecasting from this sample for each player is not advised (although that won’t stop me from talking about the future). But we can say who is responsible for the outcomes observed across the first 12 games.

Of the nine players listed above, only five are above average.  But these five – Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden, Rudy Fernandez, and Joel Przybilla — have played very well. Judging by past performance, we should not be surprised by the productivity of Roy, Fernandez, and Przybilla.  And it looks like Oden is finally becoming the dominant player people expected to see when he was taken with the first pick in the 2007 NBA draft.  The only real surprise is the play of Aldridge.  At least, given that Aldridge has been called “overrated” in this forum, readers of The Wages of Wins Journal might be surprised.

Then again, maybe this isn’t a shock.  Here is what Aldridge has done across his first three seasons:

2006-07: age 21, 0.055 WP48

2007-08: age 22, 0.078 WP48

2008-09: age 23, 0.107 WP48

Perhaps what we are seeing from Aldridge is just the standard progression we generally see with young players.  If this is true, then a) Aldridge won’t be considered overrated in 2009-10, and b) the Blazers have one more extremely productive player.

Before the season started it was argued that the addition of Andre Miller was important.  As the above numbers indicate, though, Miller has been below average.  However, one should note that Miller was inserted into the starting line-up after Portland’s first five games.  And he has been above average since this move was made (so that would give the Blazers six above average players). 

With so many productive players on the roster, it seems like Portland is probably going to remain one of the top teams – if not the top team – in the West.  So, all those people who expect the Lakers to automatically return to the NBA Finals might want to think again.  The Blazers are a legitimate contender to win the West.  And given the age of many of their most productive players, Portland should (barring injury) remain a contender beyond 2009-10.

- DJ

The WoW Journal Comments Policy

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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