The race in the Western Conference seems quite similar to many of the races we are seeing at the Winter Olympics. The Portland Trailblazers took the lead out of the gates. But injuries to both Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla (among others), knocked the Blazers from the list of contenders.
Meanwhile, after a slow start, Pau Gasol returned from injury and the Lakers surged into the lead. Heading into the All-Star break it seemed like no one was going to catch the Lakers in the West.
Then the Mavericks made a trade that allowed them to narrow the substantial distance between Dallas and LA. Now the Blazers – with the acquisition of Marcus Camby – are also posed to make a late-season charge. And we still haven’t reached the trade deadline.
To see why Camby allows the Blazers to start charging, let’s briefly look at where this team was at the All-Star break. After 55 games the Blazers had posted a 2.4 efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency). This is consistent with a team that wins between 31 and 32 games (out of 55). The team actually won 31 games, putting this team on pace to fall short of 50 victories across an entire season. In sum, the Blazers were not contenders.
As often noted, Wins Produced is derived from efficiency differential. And when we review each player’s Wins Produced – as reported in Table One – we can see why Portland had fallen back to the pack. Of the four top players in WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes], two players (Oden and Przybilla) were lost for the season.
The player who took many of the minutes from Oden and Pryzbilla was Juwan Howard. Across his career, Howard has been paid more than $140 million. But as noted back in 2006, Howard has never been a very productive NBA player. And although he has played better in 2009-10 than he did in limited minutes last season, he’s still below average.
Now it’s possible that many of Howard’s minutes can be given to Camby. To understand the impact of this change, consider that…
- Howard has produced 1.5 wins in 1,067 minutes this season. Hence his WP48 is 0.067 (average is 0.100).
- Camby has posted a 0.431 WP48 this season. Such a mark across 1,067 minutes is worth 9.6 wins. In other words, if Portland had been able to switch from Camby to Howard when Oden and Przybilla left the scene, the Blazers would have already won about eight additional games.
So adding Camby to this roster – if he primarily takes the minutes of Howard – is enough to transform the Blazers back into contenders.
Now there’s a downside to this move. Steve Blake, who has been above average, is gone. And his minutes probably go to Jerryd Bayless. As one can see in Table One, Bayless is the least productive player on the Blazers. So losing Blake does hurt.
Then again, the team does have Nicolas Batum back, and that’s going to help. Consequently, I think I am going to stick with my story. Portland is once again a contender.
Of course, Portland is more than 10 games behind the Lakers and this move doesn’t really make Portland better than LA. It just means that the gap is not going to grow much anymore.
So although the Lakers will probably finish first in the regular season, the Western race to the NBA Finals suddenly looks very interesting. Entering the All-Star break the list of contenders that looked capable of surpassing 55 wins began and ended with the Lakers. Now the moves the Mavericks and Blazers have made – while too late to actually get either team to 55 wins – suddenly increases the quality of each team to the level of a 55-win team. So the road to the finals for the Lakers suddenly looks much more difficult. And again, hopefully the moves are not finished.
Let me close with a quick note on the Olympics. JC Bradbury – the Baseball Economist – is now working on Olympic research. He has started blogging at Olympic-Reference.com, and so far has already put up four posts on the Winter games (with two of these on the topic of aging and performance). Furthermore, he’s scheduled to present a paper on the Olympics at the Western Economic Association meetings this summer. JC is actually part of an entire session on the Olympics, so look for more research on this topic in the future.
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Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.
Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:
Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.