Can the Blazers Move from Promise to the Promise Land?

Burzin Daruwala is an engineer at a Fortune 500 company in Oregon, and has been a fan of the Portland Trail Blazers from the moment he learned about the existence of the NBA. Twelve years ago when he arrived in the US as a student, one of his friends persuaded him to take time off and watch a game of basketball at the Rose Garden. That game was so magical that he became a fan of the game and the team, and has since followed the Blazers passionately, riding the highs of the 1999 and 2000 western conference finals appearances, the heartbreak of the loss to the Lakers (the infamous 15 minutes in franchise history), and the lows of the contentious off court issues, to the rebuilding of the team in its current form.

The Portland Trail Blazers have been viewed as an upcoming team filled with the talent necessary to go far in the playoffs.  And before the 2009-2010 season, the Blazers were picked by a stat geek champion to be THE team to watch out for in the west. While the team struggled to meet such lofty expectations last season due to injuries, there is skepticism in some corners that the team is not good enough to compete in the playoffs.

Citing its last two playoff series evictions from the first round (against Houston in 2009 and Phoenix in 2010) as evidence, some analysts have stated that the style of basketball the Blazers play could easily be overcome during the playoffs when teams pay more attention to strategies; and where overdependence on one player could cause offensive stagnation.

To see whether these criticisms have any validity, let’s use the Wages of Wins approach to compare the team’s production during the playoffs and regular season.

Let’s begin with regular season numbers from the 2009-2010 season:

As can be seen from the above table, the Blazers employed eight above average players during the season (an average player posts a WP48 – or Wins Produced per 48 minutes — of 0.100).  These eight players produced a 49.41 wins, which is pretty close to the team’s actual win total of 50 wins. One interesting thing to note from the table is that Portland seems to have defied the Pareto Principle (which states that 80% of the outcome can be linked to 20% of the people driving the outcome).  The team’s top 3 players – Brandon Roy, Andre Miller, LaMarcus Aldridge — only produced 44% of the win total (21.83 wins).

Another interesting factoid is that Portland employed two players who had a WP48 above 0.300 (Marcus Camby & Gred Oden), two other players who when healthy have shown WP48 above 0.200 in past seasons (Roy and Joel Przybilla), and a whole bunch of other above average players in Miller, Nicolas Batum, and Rudy Fernandez. Unfortunately, three of their most productive players play the same position (Camby, Oden and Przybilla), so some of the benefits of having them on the same team is diminished (unless the team finds a way to use them at different positions and still be productive).

Of course, productivity in the regular season is not all that matters.  What happens when we get to the playoffs?  Table Two reports the performance of Blazers during the 2010 post-season.  The story that immediately leaps out is that among players who played more than 50 minutes in the playoffs, everyone’s per-minute production declined relative to what we saw in the regular season.

While this could be explained in the case of Roy, since he was coming back from ankle injury — and from Batum, who hurt his shoulder during the playoffs – injuries do not explain what happened to the other players. 

Perhaps, though, we have a problem with sample size.  After all, the Blazers were only in the playoffs for six games in 2010.  So let’s take a look at the 2008-2009 regular season and the 2009 playoffs to see if we can see a similar pattern.

Again, looking at the WP48, we see a tremendous change in productivity for the top 3 players (Roy, Przybilla and Aldridge). Their combined WP48 has fallen by 36% as compared to their regular season performance. And they are not the only players who decline.  Except for Steve Blake, everyone else had lower WP48 numbers in the playoffs compared to their regular season performance.

Now, some might argue that this change could be attributed to the fact that Portland was a very young team and were in the playoffs for the first time in 2009, hence inexperience played a role. And, looking at another young team that made the playoffs this year, the Oklahoma City Thunder did indeed show a 21% drop in WP48 from their top 3 regular season Wins Produced leaders. So maybe there is some truth to that, although an examination of two teams does not a study make (but perhaps age and the playoffs is a good subject for future study).

Another argument – offered in The Wage of Wins — could be that most players would see their performance drop in the playoffs; primarily because the level of competition is higher than what we see in the regular season.  

For example, consider the LA Lakers. This team has won the title the past two seasons.  Across these two years, fifteen times a player – not named Kobe – played at least 100 minutes in the post-season.  And eleven times, the player posted lower per-minute numbers in the playoffs.  So even for teams that win a title, we still tend to see lower numbers in the playoffs.

Kobe Bryant, though, does appear to be the exception.  At least, he did post better numbers in the playoffs in 2009 and 2010.  Before we conclude, though, that Kobe has some special skill we need to look at his entire career.  Prior to 2009, Kobe played at least 100 minutes in the post-season eleven times.  And nine times, Kobe’s per-minute performance in the playoffs declined relative to what we saw in the corresponding regular season.  Yes, even Kobe — despite what we saw in 2009 and 2010 — tends to play worse in the playoffs.

Although that is interesting, this is not a Kobe post.  What we want to know is if the Blazers can take a talented roster and win a title.  What we have seen so far is that the Blazers tend to play worse in the post-season.  And although this is due to the nature of the playoffs – as well as the small sample of games and perhaps other factors (like injury and experience) – it would still make the fans of this team happier to see better play in the post-season.

Hopefully this team can be healthy in 2010-11.  And hopefully, this will lead to a better outcome in the playoffs.  Yes, hope is what we have at this point.  But given the regular season production on this roster, Portland fans can certainly be optimistic this summer. We can only hope we are just as optimistic next April.

- Burzin Daruwala

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