Who is Responsible for the Surprising Blazers?

Few people are surprised to see the Spurs, Heat, and Pacers rank among the top teams in the NBA this season.  What may be surprising is that the Portland Trailblazers are currently the 4th best team (in wins and point differential) in the Association.

Why is this surprising?  Last year the Blazers only won 33 games and missed the playoffs.  In the offseason the team added C.J. McCollum (a lottery pick who hasn’t played this year).  The team also added a collection of veterans – a list that includes Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson, and Earl Watson – that did not impress many.  In fact, as we will see, these changes should not have led anyone to think this team was a contender in 2013-14.  But after about 20% of the 2013-14 season, the Blazers rank among the NBA’s best.

So how did this happen?  Daniel Nowell – at TrueHoop (and ESPN.com) – wrote more than 1,000 on the topic this week.   From this we learned

  • The Blazers (apparently like everyone else) did not expect to be that successful this year.  As Nowell’s article note: “This was a season, it seemed, when the Blazers would test the timber of their core before deciding whether they had a collection of assets or a functioning and coherent team.  General manager Neil Olshey said as much before opening night to ESPN.com: “Upon conclusion of the 2014 season, we will know whether or not we have reached the fork in the road,” Olshey said. This season was to be an evaluative foray, a fact-finding mission, an effort to determine whether the Blazers were in transition or had staked themselves to a present tense.”
  • Nowell then offers an explanation for this success that seems to focus on team chemistry (or something along those lines): “The differences between this team and the team that last season won 33 games are differences of degree, not kind. Those Blazers also bombed away in a free-flowing offense. Those Blazers, too, were marked by a kind of quiet, self-possessed locker room character. The veterans added this past offseason — Robin Lopez, Dorell Wright, Earl Watson, Mo Williams — were brought in less to reimagine the team than to fill in the gaps and serve as an extension of how Nic Batum, Wes Matthews, Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge were already playing. With that kind of support, the core of the team is able to embrace its own style, play without anxiety and carry itself without defensiveness.” 
  • LaMarcus Aldridge also seemed to invoke “team chemistry” with his attempt to explain the team’s success: “This team has a different feeling” than previous teams. “I wouldn’t say easier, but we just blend better.”
  • Towards the very end of the article (and this is the second to last paragraph) we start to get an answer that seems to touch upon specific players and actual performance on the court. “Batum has been allowed to fully indulge his preference to make plays for teammates, and he’s averaging more assists (five) than any forward not named Kevin Durant or LeBron James. Matthews likes to get his shots within the flow of a game rather than from stricter play calls — he’s seventh on the team in usage rate, but second among guards leaguewide in effective field goal percentage. Lillard trails only Stephen Curry in attempts from 3. At every position, there is statistical evidence that the Blazers have been empowered to play to their strengths. If they want their play to speak for them, the message is clear: They know who they are, and they won’t be pressured out of playing their game.”

This last paragraph touches upon the story. But it also touches on stuff that doesn’t seem important. For instance – as we will see in just a moment – this is not about “every position”.  It also doesn’t seem like Lillard launching a bunch of threes is tremendously important.  And at the end, Nowell returns to something like a “team chemistry” which I tend to see as an argument that doesn’t really get us anywhere.

So more than a 1,000 words go by and I am not sure I see exactly why Nowell thinks this team is better.  Perhaps a more direct approach is to just look at the data.

Trail Blazers

Minutes

WP48 12-13

WINS

12-13

WP48

WINS

Difference**

across 82 games

Wesley Matthews

546

0.119

1.4

0.297

3.4

10.4

Nicolas Batum

573

0.105

1.3

0.255

3.0

9.1

Robin Lopez

481

0.109

1.1

0.156

1.6

2.4

Damian Lillard

585

0.068

0.8

0.097

1.2

1.8

Dorell Wright

233

0.173

0.8

0.189

0.9

0.4

LaMarcus Aldridge

597

0.078

1.0

0.022

0.3

-3.5

Joel Freeland

214

-0.023

-0.1

0.053

0.2

1.8

Meyers Leonard

21

0.030

0.0

0.262

0.1

0.5

Allen Crabbe

10

0.181

0.0

0.181

0.0

0.0

Will Barton

17

0.007

0.0

-0.012

0.0

0.0

Mo Williams

382

0.037

0.3

-0.002

0.0

-1.6

Victor Claver

4

0.013

0.0

-0.376

0.0

-0.2

Earl Watson

22

0.062

0.0

-0.122

-0.1

-0.5

Thomas Robinson

180

0.020

0.1

-0.032

-0.1

-1.0

Summation

6.7

10.5

Summation per 82 games

34.3

54.0

19.7

*- Crabbe is a rookie so his numbers are the same in 12-13 and 13-14; **- Difference across 82 games is simply [WINS – WINS 12-13] * 82/16.  WP48 12-13 numbers are my own calculation.  WP48 13-14 come from boxscoregeeks.com

The above table presents two evaluations of the Blazers.  The first considers what this team could have expected given what the veterans on this team did last year and the minutes played this year.  As one can see, the team should be on pace to win about 34 games.  In other words – and this is not surprising – given the moves the team made it should be about as good as they were last year.

Of course, the team is much better.  The team is on pace to win about 54 games, and that represents about a 20 win improvement over what should have expected given the performance of these players last season.   So who is responsible for this leap?  The leading scorers on the team are LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, and given how players are evaluated in the NBA it is likely many fans think these two players are the most productive players on the Blazers.  Although Lillard has improved a bit (and Aldridge is offering a bit less), neither player appears to be responsible for this change.  If we look past scoring – and consider everything that is tracked in the box score – two other names appear to be almost entirely responsible for the Blazers leap.

And the second evaluation gives us the names of these players.  The two players who appear to be responsible for the Blazers improvement are Wesley Mathews and Nicolas Batum.   The improvement we see from these two players is responsible for 19.5 of the team 19.7 improvement in Wins Produced.  In other words, if Mathews and Batum did what they did last year, this team would be on pace to win about what we expected before the season started.

Or in even more direct words… the changes we see with respect to the performance of Matthews and Batum are the entire story behind the Blazers’ improvement.

Now why did each player improve?  If we look at each player’s page at boxscoregeeks.com we can see an answer.  For Wesley Matthews we see a significant increase in shooting efficiency and rebounds.  With respect to the former, Matthews posted a 54.0% effective field goal percentage in 2012-13.  After 16 games this year Matthews has a mark of 68.9%.  A similar story is told for Batum, although the improvement is less dramatic.  Like Matthews, Batum is grabbing more rebounds and hitting more shots.  Unlike Matthews, Batum’s improvement to an effective field goal percentage of 56.1% is at least sustainable.  Or in other words, it seems very unlikely that Matthews will keep posting an effective field goal percentage of 68.9%.

How do we know Matthews performance is not going to be sustained?  In the history of the NBA, only Wilt Chamberlain finished a season with an effective field goal percentage higher than 68.9%.  It is more likely (although not much more likely) that Matthews can continue to hit 50.5% of his three point shots.  Eight different players have hit at a rate better than this in NBA history.

Given this data, one explanation for the Blazers success is luck.  In other words, since no one but Chamberlain has posted an effective field goal percentage this high, it doesn’t seem likely that Matthews is doing this because of his skill or some sort of scheme the Blazers have put together.

That being said, luck may not be the entire story.  Batum has been an above average performer his entire career.  A WP48 mark of 0.255 would be his highest mark, but not entirely surprising.  After all, he did post a 0.230 WP48 mark in 2009-10.  And if Batum could keep performing at this level, the Blazers would indeed be better than last year.

As for Matthews, he has also been an above average player his entire career. But for reasons already stated, he has never produced at this level.  Again, part of this improvement has to be described as “luck”.  But perhaps some of this improvement is due to team chemistry or Lillard shooting a plethora of three-pointers.  Or perhaps it is coaching.

Nowell seemed to touch on many of these explanations.  The difficulty with his article, though, is that he doesn’t quite see the big picture.  Two specific players have gotten much better for the Blazers and everyone else is producing at a rate similar to what we saw last year.  Any explanation we offer for this data has to explain why 1) Batum and Matthews are better and 2) no one else has been effected by whatever is causing Batum and Matthews to be better.

And this is why I tend to doubt the “team chemistry” story. If it is team chemistry, why are only two players affected?

Let me close with one last observation.  Let’s imagine that Batum and Matthews keep producing and the Blazers keep contending.  If that happens, the Blazers will be another playoff team built around players not taken in the top five of the draft (the Spurs and Pacers are two other examples).  Such stories illustrate again that “tanking” is not necessary to build a title contender.  There are many productive players not taken at the top of the NBA draft.  Teams that employ these players will contend.  Teams that lose in the hope of stumbling on the next LeBron James… well, that doesn’t seem to work out so well (as we have noted in this forum over and over and over again).

- DJ

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