Submitted by: Mark Bunster for Hoops Talk Nation
As of this writing, the Portland Trailblazers are 19-15 and riding the 7 line to the Western Conference playoffs. (That’s 3.5 games ahead of the 15-18 Lakers, which for a Portland fan is like learning the Wicked Witch of the West has had all her flying monkeys quit on her). They have won seven of their last 10, 11 of their last 14, and with their thrilling OT win over the slumping Orlando Magic, eight in a row at the Rose Garden. They just came home from a highly successful 3-1 road trip that featured wins over the Knicks, Grizz and T-Wolves. By any measure, the Blazers are so far making an entire industry of preseason pundits look like Karl Rove on Election Night.
Which makes the question in the headline truly ponderous: really? We have to ask if they’re good at this stage, more than a third of the season completed and the team not only NOT mired in the basement, but four games on the good side of .500? Really?
Yeah, really. Some questions are easy. The Wizards really DO stink. Greg Popovich really IS the best coach in the game. The Heat-West experiment HAS been a colossal fail. Dick Bavetta really DOES make the rest of the NBA officiating staff look like oatmeal slurping poltroons who couldn’t tell a charging foul from a charging iPhone. And the Knicks pretty much ARE sucking 90% of the reporting oxygen out of the media.
But are the Blazers any good? Say it like Captain Kirk: “But, Spock….Are. They….AnyGood??” Perhaps we’d get a good answer from Dr. McCoy’s little chirping healthcare penlight he waves over patients, but without that option you’re going to have to settle for my analysis.
And the answer is…well, we’ll save that conclusion for the end. But we’ve already hit the highlight points that indicate the Blazers are, in fact, looking like a better-than-average team that is still fairly prone to sleepwalking letdowns, but on any given night when they’re focused can–and have–taken down some of the league elites.
There’s no question that the team is showing improved acuity on the road, something that is vitally important for their advancement, given their historic and continued success at the RG. In 2011-12′s shortened season the Blazers went 8-25 away from the Garden. This year’s team already has seven wins out of 18–not stellar, but also not too bad. The Heat are 7-6 on the road, for instance. The number of teams with winning away records only goes 4-5 deep in each conference, so perhaps we can rule out the answer “REALLY good” when it comes to Portland. (All you have to do is watch them in any game and you’ll see at least one extended stretch to convince you). But the truth is it doesn’t take much winning on the road to put a respectable record together, if you really beast at home. Double their current successes and failures and you get 12 more home wins, 7 more roadies. 24-8 at home and 14-22 makes 38-30, with 14 games to go. Do I think they might find themselves at 38-30 with their destiny in their own hands? It’s possible, but the point is that the Blazers’ current level of road success CAN be playoff caliber as long as the home court is king.
Now here’s the fart at the business luncheon: the team is riding a bubble of generally lowered expectations across a comparatively weak schedule, with a minimum of injuries and a host of seemingly unsustainable practices, either in the long run or against playoff-caliber competition. Therein is the ulcer for the sensible Blazers fan–they just might win enough games on grit over the course of 82 to sneak into the playoffs, whereupon they’ll immediately face 4 games away from home cooking versus either Oklahoma or San Antonio. And be thrashed, and set back confidence that might better have built for two years instead of one. Postseason is when everyone gets serious or faces peril. Not only are the Blazers not ready for that, it’s not clear they’re ready for the intensity boost that comes after the All-Star break, when the star calls get starrier and the game to game pressure ratchets up by the week.
Here’s why people are concerned: on the numbers (Hollinger’s, to be exact–and hey John, congrats on the front office gig!), the Blazers are a lowly 21st overall. They don’t look right down there; check out all the other teams on the page. As of this writing, two others sharing the bottom half ranking with Portland are at .500, and everyone else is below–usually well below. Their margin of victory (a minus 1.94) is not out of line with the bottom half, although most teams below them are significantly lower. They’re 7-3 in the last 10, which counts for a fair bit in the rankings. What’s the deal? Strength of schedule, 27th-easiest at .478. And over that 7-3 span, the SoS is even worse.
The victory margin is a big deal in basketball analytics; it’s like runs scored/allowed in baseball. It’s a way to predict “normative” wins and losses based on the ratio between points scored and allowed per game, over time. If your actual wins and losses don’t match, you’re either exceeding your expectation, or failing to meet it. So Portland being down almost two points per game on average obviously raises the question, “How does one win ANY game when you average losing by two?” But beyond that logic puzzler, surely it is not a sign of strength when against such weak competition so far, you are down 2 per game. How does that happen?
Here’s how. When Portland wins, they don’t typically win by much. When they lose, they get whaled on. OK, maybe not quite so dramatically, but the difference in average win margin (+7.37) and loss margin (-13.73) looks awfully broad to me. (I wish I had the tools/time to quickly poll all the other teams on their margin splits, but I don’t, so I shan’t say anything definitive about what the Blazers gap means). In fifteen losses, they average just a little south of blowing it by 15. They have no 20-point wins, just two 18-point victories and a 17-pointer. But they’ve been sac-kicked by 20 or more three different times, with a 19, 18 and 17-point shellacking also on file. Those will hike your average, yah sure ya betcha.
So you can see why the green-eyeshade view of Portland is so unkind. Their sabermetric fundamentals are as weak as their bench defense. Ah, but here’s one more interesting note on wins and losses: as the season began, the Blazers swung back and forth between big wins and big losses. Over the last dozen or so games the loss margin has continued to peak–but the win margin has declined notably. Five of the last six losses have been by 12 or more–but only one of the last 10 wins, a 109-91 payback pasting of Sacramento at the back end of a home-and-home, has been by any more than eight points. Everything else has been a dogfight.
That’s the pessimistic view, but the optimist in me sees some pattern-busting indicators. If I have my numbers right the Blazers are 16-2 when entering the fourth quarter either ahead (13-1) or tied (3-1). And then there’s the overtime record, notable league-wide at 5-0. Hitting a big bucket for the tie at the buzzer sounds great, as when Jameer Nelson did it with eight seconds left in Monday’s game versus Portland. But a couple of clutch Lillard and Aldridge buckets later, a Lillard steal and two Lillard (seeing a pattern?) assists for slams to Hickson and Matthews, and it was all over but the fouling. And that’s typically the way it’s gone. All of a sudden the senseless disappearances of Aldridge working from the post or anyone working on help defense miraculously resolve themselves, and things just work out. A big defensive stop in the lane, a dagger three, a big steal. Game over. And that’s if you make it to overtime; typically teams succumb before even getting the privilege.
That’s not by accident or luck, at least not more than a few games at a time. Not in basketball. And if it is in fact simply coincidence, even that may not matter–because the team’s perception of itself has developed into the vision of a team that fights hard every game, and if they take control late or have extended crunch time, there’s no need to panic–they know what to do. And this team has the benefit of 16 games won that way to convince them, because luck or not that’s a pretty sweet run. The confidence a team has in its late game poise is of crucial importance, particularly with young teams. The problem with young teams in crunch time is typically they haven’t spent much time in those situations with results they want to remember. You do a lot of losing because, as I’m pointing out, good teams close out bad ones at the end of games. Call it analytical hubris to not back it up with data, OK. But I think any veteran ball watcher will tell you intuitively, it’s true.
It’s hard to get over the hump as a young team that hasn’t experienced consistent clutch performance under pressure, because the failure compounds and spirals in on itself. Each failure under pressure seeds doubt that “you’re not ready to handle it, yet.” That voice becomes extremely hard to quiet when the nitty-gritty becomes the now. But with fitting irony, a young team that DOES experience success under pressure becomes all the more deadly. Better teams fail to take them seriously until a careless loss or two has gone by in the series, and from there it’s a crapshoot how it will turn out. That’s when believing your own hype leads you to truly excel and put yourself in the moment. Do Portland’s starters think they’re ready for seven against OKC yet? I doubt it, although individually they may think they themselves are ready. But by the time they get there, hopefully unscathed by serious injury and battle-hardened in the push for playoff position, they may well believe it–and that plus some self-hype inspired play may be enough.
One more return to the game scores: if the hoary Hoosiers mentality of the “winning spirit” doesn’t convince you there may be better things ahead for the Blazers, maybe some trend numbers will help. In the first nine wins of the season, opponents nonetheless scored 98.4 points per game in losing. But over Portland’s last ten wins, the losing squad has averaged just 94.6. Probably more encouragingly, since it will help turn some close losses into wins, over the team’s first seven losses opponents averaged an obscene 106. Over the last eight losses, that number is down to 100. Still fairly absurd, but it confirms game observation that the defense has improved, particularly the second half defense. Coach Terry Stotts and his staff do a very good job managing a perilously thin lineup, in ways besides just riding the whip on his starters (which he also does). Teams that dance the lane with impugnity in the first half have often found a clumsy but effective roadblock in the way during the second. Again, consistency when it matters is the trend.
There’s always another test ahead, and the four game set against some of the league’s best will be another one. Miami and particularly LeBron always seem to enjoy themselves in Portland; they are the only team with a winning record in the Rose Garden besides the Blazers themselves, and LeBron’s 44 and average of 31 are both all time opponent highs there, so it may be too much to ask for a statement win in that one. But a roadie against the resurgent Warriors and home tilts against the Thunder and Nuggets offer more chances to show that recent developments are not the fluff of easy competition and the coincident finding of nut material by sight-impaired gathering rodents (so to speak.) We’ll see how it plays out. Don’t be surprised if pundits are still trying to make excuses for selling the Blazers short in October.