Sunday, January 5, 2014

4 reasons the Trailblazers should feel free to make summer vacation plans

During my recent Birthright trip to Israel, I had the opportunity to meet two gentlemen from Portland, OR. Despite being knee-deep in culture, history and hummus, our conversation quickly turned to the Trail Blazers. While my two new friends extolled the virtues of LaMarcus Aldridge’s sweet (albeit inefficient) midrange game and predicted great success for the team going forward, they were perplexed by my tepid forecast:

“2nd round at best?!” they yelled at me (and the rest of the population visiting the Western Wall). “Are you insane or a hater? The Blazers are a contender!”

After adjusting my disheveled kippah and assuring the guards at the Wall that there was not a problem, I gave my friends four reasons the Trail Blazers should be thrilled with their surprisingly successful season but not expect it to extend into May:
    1. The Blazers aren’t as good as their record

Cheers to Arturo Galleti (@arturogalletti) and the good folks at for putting together this fantastic chart. All their material is must-read.

To start, Portland’s current record is due for a correction. Win/loss records are a fickle beast greatly impacted by randomness and luck. Subsequently, predicting future performance by strictly measuring wins and losses is at best myopic and at worst misleading. Thankfully, to combat this unpredictability, we have a measure known as “Pythagorean expectation,” or in laymen’s terms, “expected win-loss record.” This metric leverages a number of key stats (e.g. opponent’s played, win/loss margin, etc…) to determine the number of games a team was “supposed” to win, minus luck and randomness.

So what do we see when we looks at Portland’s expected record? Portland, even when they’re playing at their Kilimanjaro (ceiling does not do it justice) is one of the luckiest teams in the league! Therefore, even if the Blazers do continue to play at their current blistering pace (more on this in a minute) we should expect some regression.

2. The offense will slow down

So the Blazers have won a few more games than they “should” have, is that all we’re worried about? Well, not exactly – in addition to their record, their performance, primarily on offense, is due for regression as well. Although they are torching the league right now, there are two disconcerting aspects of the Blazers offense that should make fans nervous:


  • They’re reliant on jump shooting: The Blazers shoot a lot of jumpers and don’t get to the rim. they are 23rd in the league in shot attempts from 0-5 feet** and consequently 22nd in FT attempt rate (FT/FG). This reliance on jump shooting is fine when you’re flinging the 2nd most 3-point attempts/100 possessions and hitting them at the highest percentage in the league, but therein lies the second problem
  • And that jump-shooting is ripe for regression The Blazers have a free-flowing offense and good 3-point shooters, but even if the whole team wears 3-point goggles they won’t continue to shoot 4% better on 3’s than the NBA average. A closer look at the overachieving 3-point shooting of Portland’s top chuckers supports this claim, as the Blazers most frequent 3-point shooters are hitting well above their weight and are due for some regression:
3. Portland is already playing its playoff rotation!

A glance at the top 9 teams in the Western conference shows that the Trailblazers are allocating a greater percentage of minutes to their top 8 players than are their peers:

Although I’m not overly anxious about Portland tiring out its best players, this graphic does speak to two important concerns:

  • The Blazers have avoided the injury bug to a startling degree: Given that injuries are pretty random (unless you have the mystical Phoenix Suns training stuff) it’s safe to assume Portland is not better at avoiding injuries than competitors and to wonder what will happen to Portland when it suffers its first injury.
  • They can't shorten their rotation any more: The most crucial variable differentiating playoff basketball from regular season basketball is the percentage of minutes teams allocate to top performers. Come playoff time, teams shorten their rotations and typically ride their best ~7 players for the whole game. This reallocation of minutes from players 8-10 to players 1-7 enables teams to kick their game up a notch. Unfortunately for the Blazers, they’ve already used that bullet, so when other teams are hitting their NOS button, Portland will be stuck Tokyo Drifting(1).

     4. The Western conference is really, really (really) good!

Even if I’m wrong about the expected regular season regression (interestingly, I’ve been wrong many times before), the Blazers are hardly out of the woods.

Let’s be optimistic and assume the Blazers continue to outperform their expected win/loss record, keep up their hot shooting and avoid injuries. Even if the Blazers manage all of this and secure the 3 or 4 seed, they’ll basically earn a coin toss series against one of the West’s stacked lower seeds (Minnesota, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, etc…) who will be playing their stronger playoff rotation. Even if they then win that coin toss (man, a lot has gone right for these theoretical Blazers!) they’ll have earned a cordial invite to get trounced by one of the West’s top seeds.

Call me a crazy, call me a “hater,” hell, you can even call me Al. But when it comes to the Blazers maintaining their success, I’m not buying.

Are you?


1. I stopped watching those movies after the first one - apologies if my reference makes no sense.

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