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Speaking on Behalf of a Western Underdog

10/20/2009

The Lakers are the favorites to win the West. That's an easy call -- they have no real peer in the standings. They are by far the most likely, out of the eight teams, to win.

But are they likely to win the West?

That's a little different. If you take the seven other teams, they each have some chance of winning. If you add all those slim chances together, who's the favorite, the Lakers -- or the Nuggets, Spurs, Rockets, Blazers, Hornets, Jazz, and Mavericks combined?

John Hollinger's playoff projection system says that the other seven teams have a combined 63.9% chance of winning. Justin Kubatko's system gives the field a 50.9% chance of winning.

It's a little like a lottery. No single ticket has more than a shred of a chance of winning. But there is a 100% chance that the winner will be a single ticket.

Hmm ...

And while these systems aren't yet developed to the point of being anything like gospel -- for instance, they don't even attempt to account for injuries and the like -- they are smart. The most common criticisms of them are malinformed (everyone should read Dean Oliver's "Basketball on Paper" before ripping them).

Look at it this way: You can get smart people together and have them guess who will face whom in which round of the playoffs, and play it out on paper. You can do that once, twice, three times ... and learn some stuff. Or you can do that thousands of times, while carefully adding in stuff like how much does strength of schedule and margin of victory matter? What does history tell us about their import? That's what these little tools do.

These are the kinds of insights that smart front offices, and these freely available systems, are using. While we'd be silly to expect them to be fortune tellers, we'd also be silly to ignore them.

The point is, it's not likely that the Lakers will lose any one series. But between here and the Finals, three teams will get a crack at the conference champs, and each of those three teams might win. If Hollinger and Kubatko's systems are right, one of them will. 

But which one, and why?

First, A Caveat
The truth: What's really motivating this post is, more than anything, all the notes I have from watching a zillion Blazer games. Despite the headline, and the Carmelo Anthony photo, this is, mainly, a post about the Blazers. The real point is, it sure helps, but you don't have to be a homer to think that Portland is one of the teams that could make some noise in the playoffs this year.

Had I grown up in Denver, Houston or San Antonio, I'd be writing about those teams right now. I think those three teams, plus Portland, are all fairly equal and undervalued threats. (Yes, I'm saying these four teams strike me as far more likely to win a big playoff series than the Jazz, Mavericks or Hornets, although if Tim Duncan isn't healthy, I might amend that.)

So, I'm telling you these four teams are a little bit special. But how, and why? I could write all day about each.

The short version is that the Rockets play truly elite defense. The Nuggets have added really good defense -- and the Nene and Billups factors -- to a really potent offense. The Spurs will not defeat themselves, no matter who's healthy.

If this seems obvious, I'm here to tell you that it's not to many basketball fans. Nuggets, Rockets, Spurs, and Blazer games are on pretty late (or not at all) for East Coasters. We should understand those teams better. Jeremy, Anup, and Graydon and Tim can tell you all about Denver, Houston, and San Antonio this season.

I'll be the guy to tell you what I'm seeing when I watch the Blazers.

Young Team
Portland is basically the youngest NBA team to ever play this well. Think about that. And then click that link, and look at that chart. By looking at a half-century of teams, you could say that based purely on the age of the players on the court, by staying together, this team could expect to improve for nearly the next decade.

The first rule of watching young people perform against more mature peers is that they will do things in fits and starts. They will dazzle one minute (all that athleticism!) and disappoint the next (what were you thinking?), and that's just wholly normal. The Thunder have shown this. They're right on schedule, and have some tremendous wins. But have also been just terrible more than a few times.

When the Spurs whooped it up on Portland in the first quarter last night, there was no denying it. Playing terribly in that manner is something this team does. The Blazers can lose their way.

But when Portland came back -- that was also something characteristic of this team. And there are a hundred different ways to show that over the course of the season -- one of the most convincing is their fifth best in the NBA average margin of victory -- the hot periods are far more common than the cold periods. (Margin of victory is one of those truly important stats, and has been shown time and again to be better than wins and losses as a predictive tool.) 

Despite the youth, and the ability to be hot and cold, the comeback was more in character than the collapse.

Good at Home, but on the Road?
You may have seen some version of this story. Jason Quick of the Oregonian:

 A deep loud voice was coming from the showers, and it hollered for everyone to hear.

"Hey! What's our road record? We're ROAD WARRIORS!''

It was Brandon Roy emerging from the showers, and he said the last part with his head titled back and mouth aimed at the ceiling as he entered the locker room area. It was as if a lion was roaring to its pride. When his head came back down, he looked to his left and saw that a group of about seven reporters had entered the room.

A little startled, Roy realized he had just roared to an audience.

"Oh. Hey media,'' he said, quickly and quietly, almost as if he was embarrassed.

The Blazers are 31-7 at home, and 19-21 on the road. Thanks to last night's win in San Antonio, they have now improved to a miserable 2-11 on the road against Western playoff teams. They haven't had many great road wins -- at Orlando early in the season looks pretty good now, a win in New Orleans counts for something, I guess, as does last night's win against a hobbled Spurs team. But the story has been, all season, that they need to win on the road.

But what Roy's barking about is the team's last eight road games, which shows an uptick:

  • Win 103-92 at Memphis

  • Win 95-85 at Indiana

  • Loss 97-92, in overtime, at Cleveland

  • Win 96-84 at Milwaukee

  • Win 107-72 at Oklahoma City

  • Loss 102-88 at Houston

  • Win 96-93 at Memphis

  • Win 95-83 at San Antonio

Dark Horses Have to Beat Good Teams
The Spurs are 1-3 against the Blazers this season, the Nuggets are (CORRECTION) 2-1 with a game left to play in Portland. The Lakers are 2-1, and playing in Portland tomorrow, where they haven't won since 2005. Houston has Portland's number: In three games, the Rockets' only loss came on the road and a miracle.

What do Your Eyes Tell You?
The Blazers have been pretty good all season, thanks in large part to Brandon Roy and Nate McMillan. Lately the team has improved (over the last quarter of the season, the team's margin of victory has been the same as the Cavaliers) and that has a lot to do with big men:

  • LaMarcus Aldridge has been like a young Rasheed Wallace with an itchy trigger finger. He can get off his top-quality jumper against nearly anyone. He also may be the fastest big man in the NBA, and is Portland's primary target in transition. He's also now the kind of player who tends to be involved in a high percentage of plays under the basket at both ends of the floor.

  • Joel Przybilla leads the whole NBA in rebounding rate -- which is another one of those really important statistics. He's also third in the NBA in true shooting percentage.

  • Greg Oden is playing, and in many games, he helps a lot. Even as his offense and foul rate both have bad rookie-itis, he is already eighth in the whole NBA in rebound rate, and (yes, you are reading this correctly) leads the entire league in offensive rebound rate. His size also just causes problems for opponents in there. People standing around him tend to get banged around and fall down, which does not hurt the Blazers.

There is another important aspect of Portland's game: Against nearly every team they face (the Rockets being a notable example) they get good shots.

Nate McMillan has relaxed a lot, but is still a very hands-on coach, and runs a very disciplined offense. There are always three, four, or five nicely spaced real shooters on the floor.

Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge both merit double-teams, and are also willing passers.

When those open shooters (Roy and Aldridge find each other open a lot, but also Rudy Fernandez, Steve Blake, Travis Outlaw, and the like) hit those inevitable good shots at a decent rate, the team can win almost no matter the opponent. That explains how Portland has managed to beat the likes of the Celtics, Lakers, Spurs, and Nuggets.

On other nights, those same good shots don't fall, and things get tricky.

But the key to Portland's status as a candidate to win a playoff series is that their offense is the most efficient of all playoff teams (now the Suns are out of the picture), and their team rebound rate leads the league, too. So they get extra opportunities, and most nights use them very efficiently.

They have also been, thanks to Roy, Outlaw, and Nate McMillan's system, demonstrably effective in close games all season. They are young, but not at all scared of crunch time.

All that's why when I see that both Hollinger and Kubatko's systems rank Portland as the second most likely team to win the West (Hollinger has then 18% likely to win the conference, Houston is next at 10% -- Kubatko has Portland at 15%, with the Nuggets at 12.5%) I don't see a fluke of numbers. I see a basketball team with a real chance to win any series they play in.

Does that mean I'm picking Portland to win the West? No sir. The Blazers have a decent shot of opening on the road in Houston, which feels more than a little scary. And both Hollinger and Kubatko have the Lakers about two (Hollinger) or three (Kubatko) times as likely as the Blazers to win the conference, which feels about right.

But it does mean that I think the Lakers have a decent shot of losing a Western playoff series, and this team is as likely as any to be the one to beat them.

Anything Portland wins in the playoffs would delight me, as a Blazer fan. But nothing would shock me.