Winning fifty plus games has long been the standard for being a "good" team with a legitimate chance do some damage in the playoffs. But what does a fifty win season look like? What do the Blazers need to do to get to this level?
This next part is going to sound a bit weird, but stay with me. I have been thinking about these questions from the point of view of probabilities. Think of one of those machines with a bunch of ping pong balls and a pattern of nails between two sheets of Plexiglas that demonstrate a random distribution bell curve (there is one at OMSI). If you think about it, ping pong balls are a lot like basketballs, and rims are a bit like nails. In other words over the course of the season, the teams shooting percentage in any given game will fall on a fairly standard bell curve. Some nights will be better than others. Some nights will be worse. A lot of factors effect performance in a single game; the two most obvious ones are: 1) the quality of the opponent, and 2) whether the game is at home or on the road.
The same can be said in reverse: the shooting performance of opposing teams will also fall into a bell curve affected by the quality of our defense and whether the game is at home or on the road.
Getting to 50+ wins is a matter of applied statistics. To discuss how, lets break the season down into four parts and then consider each part separately: 1) home games against teams below .500; 2) home games against teams over .500; 3) road games against teams below .500; and finally, 4) road games against teams over .500. Each of these four blocks includes 20 games with 2 extra games thrown in.
1) Home games against sub .500 teams: Even bad teams usually win the majority of their home games against other bad teams. The first step in getting to fifty wins is to reduce the number of these games that "get away." Good teams do this in a number of ways. They start blowing teams out (Chicago). Even when they play poorly or their opponents shoot well they tend to find a way to win (Minnesota, Sacramento). Usually they do this by being able to crank up their defensive pressure in games where they are shooting poorly. They also have the ability to execute better when the game is on the line (Brandon).
The goal here is to reduce the number of home losses to bad teams as much as possible. Lets say 17-3 in this group.
2) Home games against over .500 teams: A sure sign that a young team is getting better is when they start winning against quality opponents on their home floor. At first it starts with winning close games (San Antonio, Houston), over time it really becomes apparent when you start getting solid wins and blowouts against good teams (Miami, NO).
The goal here is to win a bit better than 2 out of 3. Lets say 14-6. Give the home team the extra home game and that gives us a total home record of 32-9. Obviously the Blazers with an undefeated record at home are ahead of schedule on this side.
3) Road games against sub .500 teams: Every team will win a few games on the road against bad teams. When you are shooting well and the home team is stinking the place up it looks easy (Sacramento). The sign that a team is starting to be good is when you "win ugly." This is exactly what the Blazers did against the Knicks on Tuesday. We looked like crap for most of three quarters and still pulled out the W. We did the same thing earlier in the year at Minnesota.
Unless a team is really dominant, it is going to drop a handful of games in this category. Sometimes the home team gets hot, sometimes your legs feel like lead, sometimes the shots just won't go in, sometimes you just can't get up to play another sub .500 team. The goal here is to win a solid majority of these games. Lets say 60%, or 12-8.
So far the Blazers have 4 wins (MN, Sac, NY, Wash) and 1 loss (GS) in this group.
4) Road games against above .500 teams: these are the games that fans get all excited about and then get all depressed over when their team looses, which is most of the time. The truth is that you are not going to win a majority of your road games against quality teams, even if you are very, very good. Even a 60 win team is going to loose 22 games. Most of those will come on the road against good teams. This is why home court advantage is so important in the playoffs. I don't know the exact figures (I hope somebody will look them up and post them in the comments), but I would estimate that the home team wins at least 75% of all playoff games. The same must be true in the regular season. It is probably a bit lower for teams just above .500 than for the truly elite teams.
Let's say that the win percentage for these games is 35%. That would give us a record of 7-13 for these 20 games. Chalking up the extra road game as a loss, translates to a total road record of 19-22
So far the Blazers have 3 wins against these teams (Miami, Orlando, Detroit) and 5 losses (LA, Phoenix 2, Utah, NO). This is above pace.
SUMMARY: This projection leads to a record of 51-31. So far the Blazers are ahead of schedule in all four areas. Given the difficulty of the schedule that is truly impressive. Barring injuries and fatigue, made less likely by the Blazer's depth, the Blazers are clearly on schedule to exceed 50 wins.
This analysis should also temper expectations about tomorrow night. The Blazers chances of winning on the road, against the defending Champs, on the fourth game of a road trip, can't be more than 1-10. Don't despair if our guys loose or even if we get blown out. It doesn't mean that we aren't good and it doesn't mean that we won't soon be among the elite.
Personally, I am waiting to see how we do on our home floor against Boston, Cleveland, and the L@kers. I think we have to beat these teams at home before we can expect to beat them on the road. Success at home will breed confidence
I have had fun going through this little exercise in applied probability. I hope you guys find it interesting.