Crossposted at Loaded Orygun...
As the first playoff game in six years approaches, no one--not the players or coaches, broadcasters or pundits, stat geeks or tools scouts, Vegas cons or Omaha housewives--has any idea how the Rockets-Blazers series, or the fate of the Blazers in general, will turn out. I hope, anyway. I can't handle another officiating scandal, for instance.
You've probably seen some or even most of these numbers before, recently. I thought this would be a good compendium, along with a little analysis along the way, to reflect on the regular season and celebrate over the accomplishments--but also to show that their finish and strong play were no fluke.
Stats are good for telling you how something has already happened, and can offer insights for the future, but aren't good predicitive tools. What they're best used for here is deciding which teams that looked good to the eye were doing it on solid execution, and which were getting by on smoke and mirrors and are due for retrenchment.
There are several sources for useful stats info; I'll be looking at NBA.com, Hollinger at ESPN.com, and the great Basketball-reference.com site. I'll look at team stats and individual, team first.
Get a drink, a smoke, a pillow, whatever you do to make life bearable as Lou Reed once said, and we'll start below....numbers ahoy! (and yeah, that's a warning to the phobic)
The best place to start is with John Hollinger and his team power rankings. You'll think I'm fronting his work here primarily on the basis of his results, when you see them (It's not true; I love anyone who gets past raw stats and looks for the numbers that really define something, and Hollinger is like the Bill James of basketball.) Portland ranks currently--not over the season but now, after the season--third. That's right, behind only the Cavs and the L#kers, heading up a second tier with Orlando, the Celtics, the Rockets(!), the Nuggets and the Spurs.
Hollinger's system extra-weights the most recent portion of the season, so Portland's blazing finish over top competition with big win margins is what's pushed them so high. Just about nobody's hotter the last month, and even among the two teams ahead of them, they've spanked #2 twice in 5 weeks, and forced #1 to OT in their building, without two key starters. Whatever else happens, it's fair to say that an objective look at the season puts Portland as the 3rd best team when the regular season ended--and that's an unreal accomplishment.
It's a bit of a shame that Houston--other than Dallas probably the only West team truly confident they can handle Portland--is the draw for the first round. Any other team, and that includes the L$kers, would have coaches high on Starbucks and donuts the last two days, hair greasy and mussed as they watch tape of the Blazers just dismantling teams everyone assumed they were ill-equipped to handle. Adelman and the Rockets are surely wary, but they know the matchups favor them.
Back to Hollinger: look at the margin in the last 25% of the schedule--20 games, basically: +9.81. It's easily tbe best in the NBA, two full points per game better than the Cavs. That's just absurd for any extended stretch, unless you're on a major roll, dominating opponents. Hey, that sounds like the Blazers! Strong point differential, a better predictor than wins, says rather emphatically that the 54-28 record is no fluke, and neither are the possibilities that the Blazers are within their capacity to advance in this tournament if they play to that level consistently.
If you want an even smaller sample that figures only the most recent games are telling of the immediate future, NBA.com lets you sort for just the last 10 games (why not let you search by date range, at that point people? huh?), and those numbers are as revealing as Hollinger's. Over the last 10, Portland has allowed just under 85 points per game, the fewest by over six points per game to the #2 team, Orlando (which is high since the range is only 30).
If that weren't enough of a shock--Portland leading the NBA in points defense? This Portland team? Maine doesn't have...no, they must mean the Blazers--check out the differential. Portland spent the last game blowing out opponents by an AVERAGE of 15.8 points per game.
That's not a typo. For two weeks, it didn't matter the opponent, they were going down 100-85. In crunch time, fighting a raft of other teams for best possible position, Portland faltered just one time (at Houston, cough). That differential is EIGHT points higher than Cleveland's finish at #2. Sick.
Other highlights of the recent past: #3 FG% (48.9%), #2 Def FG% (43.2%, basically tied with L*kers for #1), #1 in opponent treys (a stingy 31.4%) , #1 in assists/game (16.8), and #2 in assist differential (almost 4 more assists per game). What else can you conclude with that diverse array of rate stats, besides the fact that no one played better ball than Portland down the stretch? Forty-nine percent from the field will solve a lot of problems, boy, but it's been the defense that's really set that all up.
Hopping back to Hollinger, he also lays out his factors very nicely in a sortable table of teams. In contrast to the power rankings, these are static stats summaries that don't weight for recent events, so it's evenly based on 82 games for everyone. Click the columns to sort, click again to reverse the sort, by the way.
What jumps out at me is Portland's offensive efficiency number (points per possessions), #2 just behind Phoenix. It doesn't translate into the Suns' high point totals because Portland also happens to be the 2nd slowest-paced team, getting fewer than 90 possessions per game.
But it means that they make the very most of their trips, and keep the opponents' possessions down and at a lower efficiency. It's a lot of the reason the Blazers have excelled at comebacks--in the fourth quarter, down by 15 or more, etc. They eventually catch up by making the most of their shots.
How does Portland get so efficient? Better than average assist (15% of shots made, for 13th-best) and turnover (22% of possessions with one, for 8th) percentages, for two. Overall shooting percentage--accounting for FT and treys--is also important, Portland at just over 55% total, 8th best as well. (Does it freak you out a little to realize that one of every five possessions is a turnover--and that's good? Definitely caught me by surprise the first time.)
But for the Blazers, efficiency is all about cleaning up the junk. By almost one and a half O-reebs per game more than the #2 offensive rebounding 76ers, Portland has dominated the NBA on the O-glass. Joel and Greg, LaMarcus and Travis have been like papal figures on the court, absolving the fail shooter and blessing the putback. That kind of absolution can prevent major damage from streaky shooting, which of course can get you into trouble hard to get out of.
Defensively the Blazers are no slouches either, collecting a 5th best 75% of available boards--and that's enough to make them the best rebounding team in the Association for 2009, when combined with their O-bound strength. It seems like a small margin--just 3.5% more than even 50/50 odds--but just two teams have a less than 50% rebound rate, that are in the playoffs. And the only one of the top 10 not attending the dance is Oklahoma City(!) It means something.
Before I leave the team stats a word about defensive efficiency. Portland is just barely in the top third, #10 at 104.5 points per 100 possessions. (Houston is 4th, btw--their toughest feature IMO). Still, combined with their #2 offensive rating that's a pretty solid differential...and it's a HUGE improvement over the last several weeks when they were once 18th, perhaps even lower. It's a sign that their defensive prowess recently has made opponents work harder for their points, which is excellent news and a hopeful harbinger for the playoffs.
Who's putting together these numbers for the Blazers? Hollinger helps out with individual player ratings as well. There's a reason the franchise stud is Brandon Roy; he's listed as the #7 player in all of the NBA on a per-minute productivity basis. For reference, the average player produces about 15 "credits" per minute; Roy averages 24. (LeBron leads the league with almost 32, which tells you there's a level between star and galactic superstar).
PER is a good tool to compare starters and those who get regular minutes; for role players, the injured and part timers, it's less interpretable. For instance, Greg Oden does very well on a PER basis; he's the #12 center overall and the #2 rookie to Kevin Love. But does he play enough minutes to make a real-world difference? Not as much. But in a field where everyone has 2000 minutes or more, it smooths everything out and compares apples to apples.
Roy is the #3 shooting guard, behind Kobe and Wade (who is in a league of his own, doubling up the average baller at 30 PER). When people talk about Roy as the complete package at guard, believe it: he's not #1 in any category, but he's strong everywhere, and near the top among the best guards in assists, turnover ratio, offensive and total rebounds, and total shooting percentage. If he were a pocketknife he'd have scissors, a nail file, a toothpick and tweezers to go with three blades and a bottle opener.
The team's fortunes have reached new heights as LaMarcus Aldridge has come of age and begun to dominate parts of the game like never before. It's showed up in his player ratings; he is now listed at #32 PER overall after not even breaking the charts that I can recall before recently. Among SF he is 8th; last time I checked he was somewhere between 13th and 18th I think.
Interestingly, he doesn't show up among the leaders at his position in any raw-stat category except turnovers, at a sick-low 7%, but there he is in 8th overall. Where he really shines is in estimated wins as a result of his play. He moves up to 5th at his position and 24th overall. Roy moves up to 6th overall, stays at 3rd best shooting guard, when it comes to win shares (see what I mean about Hollinger being like Bill James?)
Those are the only two Blazers in the top 50; only one other player shows up among the PER or win share leaders at his position. Can you guess who? That's right...Travis Outlaw. Wait, Travis Outlaw? Yes, say hello to your 20th best small forward by PER, 18th best by win shares. That's a strong testament to his clutch ability and maximized minutes, that he can move UP on win shares, which is a reflection of playing time.
Individual stat honorable mentions, from Hollinger and also Basketball-reference.com:
- Three Blazers in the top 50 for TS%: Prizz (3rd), Oden (23rd), Rudy (44th)
- Two in the top 20 for AST%: Sergio at 8th (nice job!) and Blake at 19th
- Three in the top 50 for lowest TO%: LaMarcus and Roy at 27th/28th, and Travis at 44th
- The most consistent O-rebounder in the NBA? Rookie Greg Oden, with 15.7% of all O-reebs collected while in the game. Joel finished 23rd.
- Don't worry, Joel gets his revenge on the defensive side, as the #1 D-rebounder in the NBA! Oden is 20th defensively.
- Those numbers are good enough for Joel to be crowned 2009's Rebound King, leading the league with 22.8% of all rebounds. Congrats Joel!
- LMA was #11 in total minutes with 3004, the only Blazer over 3000.
- Brandon the 8th most FG made (638); LMA 13th.
- Brandon 8th in attempts; LMA 18th.
- Rudy the rookie record for 3s (159); good enough for 13th overall. Also 11th for trey attempts, just under 400.
- It was Blake who won the 3FG% crown for the Blazers however, 13th at 42.7%
- Brandon the 14th most FT (416), 15th in attempts
- Maybe surprisingly, LMA 8th in O-reebs with 234; Prizz tied for 16th. Joel is also 13th in defensive boards, 12th overall, and 12th in boards per game at 8.7
- Joel also tied for 19th in blocks with 97. Career year!
- Not a single player in the top 20 for turnovers for fouls, an accomplishment worth mentioning for its absence
- Brandon 8th in points, 1,765 total; 10th per game at 22.6