Note: After posting this Sunday afternoon, I couldn't sleep Sunday night, so I decided to expand on some of my thoughts about expected improvements. I added a 3A and a 3B, as well as 4A. Thanks.
Conventional wisdom in sports is often more about trying to avoid the embarrassment of being wrong, rather than taking the risk of being right. What I mean is that most sports writers and commentators are inclined to look to the past to predict the future.
This tendency is very much on display in numerous articles making predictions about the upcoming NBA season (for example, read the ESPN series which polled nearly 50 "experts."). LA and SA have each won four titles in the past ten years. So the vast majority of analysts are ready to pick one of these two to come out of the WC next year. In the East, Boston won two years ago, Cleveland had the best record last year, and Orlando made it to the finals, so each has their advocates. Certainly, this point of view makes a lot of sense. These are five good teams with proven talent and a record of accomplishment in the playoffs. It makes sense to pick these guys as the odds-on-favorites to do it again. However, in the real world last years winners are not always next year's best teams. How many expected the Magic to win the East? Almost no one. Who predicted that Denver would make the WC Finals? Almost no one. Sportswriters rarely have the courage or insight to predict that a team will win until it already has.
This brings us to our beloved Blazers. The conventional wisdom is that they will be good, but that they will not win in the Playoffs until..... well until, they win in the Playoffs. Need I point out that this sort of reasoning is rather circular? ESPN's panel of experts predicted the Blazers to finish third behind LA and SA in the regular season. But not one person predicted that the Blazers would win the WC. By contrast, one pundit each picked Dallas and Denver to win the West.
Marc Stein, who publishes the ESPN Power Rankings, was even less generous. He ranked the Blazers ninth in the league, behind the big three from the east, and behind not only LA and SA, but also behind Denver and Dallas in the west.
To me, this kind of thinking is both short sighted and cowardly. I think the Blazer's championship window is open, now. That doesn't mean that I think they will win this year. It does mean that I think they have a reasonable, if small, chance. It does mean that I think the Blazers will be among the league's elite this year and in the mix come next spring. I see LA and Cleveland as the favorites, but I think the Blazers have as much chance as the second tier of Boston, San Antonio, and Orlando. Make the jump to read my reasons why:
1) Many analysts are failing to appreciate just how good the Blazer's where last season.
Hollinger's Power Rankings, which are based on stats rather than subjective criteria, had the Blazer's third at the end of last season. A lot of pundits seem to feel that the Blazer's "overachieved" last year and they speculate that the team may have trouble living up to last year's 54 wins. The data suggest otherwise, the Blazer's point margin actually suggested that the Blazer's could have been expected to have an even better record. As has been frequently noted, the Blazers had the most efficient offense in the league and ranked at or near the top in rebounding percentage. These kinds of stats are rarely fluky and tend to be very predictive of future success.
2) Season stats from last year tend to mask the Blazer's improvement over the coarse of the season.
The Blazers of November were not the same team that finished the season 19-6 in March and April. Portland was right there with Cleveland and LA in terms of dominance over the last month of the season. This reality tends to be overshadowed by the Blazers elimination by the Rockets. But the Rockets were a particularly bad match-up for the Blazers and should be given real credit for taking the Lakers to seven games without Yao.
I think it is reasonable to expect that the Blazers of this season will look more like the team from April rather than the team from November. Portland's improvement was particularly noticeable on the defensive end. The Blazers ranked 18th in defensive efficiency at the All-Star break and had improved to 11th by the end of the season. In order to move up that much, that quickly, they must have been near the top five over the last couple of months. Oden's return from injury was a big part of the team's improvement. I expect the Blazers to open this season defensively near where they finished it last season. If they do, there is little doubt that they will be among the league's elite teams from opening night on.
3) The Blazers have a lot of players who can be reasonably expected to improve
Jscot did an outstanding job of laying out the case for rational exuberance in his "Da BOM" post. I won't waste your time, or mine, by repeating it. Suffice it to say, there is every reason to expect that a number of the Blazers young players are likely to be better this year than last. We don't need miraculous improvements to move ahead, just the natural maturation that can be expected of most young players. Furthermore, the team has so much depth, that we don't need improvement from every player to be significantly better overall. We just need some of our young guys to take the next step:
3A) As many have noted, Oden is key to the Blazers improvement
A lot of the speculation about Oden tends to be binary: is he a bust, or isn't he? Will he stay out of foul trouble, or won't he? Will he he get his quickness back, or won't he? On one hand, these all seem like reasonable questions. On the other hand, they miss the mark. Oden is likely to improve marginally in several areas; the real question is to what extent will these marginal improvements add up to a significant improvement in his overall effectiveness?
I see the Oden Equation as something like this: 5% reduction in body weight + 5% improvement in vertical leap + 5% improvement in lateral quickness + 10% improvement in conditioning + 20% improvement in confidence + unknown improvement in offensive technique = a much more effective GO
We won't know the final value of the equation until we actually see it on the floor, but I think there is every reason to be optimistic.
3B) SF: Webster/Batum
We will never really know how much Webster's injury affected the Blazer's performance last year. I had high hopes for Martell last season, and felt he was ready for a break-out season. Reports from pre-camp practices give me hope that the break-out may still be coming. On the other hand, Batum far exceeded expectations and demonstrated that he has all the tools to be an effective defensive specialist. Nic's offensive potential remains an open question. He shows lots of potential, but has not yet shown consistent production on the floor. Despite Batum's promise, the Blazers paid a real price for playing him last season. He was frequently a non-factor on offense, and his presence on the floor with Pryz and Blake left the Blazers with only 2 1/2 scorers on the floor (Roy, LMA, + Blake from outside). As Houston demonstrated in the playoffs you can make a team with only 2 1/2 scorers really struggle.
With the return of Webster, the arrival of Miller, and the emergence of Oden, the Blazers have the ability to put five effective scorers on the floor at the same time. If those five are working effectively together, they are going to be extremely difficult to stop.
Hopefully, Nate will now have the luxury of choosing between a defensive SF Batum, who can score, or an offensive SF Webster, who can defend. If we need to cool off an opposing player, send in Batum. If we need additional scoring, send in Webster. Over time, one of the two will establish themselves as the more effective player.
4) A lot of folks don't seem to realize just how good Andre Miller is, nor what a difference he is likely to make.
Miller isn't Billups. Billups is a couple of years younger, is a bit better defender, and has a significantly better outside shot,; however, they do have a lot of similarities. Both are very crafty veterans with very high BBIQ. Both are extremely poised and play within themselves with a firm grasp of their own limitations. Both are outstanding floor generals who know how and where to get the ball to teammates.
I know that a lot of folks are rightfully appreciative of the role that Blake played in the Blazer's success last season, however, make no mistake about it, Miller is a very substantial upgrade. Miller ranked 12th among all PGs in terms of PER at 18.71. 12th makes it sound like he is "pretty good, but not great." If you look a little closer, you will like what you see. Miller is within a single point of ranking 6th, while more than a point above Sessions who is ranked 13th. Furthermore, other metrics suggest that Miller is even more valuable. In terms of "Value Added" Miller ranks 5th, only behind All-Stars CP3, Parker, DWill, and DHarris. Miller also ranks 5th in "Estimated Wins Added" behind the same four All-Stars. Miller is actually above Billups, Nash, and Rondo in both these metrics.
Yes, Miller is definitely getting old, but his production shows no sign of decline. His PER and TS% have both improved each of the past two seasons. Even his 3pt percentage (on a very limited number of attempts) has improved somewhat. Many have questioned whether Miller is going to be a good fit next to Roy because of his limited abilities as an outside shooter. This is definitely a legitimate question. We won't know until we see them in action, but I think looking at Miller's experience next to Iguodala, should be reassuring to all of us. Iggy is even more of an off the dribble player than Roy, and yet he and Miller both prospered together in Philly. I think it is reasonable to expect a few bumps as Miller and the team get to know each other, but there is little doubt in my mind that Miller makes Portland much better for the next year or two.
4A) Backup PG
Not only is Miller a very significant upgrade over Blake, Blake is a significant upgrade over Sergio and Bayless 1.0 at backup PG. Just as Oden's arrival had a huge impact by solidifying our center rotation and reducing the number of minutes we were reliant on LMA or Frye playing center, Miller and Blake solidifies our PG rotation.
Furthermore, I am probably in the minority on this point, but I think there is a real chance that Bayless may yet earn some minutes this season. Bayless struggled in three areas last year shooting, team defense, and effective distribution of the ball on offense. Having said that, because Bayless was so effective getting to the rim and the free-throw line he still scored at an effective rate per possession. If Bayless can find his shot, and the Blazer shooting coach singled him out for praise, he can be a very effective offensive option. The bigger question is whether or not he can improve his defense. It seems to me that this is Bayless' real opening. PG defense is likely to remain a real weakness. Neither Miller or Blake have the speed to stay with the league's uber-quick PGs. If Bayless can demonstrate to Nate that he can become our best PG defender, he may earn some minutes. Regardless of whether it is Blake or Bayless 2.0, the back-up PG situation is likely to be dramatically improved.
5) The key to the Blazers success in the playoffs is home court advantage
I expect the Blazers to approach or exceed 60 wins. I realize that many are less optimistic for various reasons. I have to take this opportunity to give our Fearless Leader, Dave, a bit of a hard time. If my memory still serves, last year Dave, who is always concerned about inflated expectations, predicted 46 wins. The team blew that cautious prediction away. I understand that 60 is a challenge, but barring major injuries to one of the big three (or now big 4) I think it is very realistic to think the Blazers can achieve that level of success.
I fully expect the Blazers to win their Division, and I think it is even conceivable they could challenge the Lakers for best record in the Western conference. The Lakers have more older players and less overall depth. One injury to one of their top rotation players, and the door may be open for the Blazers. If the stars align correctly, the Lakers could be coming to the Rose Garden for the WC Finals. Wouldn't that be something?
Again, I am not saying that the Blazers are favorites to win it all. Their lack of playoff experience clearly makes them underdogs, but they are underdogs with a lot of bite. At this point, I think the Lakers and the Blazers are arguably the two most talented teams in the Western Conference. By the time the playoffs roll around, SA will have 7 players over the age of 30. If they all stay healthy, they may be in the discussion, but that is a very big if. Denver had a magical season and lost a couple of key reserves. Dallas also has a lot of older players and still lacks a decent center. NO just doesn't have enough quality players to complement CP3.
Anything may be possible, but I think the smart money is on LA and Portland in the WC Finals. LA's huge advantage in experience would make them a significant favorite, but I think in terms of talent, the Blazers are the only team in the conference who could give them a real run for their money.
Conventional wisdom may argue that the Blazers are at least a year away, but I think there are plenty of reasons the Blazers deserve to, at least, be in the discussion. If I am prophetic, remember, you read it here on the eve of training camp.