With Portland on a hot 9-2 roll, looking for all the world like 10-2 is on the horizon, the question flowing from everybody's lips is, "How good will this team be? What does this start mean for the rest of the season?" You can't swing a cat around NBA media circles nowadays without hitting somebody who's opining about the Blazers. Hello, national audience! Yes, Portland DOES exist!
Records and Numbers
Let's put the cards on the table up front. There's one thing I can't abide when people start speculating on these things. Sometimes you'll hear people say the equivalent of, "Well, it was a weak schedule so 9-2 doesn't really count." Stop. "Weak schedule" might influence how you project future success based on these games but it has no impact on the current record. 9-2 is 9-2, period. The Blazers could have lost any of those 9 games. They won them. Unless we get to the 4th qualifier in a playoff seeding tiebreaker, nobody's going to look at the win total at the end of the season and judge it by quality of opponent. Only the final number matters. 9 is not 7 or 5 or 2. 9 means 9. The Blazers are 9-2, period, and nobody should be denigrating that number or the achievement.
The tricky part, of course, is trying to forecast those ephemeral future achievements based on the current pace. Caution is warranted here, but how much?
In absolute terms a 9-2 start is fantastic, but not conclusive. 7 games above .500 with 71 games remaining is not the same as 7 games above .500 with 10 games remaining. There's too much room for variance, especially if you accept that 9-2 is near the peak of Portland's performance potential.
Consider: Portland now has 7 more wins than losses. A 50-win season equals 18 more wins than losses while 55 wins equals 28. The Blazers still have to gain ground to get to the traditional threshold of a good team, let alone earn the label of "semi-serious playoff contender". Who knows what they'd have to do to remain in their current position of second best team in the West? Obviously they don't have to do all of that in the next 11 games, but even surmising 55 wins would require the Blazers to post a 46-25 record the rest of the way. That's not impossible, but it's still a heck of a lot of work. If they just held serve at .500 the rest of the season they'd end up with "only" 44 or 45 wins.
The picture relative to the rest of the West doesn't look quite as shiny as the record would indicate either. 10 Western Conference teams own a winning record as of this writing. Even with their 9-2 start, Portland is only 3 games out of 10th place in the West. So many teams hanging out above .500 makes Portland's achievement less remarkable and distinct. With the gap so small, with so many teams crowded into it, and with so many games remaining the 9-2 record is essentially meaningless when trying to forecast the final seeding order.
The Subjective Stuff
With that covered, we're now free to dabble in some subjective speculation. It's one man's opinion, but the picture gets rosier here.
Some will object to skipping over Strength of Schedule as an objective modifying factor but honestly, strength of schedule means less now than it does at any time during the season. Personally I throw it out in the first month, maybe two. The sample size is too small. Teams are just getting their feet under them. Not all of them are playing like they will in February and March. Crazy stuff happens this time of year. Witness Miami and Philadelphia in their first five games. Strength of schedule doesn't mean much until we actually see which teams are strong.
But the small sample size that weakens strength of schedule allows us to assess performance on a game-by-game basis. Every game, every quirk still resides fresh in the memory. The Blazers have played 11 games so far. How many of those were relatively indicative of games they're going to play from now on, relatively free of anomalies and oddities?
Here's the schedule for reference.
This early in the season you see a few weird games. Teams come out unprepared, lost, not playing anywhere near mid-season form. I'd stick both Phoenix games and the Denver game into this category. Portland came out atypically disorganized in the loss to the Suns; Denver did the same in their loss to the Blazers. That second Phoenix game was an ugly scrum that either team could have won. These three games added up to a 2-1 record for Portland but I don't regard them as real tests of future performance, pro or con. The indicative-o-meter rests at 0-0.
Then you have a large swath of games against opponents that, either by nature or due to injury, just may not have enough talent to compete with the Blazers (or much of anyone) at this stage. These opponent include Sacramento (twice), Brooklyn, Toronto, Boston, and Detroit. Of those games I find Detroit and Brooklyn most indicative of future potential. Detroit had the capacity to hit Portland's weak spots and played hard, yet the Blazers prevailed. Brooklyn had the Blazers on the ropes but couldn't sustain it. I'd give the Blazers full future credit for the Pistons game and maybe half for Brooklyn, plus their 6-0 record in these games deserves at least another half-point. Collectively these games bump Portland's meter to 2-0.
The Houston loss I found quite indicative: talented team, well-stocked, able to exploit Portland's weaknesses and focused on doing so. The Blazers didn't have control of this game nor did they have much of a chance. That was no accident: 2-1.
That leaves the San Antonio win. Quality of opponent was obviously great there. Portland was also able to take advantage of San Antonio's vulnerabilities. But I don't think the Spurs play that same game twice, nor do I consider it Portland's best effort of the year, even. It was a little bit of an early-season oddity and I'd give a half credit rather than full just because I'm not sure it's repeatable.
That leaves the indicative-o-meter at 2.5 to 1 (or 3 to 1 if you insist on quibbling with the Spurs result) after 11 games, solidly in favor of the Blazers.
Note that this is NOT an attempt to forecast a future record or justify the current one. It's a wholly subjective look at which direction I, personally, tend to lean when assessing the future validity of the hot start given the quality of opponent and quality of games played so far. Having 7 of 11 games be oddities or cupcakes is grist for the mill of those saying the start isn't sustainable. But the Blazers winning 3 out of those 4 most-indicative games and going 6-1 in the remaining 7 speaks well of them and justifies the hope that their high level of play can be sustained.
Obviously your results will vary depending on which games you find most significant. That's part of the fun and we invite you to engage in exactly that kind of speculation in the comment section below.
When asked how "real" I think Portland's early season success is I respond with the following:
1. The 9-2 start is exactly what it is, a 9-2 start...a great beginning. Nobody can or should take that away from the Blazers based on strength of schedule or any subjective metric. It's as real as it gets.
2. That great beginning does not, in itself, constitute a great season nor even a good one. Given the standings in the West right now it doesn't even give the shade of a toenail of a purchase on a playoff seed. The spare, 3-game gap between 2nd and 10th in the West is significant in an environment when people are throwing around terms like "second best team in the conference". That designation is true in the present but it means little as a predictor of future status.
3. Subjective well-wishing cannot invalidate Point #2 any more than subjective ill-wishing can invalidate Point #1. The entire range of possibilities, from a decent playoff position to missing the playoffs entirely, remains open to the Blazers. However based on Portland's cohesiveness, their success in typical games, and their overwhelming success in atypical ones, it's fair to say that 9-2 indicates that the Blazers aren't likely to end up in a worst-case scenario this year. Right now the forecast starts at "about what we thought, hovering around .500" and goes up from there.
Some will protest that this is faint praise, but Portland had plenty of moving parts coming into the year, still has some dicey prospects on the roster, and is dodging the bullet on some serious flaws exposed by sub-par opponents. Alongside the usual pie-in-the-sky hopes that accompany the start of every season loomed the possibility that the experiment just wouldn't work...that chemistry could fall apart or that last year's end-of-season malaise could continue. That hasn't happened, nor does it seem likely to despite the holes and flaws. It's easy to forecast the Blazers coming back to earth but, barring injuries, it doesn't appear that they're going to sink beneath it and get buried. In the crowded Western Conference, not sinking to the depths will be enough to keep any team in the playoff hunt through most of the season.
If you can manage to avoid sucking in the Western Conference this year your post-season possibilities will remain open. The Blazers have just announced their intention and ability to not suck. 9-2 gives Blazers fans justified confidence that the team will battle for those 8 spots for most of the year and puts a nice down payment on actually claiming one. For a franchise that spent 8 out of the last 11 years in the lottery, that's significant.