FanPost

Blueprint for a Contender - Part 1

ix franchises represent models for the Blazers to aspire to in upgrading its roster for the 2013/14 season: the four semifinalists (Miami, Indiana, Memphis, San Antonio), Oklahoma City and LAC. OKC gets a mention because without the injury to Westbrook, it could just as well be OKC in the West finals instead of Memphis. The Clippers were a productive team - rating higher than Memphis in net production. I included them in this analysis before they were knocked out - and I don't want to redo the data.

Obviously, Miami and OKC are not models that can be duplicated by Portland. Each team has two stars that transcend the brightest star on Portland's team, so the question is really whether Portland can achieve success via the Indiana or Memphis model. I don't believe San Antonio is a good model because their roster and system is too unique. I didn't spend any real time looking at the LAC, primarily because they too have a top star (although not as transcendent as James or Durant).

The first step (Part 1) in the comparison analysis is to examine rosters using 82games.com's Net Production tables. Net Production is merely PER of the team's player vs. opponent PER (same position; on court).

Part 2, coming later, will look at Basketballreference.com's Lineups - which display comprehensive stats for 5-,4-,3- and 2-man combinations for every team. This second approach emphasizes the most important statistic of all - the ability to outscore the opponent, although it does present very interesting tidbits - such as the fact that the Blazers had a better team TRB% with Aldridge than they did with Hickson. Remember Golliver's "empty rebounds" remarks? There's some merit to that.

Ultimately, the Blazers are very unlikely to add a star (Chris Paul or Dwight Howard) that could elevate them into San Antonio or LAC status. More likely, they need to upgrade as many positions as effectively possible, including positions 6-10 on the bench. The potential for the Blazers to improve dramatically simply by fielding a competent bench is extremely high. Not high enough to contend for a championship - but probably high enough to make the playoffs.

So - the data will show that upgrading Hickson and Matthews are the two priorities.

Part 1 - Net Production Analysis (Net PER)

This is the more superficial of the two approaches - but still illuminating. Making personnel decisions on this factor alone would not be appropriate. It does start to give us an idea of where the Blazers are weak, relative to playoff teams.

Method

I imported 82games.com regular season Net Production data into Excel for each of the sixteen playoff teams, plus Portland. I then graphed team net production and "Top 5" net production. I used Top 5 vs. nominal starters to give teams that relied heavily on a sixth man proper credit for contributions. I tried to use playing time as the governing criteria - but in some cases (such as Boston), I used an injured player's numbers in the Top 5 - even if the minutes played were less than the replacement's. However, in all cases, I prorated Net Production by using playing time % as a coefficient (playing time presented by 82games.com as a percentage of team's total minutes). This gives a result similar to Value Added (ESPN/Hollinger), which correlates PER to actual playing time.

Results

As expected, the better teams had higher net production overall, but graphing starter net production exposed stark differences in how teams accomplish the basic task of outperforming opponents. Denver, of all the playoff teams, had by far the deepest rotation - with the bench contributing nearly as much to wins as the starters. Miami, not surprisingly, had the largest difference between starters and bench players among playoff teams. A significant part of that difference is James who represents an extreme outlier in terms of net production. However, OKC also has an extreme outlier (Durant) - but a stronger bench - and therefore an overall superior team net production. Also as expected, Portland's bench was a complete disaster. Portland's starters, however, were not on par with any West playoff team - but were also not that far off the pace.

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Two major conclusions are to be taken from this analysis: 1) A deep bench with a less stellar top 5 starters is a valid path to contention (works for both Indiana and Memphis); 2) "less stellar" is relative - but every contender had a rating of at least +13 for its top 5 players. Portland, at +6, is only halfway there. The question is whether Portland has a clear path to achieving that level of performance. The answer requires a look at the constituent data and the makeup of each contender's Top 5 rating.

Team Rank -Top 5

(lowest to highest)

Net - Top 5

Net - Team

Difference

MIL

5.54

-1.126

6.67

PDX

6.071

-7.869

13.94

ATL

7.878

1.144

6.73

CHI

8.253

-0.638

8.89

BOS

8.79

0.038

8.75

GSW

9.439

0.754

8.69

HOU

10.269

2.3

7.97

DEN

10.281

10.198

0.08

MEM

11.902

8.248

3.65

BKN

12.784

2.706

10.08

LAL

13.142

3.217

9.93

NYK

13.656

5.439

8.22

IND

14.414

8.907

5.51

SAS

19.416

11.531

7.89

LAC

19.561

13.54

6.02

MIA

28.198

17.385

10.81

OKC

28.207

20.852

7.36

Looking at just the contenders (and Portland), we have the following:


#5

#4

#3

#2

#1

Indiana

0.116

1.044

1.943

4.864

5.828

Memphis

0.09

1.219

2.706

3.57

4.118

Miami

-1.82

1.632

3.286

8.16

14.544

SAS

2.45

2.576

2.8

5.61

5.98

OKC

0.168

1.782

4.095

6.912

15.168

PDX

-0.183

0

0.406

2.698

3.15

Portland doesn't measure up at any level. Its #1 is lower than any other team's #2; its #2 is lower than ever team except Indiana's #3, so and so forth. Only Miami gets away with a negative player in its top 5, for obvious reasons. This info taken on its face means Portland has no clear path to contender status. By these numbers, Portland needs both a #1 and a #2, and the only players on the free agent market that match that criteria are Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. Portland not only would need to clear cap space to sign either one, it has zero chance of signing both. Popular choices for player acquisition - such as Tyreke Evans, or Pekovic, would rate only a #4 or #3, respectively. Gortat? A #5. Al Jefferson? Getting warmer. A solid #3, with a prorated net rating of 2.99.

That said - Portland does have some options - and reason for hope. Aldridge is that #1 for Portland - and his 3.15 net was the lowest in the last several years. A return to 2011/12 form would put Aldridge at 4.5 (using 2013 minutes played as the coefficient); a return to 2010/11 with a '13 coefficient puts Aldridge at 5.04, and using 2010/11 minutes (an extreme 81% - higher than Lillard's league-leading 80% this season) puts him at 5.8. 4.5 is on the lower end of the #1 territory, but still qualifies. Either way, Aldridge is Portland's only realistic hope for a #1. A least in the near term. Batum is Portland's current #2 - but he is also a candidate to improve. He actually had better net production in 11/12, and at age 24, is still on the fringe of entering his prime. Regardless, for this exercise we can keep his numbers where they are, and look at the remaining three starters for potential improvement. Lillard is the #4 on this list - breaking even vs. opponent PG production. Given Portland's overall defensive struggles, an upgrade at center combined with self-improvement likely improves his net rating anywhere from 1-2 points. Maybe more. Lillard does have that kind of potential. Hickson occupied the third spot, and marginally outplayed opposing centers. Matthews was the weakest link among the starters, getting outplayed by opposing SG's. Since Lillard is going nowhere, the Blazers are going to have to do better than a place-holder at center or marginal upgrade at SG if they want to get into contender territory. The good news? Al Jefferson and Tyreke Evans would get it done. Plugging their 2.99 and 2.0 numbers into the four and five spots, respectively, and getting a small bump from Lillard, status quo from Batum, and a return to form for Aldridge could get Portland into that +12 territory and potentially on to the contender list. Full realization of potential from Aldridge, Batum and Lillard has the potential to elevate Portland even higher - but for now - there is a realistic path forward, even if being on the lower end of the Net Production scale also correlated with outstanding team defense.

Team defense is a key question, of course, because that is what allows Memphis and Indiana to be competitive with less dominant top 5 personnel. Obviously, each team has a stalwart center that is the linchpin of the defense. This fact would certainly support those looking to upgrade Leonard in the short term. It is unlikely such a center can be acquired in the draft or via free agency - not in the short term. Pekovic as an RFA isn't exactly Marc Gasol.

This is all theoretical of course, but it does underscore the importance of knowing how pieces and parts fit together - and whether those parts add up to whatever key performance indicators are most indicative of winning. Blazer management is almost certainly not using Net PER - but I would go out on a limb and guess they are using advanced data analysis to identify free agent/draft targets that can "move the needle" sufficiently to give us hope for the future.

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