FanPost

Are the Starters Good Enough?

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

From time to time, Blazer's Edge promotes interesting material from our community. Today, wilson7117 debates the starters' level of play, and how good they can be. -- Tim

Earlier in the year, Zach Lowe wrote the following two passages:

  • "Portland has allowed just 99.7 points per 100 possessions in the 266 minutes Lopez and Aldridge have shared the floor, equivalent to a top-five team mark" - 11/20/2013
  • "Portland’s starting lineup, which has logged more minutes this season than any other five-man group, has allowed just 101.8 points per 100 possessions — equivalent to a borderline top-10 mark, per NBA.com." - 12/24/ 2013

What I took away from these two passages is: "Yes, the Blazers as a team are bad at defense, but their starting unit is good enough to pass as championship level."

I held on to these nuggets and nodded my head in agreement as writers and commentators suggested the front office would be crazy to mess with this group.

Considering that this will be one of the most active trade deadlines ever, I wanted to check if this position still made sense.

The Offense

  • 111.7 ORTG (stats.NBA.com) for the starters. This would rank well above Miami's number one offense.
  • Ranked 5th out of 22 line-ups with over 250 min played. Portland's starters have played an outlandish 1075 minutes together.

It's worth noting that since Christmas the Blazer starters have only posted a ORTG of 108. There's lots of strength of schedule questions but this slump definitely raises questions.

Bottom Line: The Blazers starters are a top 5 offense but might not be historically great. This has implications for how good they have to be on defense to be contenders.

The Defense

  • 104.6 DRTG for the starters. Would rank 19th this season right behind Brooklyn.
  • 7th worst rating out of 22 line-ups with over 250 minutes played.

Again, the Blazers starters have struggled since Christmas with a DRTG of 107.5. That's a Net Rating of 0.5 since Christmas. Lots of schedule and small sample size caveats, but still.

Bottom Line: The Blazers' starters have been well below-average on defense this season.

Caveats

So the Blazers' starting unit has clearly not played championship caliber defense, even with a great offense. But are there any other things we should consider before making that statement?

Strength of Schedule

  • Blazers have had the 4th hardest schedule (basketball-reference.com)

When the starters had a borderline top-10 defense in December, the Blazers had the easiest schedule in the Western Conference. Now they have a below average defense and the fourth most difficult schedule. Given this range, average is probably the most generous, defensible assessment of the starter's defense this season.

"We've Done It, So We Just Have To Do It More Often"

We have all seen the Blazers play brilliant defensive quarters. Staff and players have pointed to these periods to justify the desire to stand pat. The idea is that Blazers "get up" defensively when they need to and will do so in the playoffs.

This is a very difficult concept to test empirically. You would need to (1) determine what a "we need to" situation is (2) define counterfactuals for those situations taking into account the quality of the opponent's offense (3) compare the counterfactuals to what actually occurs.

The best I could do was to (1) look at games against the best teams which the Blazers would likely feel the need to get up for (2) Pull those teams ORTG (3) compare the Blazers' starters' DRTG in those games to the opponents' ORTG. If people have better ideas I'd love to discuss them in the comments.

Here are the results. The critical column is "D-Diff" which shows the difference between our opponent's ORTG and our starter's DRTG against them. A positive number means our opponent scored more against the Blazers' starters than their team normally does.

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If you omit the crazy outlier in the Miami game, DRTG and "D-Diff" drop to 108.6 and 2.3 respectively. Now, it's important to note that our starters play the other teams best players more often. This means using the opponent's "Team ORTG" likely understates the quality of the offense the starters played against. That, along with the small sample size, are huge caveats.

However, a DRTG of 108.6 would rank last in the league this year by a wide margin. And while a positive D-Diff isn't definitive given the quality of players, it in no way supports the claim that the Blazers play good defense when they need to.

Conclusion

The Blazers as a team have a great offense and a below-average defense. This is the profile of a playoff team, not a championship contender. Most people share this perception and agree improvements have to be made.

The Blazers' starting unit is great offensively and below-average to average defensively. Yet a common perception is that the starting unit has been a revelation and should be nearly untouchable. As you can see, these two perceptions are contradictory and don't make sense.

I suppose it's possible to think internal development can take the Blazers to the next level. However, given the starter's ages and levels of athleticism, Lillard is the only player who has a chance to make substantial improvements on the defensive end. I highly doubt Lillard's improvement can jump the starting unit 5-10 places in the rankings. Changes in scheme also seem likely to be insufficient.

Now, the Blazers season has been an absolutely wonderful surprise and I don't pretend to know what moves should be made. However, the idea that Olshey shouldn't be actively searching for an upgrade to the starting unit seems to overstate how well they have played this year. Deals involving CJ and a starter to go after an upgrade shouldn't be dismissed off-hand. Anyone not named Aldridge or Lillard shouldn't be considered untouchable.

This deadline could be one for the ages and I hope the Blazers don't miss a great opportunity.

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