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Blazers, Rockets, and the rest- what the numbers actually say about the Western Conference playoff teams

If numbers could talk, would you listen? While it’s just a stupid headline, it’s pretty much what was on my mind as I dug into the research concerned with this piece. There’s been more than enough information here to satisfy even the most indulgent or Blazer’s fans. This is more about the state of the Western Conference and current teams’ standing, with a tie in to the Blazers and Rockets and what we might expect over the coming years. Sit back and enjoy the meaningless rambling of someone with way too much time on their hands…

The NBA Playoffs are here, and so naturally I decided to nerd out and dig through a cornucopia of blogs, stats sites, and historical data to see if I could mine that nugget of information that would bring solace and comfort to my Blazer loving soul. What comes next is a breakdown- not my actual breakdown mind you, I actually enjoy staring at a computer screen full of numbers and making sense of it all, but I digress…- my findings concerning the Western Conference playoff teams and how they stack up to past NBA Champions. Who sticks out as the team that consistently rises to the top? What teams mirror champions for seasons past? Who are the teams a year or two away, and who are the pretenders just along for the ride?

Over a couple of sleep deprived nights that eventually turned into a couple of weeks, I started to think about the upcoming NBA playoffs. Like any hoops obsessed insomniac I naturally had my wheels spinning about match-ups, seeding, halftime adjustments, how many times James Harden can flop in a seven game series (I wonder if Kevin Pelton can quantify that and its impact?) and a million other things. The more I thought about it the more I came back to the old clichés, not necessarily about Harden flopping but the NBA playoffs in general; make adjustments, protect home court, must win situations, a series doesn’t start until the road team wins one, etc. but one constant seemed to pop up more and more as I started to dig into the stats, the biggest cliché of them all, experience wins titles. We’ve all heard former coaches and players state something along the lines of, "we had to learn how to win first," or "we weren’t ready x year for y reason," the point being that they weren’t mature enough or experienced enough to handle the Spartan Run like two and a half month long gauntlet that is the run to the championship. On the surface of course it sounds incredibly simple, get to the playoffs a couple of times and slowly work your way through, learning the ins and outs of playoff life, each year inching closer and closer until it’s finally in your grasp. It’s the trials, the successes, and the failures that stoke the fire of a team over the course of a couple years all the way to the Larry O’Brien trophy. What follows is a breakdown of data that I’ve compiled in a way that seems to pass both the eye test and reinforce where I believe most Blazer fans currently see this iteration of Rip City.

First of all, to lay out some parameters- the average age of an NBA player – is 26.7 years (this was a weighted average, where weight was given based on minutes played). Common belief is that NBA players peak from 25-28 years old. While there’s still debate on the "exact" age- for this exercise I’ll be operating under this assumption until proven otherwise.

Secondly, I am not the first person to take a look at this- in fact Ben Golliver and Kevin Pelton did some great work on it back in 2009- that has only grown and expanded beyond comprehension at this point.

Finally, I do not claim this to be conclusive evidence of anything. When I started out to write this I had a pretty solid grasp on what I was going to talk about and how I was going to form it all together into a nice little conclusion. As I started to really dig in I realized very quickly that I was Alice in a basketball Wonderland and Kevin Pelton is the Mad Hatter, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. Without further ado the numbers!

Let’s start with age and experience. If there’s one scientific proof in the NBA, it’s that the young teams just don’t seem to get it done at crunch time in the playoffs. The average effective age of all eventual title winners in the last decade was 28.6 years old nd if you look over all of the other decades it hovers around 27-29 years old. In the chart below I have plotted the effective age of all the Western conference playoff teams as well as the average age of projected starting lineups. This was more of a check to teams who have a deep but older bench- which you can see is illustrated by the Clippers. Immediately I wouldn’t think of the Clippers as an "older" tem, however when you factor in that Chris Paul is now 28, the Benjamin Button of the NBA Jamal Crawford is 34, Matt Barnes is also 34, along with the additions of Danny Granger, 30, Hedo Turkoglu 35, and Glen Davis, 28, you start to realize this team is built for right now without a lot of wiggle room. The other outlier here is Portland’s opponents, the Houston Rockets.

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Dwight Howard, 28, Omer Asik, 27,and Francisco Garcia, 32, are the elder statesmen on this team. Take them off and there’s not a single player over the age of 26. As good as this Rockets team has been this year, they’re still incredibly young in comparison to the rest of the Western Conference playoff teams. The age difference here is a bit counter intuitive at first glance as normally a team this young doesn’t project all that well. Remember I said KP2 and Ben did some great work on this age stuff a while back take a look at this and once you’ve managed to piece your brain back together come on back here…

Now I haven’t taken the next step and applied KP2’s adjusted efficiency indexes yet, that’s for a later date, but one thing definitely stands out here- Portland and Houston are definitely operating at levels that are typically reserved for more veteran teams. For an in depth look at the lifetime of ortg/drtg for all franchises and who the truly elite teams are take a look at this write up from Andrew Lynch at Hardwood Paroxysm. If you’re still confused from reading KP2’s feature I’d suggest saving this one for a later time- otherwise dig in and bathe in statistical glory. For the boiled down and much less scientific way of looking at things- that is needlessly comparing this crop of playoff teams to the last 3 title winners take a look below.

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One major fact that I discovered is that the NBA is on a big upswing as it relates to Offensive rating and pace of play. While there are lot of people who long for "big boy ball" most notably the days of the Detroit Bad Boys (for the love of all that is basketball if you haven’t watched the ESPN 30 for 30 on the Bad boys find it and watch it, you’re welcome in advance), those days look to be behind the NBA as athleticism and ball movement are pushing the Association back to the offenses of yesteryear. Now if you’ve already read Andrew Lynch’s piece above, then you’ll know that he brings up this point:

"Defense wins championships. So does offense, but that’s not the cliche. It’s defense that puts great teams over the top and turns the elite into the immortal. And the numbers bear that out — in the last 10 years, every team that made the NBA Finals had an above average defense.

Not all championship defenses are created equal, however. Pop quiz! Which defense was better: the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, or the 2013 Miami Heat?

A quick perusal of your favorite statistical website provides an easy answer. It’s the Heat, of course! In 2013, Miami allowed 103.7 points per 100 possessions, via Basketball-Reference; the 2011 Mavericks, on the other hand, had a defensive rating of 105.0. 103.7 is less than 105 (MATH!). The Heat win…Back to those championship teams. In 2013, the average NBA team scored and allowed 105.8 points per 100 possessions. In 2011, that number was significantly higher (107.3). So was Miami really the better defensive team? Their raw defensive rating was lower, sure, but it came in a league that was less conducive to the ball going through the rim. Fortunately, we can use the average rating* in each year to figure out just how much better each team was relative to the environment in which they played. Simple subtraction would get you one number, but a more accurate representation of the distance from the middle of the pack would be a percentage. And that’s just as easily calculated; we simply take the raw individual team defensive rating, divide it by the league average for that specific year, and multiply the result by 100. The product is a defensive efficiency number that’s adjusted to the league average for the season in which the team played. It measures what percentage of the league average scoring a team allowed; the lower the number, the better.

Take that 2013 Miami Heat team. They allowed teams to score 97.92% of the league average points per 100 possessions. The 2011 Mavericks, conversely, gave up 97.86% of the league average. The raw numbers, then, which indicated a clear advantage for Miami, were misleading. When we account for the context of each season the 2011 Dallas Mavericks had a slightly better season defensively than the 2013 Miami Heat did.

So while the past 3 title teams have been in this "era" the pace of play, and the league wide averages are different from season to season- so a direct correlation cannot necessarily be placed on them year to year. I bring this point up simply because it wasn’t until later into my research that I found this article and really I see it as quite amazing, but I digress back to my original form of analysis which, while flawed is more like an argument or discussion you would have at the bar with a group of friends- which team is like another from the past, or could beat team x, etc. and makes for a good discussion point. With that in mind I was struck by how often the Clippers mirrored the 2013 Heat. While they may not have LeBron they certainly don’t lack star power, but they also seem to have all the advantages that the Heat lack; interior defense, rebounding, size, and length. Yet, as far as ratings go- they are match up pretty nicely. While there’s not a direct correlation, I believe that it has a lot to do with their effective age and the make-up of each team; veteran heavy with the right amount of youth and star or above average players in the prime of their careers.

The other observation that caught my eye was OKC seemed to be an outlier in most of the charts. The NBA darlings, the Fighting Durantula’s, er Oklahoma City Thunder rate very well but not as well as one would expect from a team that was supposed to be in the championship window. They rate fairly well across the board, yet they aren’t necessarily in the window for a title run – that is to say if they were to win a title with this team they would be an outlier.

The team with 17 straight playoff appearances, the San Antonio Spurs who of course are considered a second tier title contender seemingly at the beginning of every season are STILL right in the thick of things for a title shot. No matter what metric I looked at, evaluated, discovered, or made up- the Spurs were right at the top. Offense, defense, efficiency, overall effective age (even with a 37 year old Tim Duncan), the Spurs are at or near the top no matter how you slice it. At some point you just have to tip your hat to the best front office in all of sports.

While all of this is entertaining and interesting (to me) to read, ultimately how does all of this information portray the Trail Blazers?

Coincidentally enough, KP2’s article in 2009 referenced defense and the need for a team to grow, learn, coalesce, and ultimately come together at the right time with enough key pieces of a team to form a championship contender. From what I have come to find over the past week is that while both teams may be solid right now, they’re both too young, inexperienced, and neither sports a defense efficient enough to be considered a true contender at this time (see below).

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However, lucky for both teams and fans of each franchise- they both look like they’re built for the future with a large window, comparatively, to compete for a title. Both teams have a 28 year old All Star big, 24 year old All Star guard, and a 25 year old jack of all trades wing player. While Houston may look better on paper at the moment with Portland approaching the peak age range for the vast majority of its core there’s a chance that marked improvement in defense could be attainable, as well as a more efficient offense. If Portland were able to move to a top 10 defense while maintain their level of offense, within 2-3 places, and be in their peak window- we could be looking at a title run for Portland, with Houston running along right with them.

While Dallas and Memphis have some of the necessary prerequisites for a title run, they short defensively for one and offensively for the other. While it's not necessary to have a top 3 offense and defense, a team must have a severely dominant defense or an top tier offense to go with a top 8-10 defense, typically. So, while either or both of these teams could upset their first round opponent, the chances of them making it to the promised land or pushing for title contention in the future as they're composed now seems unlikely at best.

That’s all I’ve got for now, but I’ll be digging in more and more regardless of whether or not I post it here. I just wanted to share what I’ve found so far and hopefully spark some solid discussion, and hopefully inspire some more efficient stat heads to build a better mouse trap for all of us here to take a look at and seemingly tear apart piece by piece.

Thoughts, questions, criticisms, reviews, etc. any and all are welcome. I just hope at least someone enjoys this as much as I had in putting it together.

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