Affer a couple of unsuccessful attempts at trying to answer the question, "How good was the Trail Blazers' 2013-14 season?" we finally get down and dirty today, unpacking the meaning behind 54 wins and a 2nd-round playoff trip, among other things.
After considering (and rejecting) a million ways to approach the question, I finally settled on talking about which aspects of Portland's success will be underestimated and which overestimated. Note that these terms have nothing to do with "good" or "bad" or one thing being better than another. Rather we're pointing out things that will not receive attention that probably should versus things that will receive plenty of attention but might not be as indicative or predictive as they seem on the surface.
The effect of making the playoffs will be underestimated.
Yes, 53% of NBA teams make the post-season. Membership within that club isn't equal either. As we're seeing this year, the difference between San Antonio and the newer pledges is measured not in inches, but nautical miles. You can't always point to playoff teams and say, "This franchise just made a big leap."
The Blazers, though? They just made a big leap.
It's easy to forget after a lightning start and a season filled with thrilling moments but making the post-season was not assured. Partisans will squeal in protest, but the vast majority of analysts had the Blazers on the brink of the playoff bracket (as opposed to securely in it) for a reason. This set up a bright dividing line between success and failure this season. Make the playoffs, this team was golden. Miss them and it was time to retool.
The Blazers not only crossed the finish line, they left no doubt as they did so, registering their equivalent of a personal best when they needed it most. From the second game of the season, through long winter months, past losing streaks and stiff spring competition, this team did what was necessary in order to succeed.
The significance of Portland's achievement had less to do with the merits of making the playoffs in the abstract and more to do with setting that goal and not letting anything stand in the way. It just so happened that the goal line and the playoff qualification line fell in the exact same place this year.
Next year the goal line will change and just making the playoffs won't be enough. But the lessons the team learned this year--confidence, will, the importance of teamwork and consistency, how to execute, how to bounce back, how to persevere through adversity--will help them in their quest to achieve the next step even when the distance they have to travel increases. That's critical to the growth process, a major landmark...especially when you consider that before this year we weren't even sure the team could walk.
The effect of beating Houston (in particular) in the first round will be underestimated.
Entering into the first round of the playoffs, the Houston Rockets were one of two nightmare matchups for the Blazers. The Rockets had matchup advantages the Blazers couldn't easily solve. They had the power to take away a rebounding advantage that had buoyed the Blazers throughout the season. They could shoot threes like Portland. They drew enough foul shots to negate Portland's excellent free throw shooting percentage. They fielded a talented and deep lineup.
Nobody could have blamed the Blazers for losing under those circumstances. The series was narrow and Portland had to pull out every possible measure to emerge victorious. But that's exactly what they did. They stepped onto the arena floor with a lion and walked out alive. That's impressive.
The take-away point from the series is not so much whether it was indicative of future wins. With so many games decided by such a narrow margin I'm not sure the outcome would be the same if the two teams played again. But after you've beaten a lion, what else are you going to be scared of? This team can now walk onto any court in any situation and feel like they've got a chance to win. The tightness of the games only confirms that impression. If the door is open even a crack, the Blazers WILL burst through it. That's part of their identity now...another building block in the winning résumé.
The subsequent losses to San Antonio will provide counter-example for some, but the pronounced imbalance between the two teams in that series actually works to Portland's favor in this sense. The losses were brutal, the series a nightmare. The one thing we didn't see: close games. Not one was decided by a single-digit margin. The thesis, "If the door is open even a crack" has not been disproved, as the Spurs slammed that door early and welded the knob shut. The Blazers can still say they faced down the lion and won. They lost when the whole arena fell on top of their heads, but who could be expected to win under those circumstances?
The contributions of LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum will be underestimated.
It's hard to call anyone under-appreciated after an All-Star, All-NBA-type year. Recall the questions facing LaMarcus Aldridge before the season began, though. Whether he was happy in Portland got most of the ink, but whether the Blazers were happy enough with him to offer a maximum contract two years down the road remained debatable. Technically those questions remain open. Practically speaking, you can't find much wiggle room in them right now.
We're not in danger of underestimating Aldridge's contributions. If anything they're subject to overestimation as folks take his twin 40-point performances against the Rockets out of context. But we're likely to underestimate the consistent excellence Aldridge had to display in order to anchor the team as he did, plus the difference between this year's performance and any he's put in before. It's obvious he looks great right now. Less obvious: the evolution that got him there.
Nicolas Batum's statistical performance didn't change much this season. For that reason it'll be easy to overlook his progress, chalking up the numbers to, "Same old Nic".
Batum looked more comfortable in his own skin and with his role on the team this year. Having a more solid lineup around him may have aided that impression. The Blazers may have discovered one of the secrets to maximizing Batum's potential: take advantage of him, don't over-rely on him. (Though to be fair, they relied upon him hard on the defensive end.)
But Batum had fewer head-scratching moments, fewer games where you asked where he went. You could see him lying in the weeds but you knew he'd emerge with a key contribution as the fourth quarter unfolded. He stopped passing up open shots. He started targeting defensive gambles and passes. Even his turnovers--one of the weaker parts of his offensive attack--became semi-predictable. Heretofore Batum's game has been describe mostly in terms of talent, skill set, potential. This season he came closer to looking like a professional basketball player. Being able to figure out how to defeat an opponent rather than figuring out if Batum will show up when needed will be a welcome step forward for the Blazers.
Winning 54 games and the resulting 5th seed will be overestimated.
These numbers are visceral, easy to cite. They're going to be repeated often by the team's PR machine and by folks looking to crow about how great the Blazers are. And credit is due! Those numbers are nice.
But like we've said a couple times, everybody won 50 games this year. The Blazers were good. The Blazers were a playoff team. The Blazers earned every one of those 54 victories. But amazing health and a bifurcated conference contributed as much to the actual number (the bifurcation to the gaudy numbers of their conference rivals as well) as any internal quality did.
Portland's season was impressive. That's not the issue. But as impressive as 54 wins look on paper, nothing in that number distinguishes them greatly from Houston or Memphis or even Phoenix. The Blazers ended up on the high end of that mushy, Lower-Western-Conference clump when most assumed they'd fall in the middle or bottom of it. But they have not emerged from that clump. Next year they're going to slog through the same mess. 54 wins for them and 49 wins for the Suns won't matter a bit when that ball tips. The two teams will start on nearly-level ground.
Making the second round (in the abstract) will be overestimated.
Again, the Blazers defeating the Rockets was a milestone for all the reasons stated above. But the actual trip to the second round had almost nothing to do with the importance of that milestone, though "Second-Round Playoff Team" and "Top 8 Finisher" will get just as much airtime as 54 wins in the coming months.
The Blazers getting racked up by the Spurs and sent home to mama is only part of the story here. In reality, any of the first-round winners would have suffered that fate. That's exactly the point. In the bracket the Blazers finished at the midpoint between first-round teams and Conference Finals teams. In reality they're far closer to the first round group--who are more or less interchangeable--than the Conference Finals participants.
We're not even sure the Blazers could get past the Rockets should the two teams meet again. We know the Spurs would deal with them easily. Absent roster changes, the first outcome is more likely to change than the second. So yes, the Blazers were a "Top 8" team in the league, but the distance between 8 and 9-16 is negligible compared to the distance between 8 and the Top 4.
This is different than saying Robin Lopez and Damian Lillard had bad seasons. Obviously both players had career years and contributed mightily to Portland's runaway success.
As Coach Stotts said when the season came to a close, everybody in the starting lineup had career years. Lopez and Lillard became such rampant fan favorites--and in Lillard's case a national favorite--that their contributions are going to be cited locally (Lopez) and across the league (Lillard) disproportionately to their teammates.
Among other things, Lillard's improved three-point shooting and free throw rate deserve praise. Those are balanced by his continued defensive struggles. They add up to a player still finding his way, producing quite well as he does so but not at full-flower yet. (Or even sufficient flower to compare to the more established league stars and winners.)
Lopez's everything deserves praise. He made the most out of his opportunity this year and the team made the most out of him. He has not overcome his limitations. The Blazers making the most of his abilities limited their options and cost them, particularly against teams that could identify and take advantage of their fixed style.
So where does all of this leave us? Trying to avoid driving into the ditches on either side of the road that people fall into when trying to summarize complex developments with quick and easy answers.
This season was not a fluke for the Blazers in any way, shape, or form. They legitimately won 54 games, defeating a tough opponent in the first round and vanquishing plenty of team-specific doubts while doing so. This cannot be taken away from them.
Neither was the season automatically a harbinger of unbounded growth to come. Context--including the performance of similar teams, extraordinary health, the tightness of victories, and the final, resounding dismissal at the hands of the Spurs--bounds the Blazers' achievements. (Not dims, but bounds.) Nothing can, or should, repeal the credit Portland gets for the excellent season compared to their own expectations The applicability of that success in an evolving and tight-packed conference--a conference in which even their best effort did not markedly distinguish them from similar teams or place them among the elite--remains in question.
--Dave firstname.lastname@example.org / @DaveDeckard