A couple weeks ago we posted an article on a Las Vegas bookmaker setting the over/under win total number for the Portland Trail Blazers at 48.5 this season. Since that time a second company, bovada.lv, set Portland's over/under number nearly identically, at 49 wins.
Curious about the process of setting these numbers and the implied meaning behind them, Blazer's Edge talked to Kevin Bradley, Sports Book Manager for Bovada. We asked him why 49 wins made sense and how much it indicated their impression of the Blazers versus their impression of the line at which people would place bets. His response:
The Blazers went over their team win total of 38.5 this past season and did have quite an impressive year going way over, but to get 50 or more wins again in the West is still a tall order. Since we opened the NBA Win Totals we have taken more bets on the under 49. Considering all the teams ahead of them in terms of odds to win the Western Conference do have higher win totals than them, the highest being the Thunder at 57.5 who are in a class the Blazers just are not in, we do not want to over-adjust based on one season where they may have overachieved.
In his last sentence Mr. Bradley brings up the storm cloud hovering over every conversation about Portland's prospects this season.
Did they overachieve last year? Let's tackle it.
Overachieving, by definition, implies external factors assisting a team to wins it otherwise wouldn't have earned on its own merits. Fortunately for Blazers fans, most of the factors influencing Portland's rise were internal:
- Robin Lopez provided size and presence at center that the Blazers lacked in years prior, particularly when J.J. Hickson manned the post.
- Damian Lillard continued to develop, proving his Rookie of the Year season was no fluke.
- Portland's starters eased into a comfort zone with Terry Stotts' system. Their offense ran reliably; their players produced within it.
- The Blazers jumped from the 15th best offensive rating in the league in 2012-13 to 2nd in 2013-14. Their defensive rating rose from 26th to 16th over the same span. Aggregate stats aren't always reliable, but they do indicate some tangible, statistical basis for improvement. The Blazers weren't running against their numbers, "lucking out".
- Similarly, Portland's point differential of +4.0 per game ranked 8th in the league, indicating they belonged in the general neighborhood they ended up in.
None of these attributes are conclusive. Proving that an event wasn't a "fluke" is impossible. But if the Blazers overachieved, they did so on multiple levels and to great statistical effect.
On the other side of the ledger you have these factors:
- The Blazers enjoyed good health compared to their counterparts and amazing health compared to their historical record. Their starting lineup missed only 13 of a potential 410 games, a 97% attendance rate.
- The team posted an 8-5 record during the 13 games when their lone injured starter, LaMarcus Aldridge, sat out.
- The record was buoyed by a 31-9 start.
- Though it's technically apart from the regular season record discussion, if advancement to the second round was a critical component of success, the importance of a single, last-second shot comes into play. The glory of that moment was bound up in the risk of that moment.
Again, nothing in this list is conclusive. We can say with some certainty that the Blazers would not be eager to re-live these circumstances, as most "do-overs" would result in less optimal results. Save the 8-5 record without Aldridge, the chances of any of the four repeating is small. All four repeating would be a miracle.
The fairest thing to say is that the Blazers set themselves up with the events in the first list, allowing the events in the second to make a difference. The latter may be inherently unreliable, but there's no guarantee they'll be needed again either. If the Blazers keep the first list going, they may end up ahead of where they were last year, not needing that last-second three to propel them onward. They may not as well. They could end up down 4 points instead. Either way, they'll probably be in the neighborhood somewhere, if not exactly poised to capitalize on the same advantages.
Of the positive aspects, I'd say the effectiveness of the system is the most reliable. The Blazers play like they play. Their starters are well-suited to their roles and appear confident enough in themselves and each other to carry through. Of the negative aspects, the hot start is the most worrisome to lose. (Even more in my mind than likely non-repeatable good health.) Had the Blazers gone a respectable 26-14 in their first 40 games they would have ended up tied with Dallas for the 8th seed, either facing the San Antonio Spurs in the first round our finishing out of the playoffs altogether. Oddly enough, that would have put them at the 49-win total that Bovada posted as their over/under for 2015.
I'm going to maintain that the factors arguing against overachieving outweigh the factors arguing for, but it's not an open and shut case. You can see why the subject is brought up.
I would expect the Blazers to play about as well in the coming season as they did in the last. Health and early-season momentum providing possible variance. Familiarity may provide another point of divergence. "The Blazers play like they play" works both ways. Portland overcame one Achilles' Heel in Dwight Howard during the first round of the playoffs but fell hard to a couple of others--mid-range-shooting bigs and well-set picks--when they faced the Spurs. Nobody has San Antonio's combination of talent, experience, and resolve but other teams watch film. If more teams probe Portland's weaknesses they'll be hard-pressed to adjust with their current personnel.
In any case, there's nothing wrong with Blazers fans enjoying the team's sudden status as media darlings and "team poised to make a leap". Those accolades seldom penetrate as far as the Pacific Northwest. The "overachieving" label may be, in part, a response to that attention. As such, it's best ignored...with a footnote that although 54 wins and the second round may not be repeatable, the Blazers should remain a darn good team.