In the NBA, the All-Star break often serves as a natural milestone breaking the season into two distinct parts. As the playoffs near, you’ll often hear "Since the All-Star break, team such and such is doing such and such thing". The break not only gives players a few days off to regroup but also coincides with the trade deadline. Quite simply, many teams are not the same before and after the break.
This would have been the case for Portland as well, who added a significant player at the trade deadline and saw Nicolas Batum come back to life. But all of that changed March 5th, 2015.
The Blazers are now 12 days and 2-1 since the Achilles break.
Wesley Matthews’ injury may not have been quite as ruinous to the team as pundits have claimed but we will be leading sentences with "Since Wesley went down" for the rest of the year. For better or worse (mostly just worse), the Blazers are a different team now. Any analysis from here on out needs to take that into account.
It also means the team the Blazers were is gone (analytically speaking). We will be getting no more data on how good the core of this team is until next year. With that in mind, let’s take one last look at the question everyone has been asking all year.
Is the Blazers’ core good enough to win a championship?
A lot of this will be review but it deserves a final look given the magnitude of the question. We all know that this summer is a bit of crossroads for the team. With three starters becoming free agents, it’s time to go all in on the current roster or reboot. If the answer is yes, then bringing everyone back is the obvious response. If the answer is no, the future becomes less clear.
Here’s the Blazers’ contender resume before they lost Wesley.
Probably the most commonly cited litmus test, a true contender is expected to be top ten in the league in both offense and defense. The Playoffs are a different beast with dedicated scouting and a laser like focus on a single opponent. As a result, any weaknesses get magnified and it’s critical teams are well rounded. Or so the thinking goes.
This seems to check out. Over the past 13 years, only two champions haven’t been top ten on both sides of the ball: the 2010 Lakers and 2004 Pistons. They ranked 11th and 18th on offense respectively. Detroit would be a pretty big outlier but even they were 12th in the league after trading for Rasheed Wallace at the deadline.
With this yardstick, the Blazers measure out near the top. When Wesley went down, the Blazers were one of three teams ranked in the top ten in both categories. Consider the minimum qualifications for contender status met.
With Wesley, the Blazers were on pace for 56 wins. Only two teams have won a championship with 56 wins or less: those same 2004 Pistons and the 2006 Heat who only managed 52 wins during the regular season. Through some miracle, that was good enough for the second seed in a particularly weak Eastern Conference. If only we could all just move to Portland, Maine.
This stat seems pretty damaging until you consider that almost half (5 out of the last 13 champions) had 58 wins or fewer. It’s entirely possible the Blazers would have finished two games above their pace and met this criteria fully. Even if not, the injuries to multiple players and Batum’s extended slump all indicate their current record isn’t a good reflection of the teams’s ceiling.
The other relevant records are on the road and against above .500 teams. Obviously, you only play quality opponents in the playoffs so the record against good teams might be a better indicator of how a team will do than their overall winning percentage. The Blazers were 18-15 against teams above .500, good for a 54.5% winning percentage. Only two teams have won the title with a winning percentage that low: our old friends the 2004 Pistons and 2006 Heat. But again, 5 out of the last 13 champions had winning percentages below 60% implying the need for improvement is incremental rather than fundamental.
The importance of the road record stems from the idea that the intensity of games increases in the playoffs. In order to be successful, a team needs to be able to handle hostile environments and a road record is the best predictor of this. The Blazers were just a few games above .500 on the road on pace for 22 road wins. Only three champions had 22 or fewer road victories but 6 out of the last 13 had 24 or fewer.
Regardless of which record you look at, the message is largely the same. The Blazers were on the fringe. A title run wouldn’t have been unprecedented but it would have been a bit of an outlier.
I haven’t seen lineup numbers used as often in contender discussions but it really should be. 11 out of the last 13 champions had one of the top six lineups in the league (minimum 250 minutes played). The two exceptions? You guessed it. The 2004 Pistons and the 2006 Heat. And they were still ranked 10th and 11th.
The Blazers' starting unit was the 5th best lineup that played at least 250 minutes this season. That’s a little misleading because we’re only about three quarters of the way through the season. If you set the cutoff at 185 minutes instead, the Blazers fall to ninth in the league. No matter which way you cut it, the Blazers certainly look like a contender but not exactly a solid one.
These numbers only reflect a portion of one season so they’re not a definitive statement on the Blazers’ ceiling. In fact, it’s likely the same group of players could out put up better numbers with a little bit more luck. Batum is much better than he played all year and the Blazers withstood several key injuries. All of that points to the Blazers’ core being better than their numbers suggest.
Unfortunately, the Blazers might be playing at the wrong time. The West is absolutely brutal and most people believe the league has the most talent it's had in decades. The Blazers best precedents, the 2004 Pistons and 2006 Heat, made it through relatively weak Eastern Conferences before pulling off an upset in the finals. The Blazers might be a fringe contender historically but it’s possible that won’t be good enough during the next five years. Factor in the history of Achilles injuries and Wesley might not come back the same player. All of this casts doubts on this team’s title hopes.
The one thing that is clear is that the Blazers have a chance. A chance is all anyone ever gets in this league and that’s enough to keep this core together long term. Olshey and company still have some improvements to make around the edges but expect the team to lock everyone up this summer
Wesley’s injury doesn’t change that.
*All stats are from basketball-reference.com unless otherwise stated