If you're anything like me (and I hope for your sake that you're not - this addiction is a cruel mistress), you've spent virtually every night for the last seven months glued to the TV, devouring whatever NBA action is available to be devoured. And that being the case, you've probably found this past week unbearable. The conference finals have been over for ages, the NBA Finals didn't begin until last night, and the time in between was painful and interminable.
That said, my solution was a fun one. I spent the week poking around various stats websites, picking up lots of interesting little nuggets of knowledge about the league. I'd like to share one such nugget today. There's a new feature now available on basketball-reference, and it's cool - the site has a massive chart chronicling the roster continuity of every single team in the league in every single season, dating back to the NBA's origin in 1951.
Roster continuity, you ask? Yeah, roster continuity. It's pretty simple, really. Continuity is a measure of how much your roster stays the same from season to season. It's easy to calculate - for any given season, count up how many minutes your team gave to returning players who were already with the team the previous year. Divide that figure by total minutes, and you've got your percentage. There's always a lot of talk in the NBA about how much teams change and how much they stay the same, and this quantifies it.
In the case of your Portland Trail Blazers, continuity in 2014-15 ran quite high. Terry Stotts gave the lion's share of the minutes to his returning stars (Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum) and a select few to some of the new bench guys brought in this season (Steve Blake, Chris Kaman, Arron Afflalo). Add up the returnees' minutes and divide by 19,855 total minutes, and you get 80 percent continuity. Slightly more than that, actually. Here's the math:
(Yeah, there's a rounding error. These numbers actually add to 19,856. Someone got credit for sneaking in a few extra seconds. Looking at you, Frazier.)
None of this is surprising. The 2013-14 Blazers were good; they brought back the guys who were good. Then they were good again. Sure, sure. Makes perfect sense.
But it got me wondering - is this a league-wide trend? Is it necessarily true, across the board, that the teams with the best continuity are also the ones with the best results? It was definitely true to an extent in Portland. What about elsewhere?
Here's how it breaks down when you look at all 30 teams.
In my opinion, this chart is cool.
What it shows is a definite correlation between bringing back your old roster and winning with that roster. These 30 points show a clear upward trend - more continuity, more wins. The worst teams in the league (76ers, Knicks, Timberwolves) all had a ton of roster turnover. Several of the best teams (Warriors, Hawks, Spurs) brought the whole band back together. Several others (Cavaliers, Rockets, Mavs) were outliers, turning over their rosters a lot and winning anyway. But by and large, the trend is there. As continuity goes up, wins go up.
If you want to get real nerdy about it, the best-fit line of the graph (shown here in blue) actually gives us an equation for predicting a team's win total.
Wins = 11.453 + (Continuity * 0.46851)
It actually works! Take that baseline number of 11.453, add 0.46851 for each percentage point of roster continuity, and you get an approximate win total for that team. The Blazers had 80.37 percent continuity, so you can expect them to win 11.453 + (80.37 * 0.46851) games, which comes out to about 49.11. Pretty close to their actual win total of 51.
Enough math. The point is, the teams that have stayed together in the NBA have won together. Most of the time, anyway. This doesn't necessarily answer the question of "correlation or causation," and it's possible that I'm getting my chicken/egg distinctions confused. Do teams win because they stay together, or do they stay together because they've been winning?
In either case, it's an interesting thing to think about with regard to the Blazers and their offseason plans. Over the last couple of years, the Blazers have considered their continuity an asset. After a turbulent period before the Stotts era, Portland was able to build a stable nucleus and stick with it. Now, with Aldridge entering free agency and Batum being tossed around in trade rumors, their once-cohesive group is in jeopardy. What does this mean? How should Neil Olshey and the Blazers respond this summer?
Based on the chart above, I think we can conclude this: There are two different ways to build a successful team in the NBA. You can either (1) retain the players you have and mold them into a winner like the Golden State/Atlanta/San Antonio group, or (2) make a big splash over the summer like the Cleveland/Houston/Dallas group.
If you're the Blazers, which option do you choose?
The case for Option 1
This is the choice that looks most intuitive, from where the Blazers are sitting now. Right now, they're one of the best teams in the league at retaining their roster and winning with it - they're not in the super-elite class with Golden State, but they're right up there in tier 1A. (In the chart above, the four blue dots in the top right nearest the Hawks are Portland, Chicago, Memphis and Toronto.)
If you've been doing the continuity thing for a year or two and it's working OK, the obvious choice is to stick with it. Look at the Warriors and Hawks - both of those teams were first-round knockouts last year, but instead of blowing it up, they brought the same rosters back for another season, made some improvements in terms of tactics and player development, and came back much better. Those two teams became famous for their collaborative, team-first style - which makes perfect sense. It's easy to collaborate with guys you're intimately familiar with.
If you're the Blazers, you can definitely go this route. "Bring everyone back" is on the table. You'll have to toss Aldridge the max and convince him to take it, first and foremost. Then you've got to bring Wesley Matthews back, and make sure he's healthy. Next, you keep Robin Lopez.
From there, you've just got to improve. Hope Damian Lillard breaks through to the next level (especially defensively, where he's been a liability). Develop the young guys on the bench - Meyers Leonard and C.J. McCollum can become the best sixth and seventh men in the league. And most importantly, just build a more collaborative team. Develop a Hawks-like knack for ball movement and player movement. Iron out every wrinkle in the defensive rotations. It's not a matter of finding superstar talent; it's just about getting the most from the talent you have.
The case for Option 2
...or you can do it the other way. It's no secret how the Cavs, Rockets and Mavs got good this year - they made big offseason moves. None was bigger than the one in Cleveland, where the best player in the world made an earth-shattering decision to return home during free agency last summer, and ridiculously good luck endowed the Cavs with a second new star on lottery night (Andrew Wiggins, who would eventually turn into Kevin Love).
Houston was a little subtler, quietly adding an excellent "3 and D" veteran in Trevor Ariza and a bench scorer in Jason Terry. They also made moves in-season to acquire Josh Smith, Corey Brewer and Pablo Prigioni. None of the above five guys is a superstar, but they were all excellent fits, and Kevin McHale did an underratedly wonderful job helping them all fit in. It's impressive that a team returning only 48 percent of its talent went all the way to the West finals.
As for Dallas, reacquiring Tyson Chandler was a solid move for Mark Cuban, and nabbing Chandler Parsons in restricted free agency was a fairly significant get as well, giving the Mavs a skilled scorer and playmaker on the wing. The Mavs don't make the playoffs in a competitive West this season without adding those two guys.
If you're the Trail Blazers, is there any one of these three models you're comfortable trying to emulate? Obviously you're not the next Cleveland waiting to happen. There are no four-time MVPs or No. 1 overall draft picks falling into your lap tomorrow - that much is certain. But on a smaller scale, can you manage an on-the-fly rebuild the same way Houston or Dallas did?
My instinct is, well, it'll be tough. The two Texan cities have always been a major draw for NBA free agents. The weather's nice, the cities are glamorous, the media markets are attractive and the money's good to boot (no state income tax, which can save an NBA star millions). Forget about the LeBron types arriving in Rip City (especially because "LeBron types" don't even exist) - I'm not even confident the Blazers can pull in an Ariza or Parsons-level guy.
But that doesn't mean it's impossible. Is there a pipe dream you believe in? Do you want to let Robin Lopez and a couple other guys walk, then make a run at DeAndre Jordan in free agency? Do you want to get super-duper crazy and replace Aldridge with another star power forward, like a Kevin Love or a Paul Millsap? Or do you want to think smaller, opting to hit four singles rather than blast that one home run? What role players catch your eye?
I don't know the answer. All's I know is we've got another month to debate this stuff.
So what's your verdict?
Obviously, the most straightforward option is to bring everyone back, build on the foundation for another year, and see how far that can take you. That doesn't mean it's correct.
What do you think? Is the Blazers' continuity still their best asset? Or is there a better formula for success in 2015-16?