I'm not sure if anyone else ever does this or if it's only me (it may just be me - I've got a unique combination of an inquisitive mind and way too much free time on my hands), but a fun thing I like to do once or twice every NBA season is go back and look at what predictions people were making at the start of the year. Who did the general consensus say would be the league's top teams? Who would be in the basement, and who was slotted somewhere in the middle? How did all those October forecasts end up comparing and contrasting with reality?
If you've never played this game before, I recommend it highly. It's a lot of fun. There are countless ways to play it. You can read the season preview articles from all your favorite publications and writers. You can watch an archived season opener on League Pass and listen to what the announcers were saying about each team. You can go through old podcasts, tweets, you name it.
You can also - and I find this one especially fun - check out the projected win totals that Vegas cranked out for each team. All 30 teams had an over/under at the start of the season. Who's now going over? Who's under? Which teams did Vegas peg correctly, and which were way off?
I was playing this game a couple of days ago. If you're interested, you can play along - just go here and check out Sportsbook's projections for the 2015-16 season that they released back in mid-October. Revisiting these numbers now reveals that Vegas got a lot of things right about this season, but they certainly weren't perfect. They were right about the Warriors (59.5) and Spurs (57.0) being great, though they were too conservative in estimating just how great. They knew the Clippers (57.5) would be up there in the West too, though maybe they had them a bit too far up there. On the other end of the spectrum, they had most of the league's worst teams pegged correctly - Philly, Denver, Brooklyn, Minnesota, the Lakers (all between 20.5 and 28.5). Fair enough.
Oh, but the Blazers. How very, very wrong the oddsmakers turned out to be about the Blazers.
Sportsbook had Portland this season down for a grand total of 27.5 wins. That number looks hilarious now - especially because on Wednesday night, playing in their final game before the All-Star break, the Blazers notched a blowout win over the Rockets that brought their overall record to, yes, 27-27. They are a half-game away from fulfilling their expected win total for the entire season. In other words: If you put money on the Blazers this season to hit the over, you're getting paid unless their record after the break is 0-28. In my expert opinion, this is not likely.
So, yeah. Vegas was wrong about Portland. In fact, Vegas was wronger about Portland than almost anyone in the NBA. Here's a breakdown of the NBA's top 10 teams this season, in terms of overperfoming Vegas' over/unders:
This is crazy stuff. Aside from the Warriors, who are exceeding expectations at a rate that's basically unprecedented in NBA history, the Blazers are the biggest overperformers in the league this season. They're on pace to go 41-41 this year, and not even the boldest prognosticators saw it coming.
The Blazers are proving everyone wrong. Let's talk about why.
1. The talent was always there - these guys just needed minutes.
There's an old nugget of basketball wisdom that says, basically, that an NBA player's per-minute productivity should not change based on usage. In other words, if you use a guy for 15 minutes a night and he's good, he's likely to stay good when you use him for 35 again. The clichés about fatigue versus "fresh legs" are rarely supported by the evidence. The Great Tom Ziller refers to this as the Millsap Doctrine. Paul Millsap was always a productive player, even as a 21-year-old rookie with Utah in 2006 when he averaged a double-double per 36 minutes as Carlos Boozer's backup. Hence it was completely unsurprising when Millsap moved into a starting role and was just as productive. We now know Millsap as a three-time All-Star and a cornerstone of the Atlanta Hawks, but nothing about him has really changed except he's gotten more minutes. He was the same player all along.
Ziller wrote in 2012 that the Millsap Doctrine explained perfectly why James Harden was thriving in Houston. He was relegated to the bench in Oklahoma City, and getting traded to the Rockets gave him a chance to start, play more minutes and ultimately be a more productive player each night. Fast-forward to 2016, and couldn't you say the exact same thing about the collection of talent in Portland?
Consider the following.
- CJ McCollum, 2014-15 Blazers, per 36 minutes: 15.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 39.6 percent from 3 on 5.1 attempts
- Meyers Leonard, 2014-15 Blazers, per 36 minutes: 13.9 points, 10.6 rebounds, 58.6 percent from the field on 5.7 attempts, 42.0 percent from 3 on 4.8 attempts
- Allen Crabbe, 2014-15 Blazers, per 36 minutes: 8.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 35.3 percent from 3 on 4.5 attempts
- Mason Plumlee, 2014-15 Nets, per 36 minutes: 14.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 1.3 steals, 57.3 percent from the field on 10.1 attempts
- Al-Farouq Aminu, 2014-15 Mavericks, per 36 minutes: 10.9 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 1.8 steals
These are all pretty good numbers! No one really noticed these guys last year because they were all coming off their respective benches for fairly limited minutes, but when they did take the floor, they proved they could play. Maybe Vegas was foolish to doubt that all this productivity would translate to bigger roles on a young Portland team. Isn't this just the Millsap Doctrine playing out again, only with five guys at once instead of just one?
2. The offensive game plan makes intuitive sense.
Here's another nugget of preseason analysis that's fun to reread now - back in October, Zach Lowe wrote on Grantland (RIP) that the Blazers would be the No. 25 most watchable team in the NBA for fans this season. "The Blazers are roadkill in the West," he wrote, "but a Terry Stotts offense flows, and the general structure of Meyers Leonard spotting up around Damian Lillard/Mason Plumlee pick-and-rolls makes sense."
Turns out, he could have let the second and third independent clauses in that sentence stand alone, just leaving out the roadkill part. Here's the thing, though - he was totally right about the Blazers' offensive flow. For all the hand-wringing about LaMarcus Aldridge and the rest of the talent this team cast away, they still had a game plan on the offensive end that was totally still functional. Lillard remains a fantastic pick-and-roll ball-handler with a diverse combination of skills including attacking the rim, scoring from the midrange, kicking out to teammates and even gunning Steph Curry-style step-back 3s against teams who dare to slip under screens against him. As long as you've got that player leading the way, you're still in good shape.
Plumlee has also proven to be a really nice pick-and-roll partner with Lillard. Not only is he adept at diving to the rim and dunking on defenses who overcommit to Lillard, but he's also a skilled playmaker out of the high post. The Blazers' PNR attack works so well because the ball-handler and roller are both such great passers. Either one of them can kick out to a perimeter shooter at a moment's notice. When you consider that McCollum (39.2 percent), Crabbe (37.1) and Gerald Henderson (36.5) have all been above average 3-point shooters this season, that means the Blazers pretty much always have threats ready on the wing.
The spread pick-and-roll offense is designed to make life easy, even for relatively young and inexperienced offensive players, by taking advantage of spacing. Because the Blazers have so many shooters on the floor at all times, they're able to stay spread out, which creates more openings in the defense and makes it easy for passers to make quick decisions without risking turnovers. Anyone can be a great playmaker in that type of offense. It's what's made fringe starters like Detroit's Reggie Jackson and Charlotte's Kemba Walker into All-Star candidates, and it's what's made the Blazer guards into the weapons of mass destruction they are now.
Forget about the star players the Blazers gave up and all the numbers those guys posted. What matters with this Blazer team is the way they play, and that's something that's changed surprisingly little over the last year.
3. The defense is quickly coming along.
For the first couple months of the season, there was no ambiguity about the Blazers' strengths and weaknesses. They were an offensive team that struggled on the other end of the floor. Lillard and McCollum were putting up their combined 45 points a night, and other guys were chipping in, but they were trading buckets at best. They'd fall behind 14-5 and 17-8 and 20-11 in first quarters because the defensive effort just wasn't there.
It's starting to show up now. The Blazers went 8-2 in their final 10 games before the All-Star break, and they did it without changing much on the offensive end. On defense, however? This chart should speak for itself.
That's right - in the final 10 games pre-break, the Blazers are the third-best defensive team in the league. Obviously it's a small sample, but every little 10-game interval counts when you've got a young team that's still figuring itself out. It shouldn't be surprising that this new collection of talent has improved considerably from its 44th game together to its 54th.
The Blazers' success defensively has been a collaborative effort - there's no one star who's dominated on that end. Plumlee has been seen as the team's defensive anchor in the middle for most of this year, but there's a lot more going right than just his work from the pivot. One far more unsung hero has been Henderson - the Blazers allowed a shockingly low 89.8 points per 100 possessions that Hendo was on the floor in the last 10 games. The Blazers' veteran wing has shown a proclivity for guarding a variety of opposing two-guards in recent weeks, including shooters he's got to chase around screens (like J.J. Redick) and pick-and-roll playmaker types (like James Harden). There's no challenge he's shied away from.
Another pleasant surprise: Ed Davis. I've criticized Ed quite a bit this season for his defensive lapses - there've been a lot of pick-and-rolls this season where he's looked too lazy to switch onto a quicker defender or even venture a foot or two away from the rim to defend midrange scorers in space. The last couple of weeks, he's cleaned that up a little bit. It's amazing what an unexpected playoff race can do to inject a little energy.
4. The West is more beatable this season.
If you scroll up and look at that "overperformers" chart again, you'll note that the three best teams in the NBA at outdoing their Vegas projections are all in the Western Conference. The Dubs, Blazers and Spurs are in a class of their own.
But here's the flipside of that - the bottom three teams are also in the West. The three worst teams in the NBA compared to their Vegas picks are Houston (picked to win 56 games, on pace for 40), Phoenix (37, 21) and New Orleans (48, 32). Yikes. All 16 games under expectation. Put another way: All three are as bad as the Warriors are good. Not surprising given how their seasons have gone - the Rockets fired their coach in November because their chemistry was a mess, and their chemistry remained a mess post-Kevin McHale as well. The Suns have also had issues in their locker room, and Jeff Hornacek got the axe last week. Then you've got the Pelicans, who have been an injury-riddled shell of themselves in a season that was supposed to be Anthony Davis' big coming-out party.
Those three aren't the only disappointing teams in the conference this year. Utah was expecting big things, with a quickly developing young core hoping to stay healthy and keep improving, but an injury to Rudy Gobert sidetracked them for five weeks in December and January. Sacramento has shown flashes this year, but now they're slumping and there are rumors of a potential ouster for George Karl. Even the Clippers/Memphis/Dallas troika, while all are playoff teams, doesn't feel particularly scary. Basically, everyone but the top three teams in the West is imminently beatable, which is a change of pace. Two years ago a 48-win Phoenix team missed the playoffs; this year, it looks more like 48 will get you the No. 5 seed and 41 might sneak you in.
This means the schedule is softer across the board. Only the top three teams are truly intimidating. Of the 52 Western Conference games on the Blazers' schedule this season, only 11 should scare them, and they already won one of those 11 when they beat the Thunder at home last month. Almost every game feels winnable for the Blazers these days, and that's a product of both their own improvement and the softer competition.
5. This team is motivated - and it'll stay that way.
By this point, we've all hashed and rehashed the debate about the Blazers' playoff outlook enough. There's no point in debating whether you'd rather have a No. 8 seed or a lottery pick anymore. And to be honest, I don't even know what Neil Olshey's answer would be, gun to his head, if he had to give one.
I also don't care. The front office's desires are irrelevant at this point. Barring something crazy like a McCollum for Joakim Noah trade next week, Olshey couldn't even tank if he tried. It's out of his hands now. The talent he's assembled is on the floor, and it's competing better than even he probably imagined.
And there's no doubting that the players themselves are dying to get that playoff spot. They couldn't care less about a lottery pick - what motivation do they have to help their employer recruit someone else who can take their jobs? For the guys on that roster - the McCollums and Crabbes and Plumlees that no one four months ago was giving an ounce of respect - the mission is to keep winning and keep proving the world wrong.
That's an exciting thing. The Blazers right now have a chance to push their development timetable forward by a full 2-3 years. We all expected this group to fight for a playoff spot someday, but in 2016? This is way ahead of schedule, and it's cool. This is a competitive, hungry group of players who refused to be told to wait their turn.
It's also just one step forward in a long developmental process. Fighting into March and April for playoff contention isn't anyone's end goal - it's just a rung on a much taller ladder. But it's an important rung. Staying competitive for a full 82 games is really difficult, and it's something that very few guys on this roster have ever done. You've got to complete that stage before you can set your sights higher. Before the Warriors were dreaming about 73 wins, they were winning 47 three years ago. They did the playoff punching bag thing, too - Steph Curry's record in playoff games was 9-10 before last year's title run. Behind every great team is a backstory that features a bunch of precocious kids just fighting for a seat at the table. For the Blazers, that fight is now, and it's a thrill to watch.
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