Monday Mailbag time! If you have a Portland Trail Blazers question, fire it off to email@example.com and we'll try to answer!
Oh, great czar of BE,
Listening to the most recent BE podcast, you and Dan seemed to concur that it is reasonable to expect the Blazers will win a few games more than last year, and that they have "solidified, not gotten better". I think that reasoning, applied to this offseason is correct. My question, then, is what team did they solidify? The one that went 11-20 before Christmas and lost tons of leads in the fourth quarter, or the one that went 33-18 after? The team that struggled to close out a depleted Clippers team (which, admittedly, the Clippers have given the Blazers fits the past few years, regardless of lineup), or the team that could have been up 3-1 on the defending champs (again, not at peak health) if they made a few more shots or got a few more stops. Both of those series, the Blazers played better each game. So: which of those teams have the Blazers solidified, and does that really mean an overall bump of "a few games" can be expected, or could they start the season as a top-four team?
A Blazers fan stuck in Sonics land.
LOL at the greeting lines getting progressively more creative on these Mailbag submissions. I think "czar" is a new one. Unfortunately the smattering of overly-complimentary ones will no doubt give rise to an onslaught of overly-non-complimentary ones. I'm bracing in the bunker.
The "which team is this" question is oft-asked. The proportions of divided slices differ depending on how people want to jimmy the numbers to prove their point, but my responses have remained fairly steady on this issue through the years.
1. The team is the aggregate of ALL of its games. Trends matter but they don't dismiss the validity of other trends. Usually this kind of numerical dissection is used to argue that a team was better than the final numbers showed. The team was actually exactly as good as those numbers showed, measured against the same 82 games that every other team in the league played. Everybody has ups and downs. (Well, except the Warriors. Only ups and ups there.) We could split seasons for a dozen franchises and come up with better or worse conclusions. Being able to place your team among those dozen others is indicative that they weren't that distinctive no matter how the numbers are parsed.
Which leads us to...
2. Resorting to dividing the season into parts to show your team is better is a sign that your team isn't there yet. We could cite the Warriors again; we could also turn to Clyde Drexler's Blazers or Bill Walton's. Nobody had to divvy up wins and losses from 1990-1992. The Blazers were incredible and everyone saw it every night. The 1977 World Title brought the ultimate response to "How good are they?" Then 1978 provided one of the only legitimate reasons to divide and asterisk: major injury to a star player. Even so, 38 years on, what does that legitimate asterisk matter? A 44-9 start for the '78 Blazers resulted in a second-round playoff loss. So did a 33-18 finish for the 2016 Blazers. In the end, you either win or you don't. Nether team did. No half-season perspective will change that.
Parsing exercises are also suspect because they lend themselves to bias. Everybody wants to attribute a simple, sustainable cause to positive trends while explaining away negative trends as abnormal and non-repeatable. "The Blazers really grew together, which is why they won so much late. The early-season struggles were schedule-related." If you look closely, the late-season success was also schedule-driven. Plus a hundred other factors go into every trend, most unexamined in our rush for conclusions. We could chase our tail all day and not come up with anything solid to report from the effort.
Fortunately in this case we don't need to chase tails because we don't have to guess how last year's story ended; we saw it in real life. The Blazers had a rocky, but not horrible, start to the season. Their play improved during the latter stretches, leaving them with a cumulative 44-38 record and the 5th seed in the Western Conference. If that heralded a sea-change in their performance, it didn't show up in the playoffs. They were picked apart surgically by both opponents. They beat the Clippers, though we encounter the same legitimate asterisk that Walton's Blazers were allowed: not one major injury to a star player but two concurrently. Portland didn't really challenge the Warriors seriously. You've cited the fairly close games in that series but NBA games are decided by small margins. Decent teams tend to stay tight...or at least you can point to some juncture in the fourth period where the losing team could have made a comeback had the ball bounced differently. The difference between losing and winning boils down to not having to depend on which way the ball bounces in order to achieve victory. Golden State possessed that quality; Portland didn't
Summing up: In 2015-16 the Blazers played in the middle early, rose up later, then spiked downward when it counted. That trend isn't steady growth, but wobble-up-down. Every bit of it, not just the "up", was really Portland.
Which team will the new summer additions bolster? All of them. They'll probably eliminate the wobble-and-down more than they spike the up, but that still amounts to the potential for more wins. Few will predict 20-odd victories for this year's squad. Whatever the upside potential is, Portland is less likely to hit their downside this year. That's progress. They're not expected to contend for the title though. That's not progress.
It's worth noting that middling improvements could also equate to a pre-season 4th-seed ranking and an actual 4th-place finish in the West without changing the "middling" designation. Utah and Minnesota are looking to improve, New Orleans to recover, and Oklahoma City has taken a step back. This equates to a lot of company in the conference mid-range for the Blazers. 40-x wins might be enough to take the first spot behind the presumptive Top 3. Unless that equates to separation from the pack and encroachment upon NBA Finals territory, it's just another hopeful number. Finishing 4th in the West, a couple games ahead of 5th, doesn't matter. Finishing first matters, with an honorable mention and a potential upward trajectory for the team that finishes second.
Every NBA season ends with a single result and a billion explanations for it. We can speculate all we want but until a team changes its results, the only thing improving are the explanations. Portland is no different than any other team in this regard. Either the new guys will bring dramatic change or they won't. If they do, the team will be hailed appropriately and widely. If they don't, separating certain weeks or months from the whole won't change the story. Sooner or later you have to put the winning streaks back in context. At that point, as they say, it is what it is.
Keep those Mailbag questions coming to firstname.lastname@example.org!