“The Portland Trail Blazers had a good regular season.” That phrase is becoming the official balm to soothe the wounds left by their first-round playoffs sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans. Earning 49 wins and the third seed in a daunting Western Conference would seem to support it. But how does that claim hold up under comparison to Portland’s previous playoffs seasons and those of their conference foes? Was the season truly a step forward?
Below is a table covering the last five seasons, all of Portland’s playoff appearances since Damian Lillard came on board in 2012. Listed for each year are the following:
- Portland’s wins
- Median wins for the eight Western Conference playoffs teams and the amount above or below median Portland fell
- Average wins for those same teams, and the amount above or below Portland fell
- Portland’s distance, in wins, from 8th place and 1st place in the conference
- The difference between those two numbers, indicating whether the Blazers ended up closer to 8th place (negative number) or 1st place (positive number)
*In 2014-15 the Blazers were seeded fourth because the won the Northwest Division. Their actual ranking by record was sixth.
Good or Not?
Where Portland’s 2017-18 season ranks among the last five years depend on the metric used. It was clearly the best of their post-LaMarcus-Aldridge seasons, but that’s due to 2015-2017 being rough years despite playoff participation (and a second-round appearance in 2015-16).
2017-18 was Portland’s best year in the last five in seeding position and margin above median, which generally work out to the same thing. Though the third seed is demonstrably higher than the eight seed they earned in the season prior, their +1 above median wins is only one higher than 2013-14. Also, this season was the only one of the five in which being +1 win above median would have earned the third seed. Other years it would have netted fourth or fifth. Three is greater than four or five (and far greater than eight), but Portland’s third position was influenced by the pack bunching below them as much as any unimpeachable claim to superiority.
2017-18 was Portland’s second best season in wins above (or more accurately, below) average for Western Conference playoff teams. They fell 2.25 below the average win total, second only to 2013-14 when they all but ended up at the average.
The “Distance from 8th Place” column provides an interesting look. The current year ranked only fourth among the five, indicating they were less secure in the third seeding position than the 2013-14 or 2014-15 teams were even though both those teams were seeded lower.
The final column indicates where the Blazers were relative to the mid-point between first and eight seed win totals. They’ve never gotten on the high side of that number (i.e. they’ve never been closer to first than eighth), in part because the West has seen enormous win totals from its elite teams over the past couple years. Even so, 2017-18 ranks third for the Blazers, far better than the past two years, but not quite the equal of 2014-15 and nowhere near 2013-14.
No matter how you view it, “good” is a relative term. Hanging “goodness” on earning the third seed alone, without context, is a perilous argument, even if just the regular season is considered, let alone with the playoffs result factored in. 2017-18 may have been a step forward, but only in comparison to the backwards steps take in the two seasons prior.
Compared to the last two seasons, Portland’s year was certainly “good”. Compared to the final years of LaMarcus Aldridge, it was probably sub-par. Widen the scope and compare the Blazers’ performance to their playoff peers and they’ve never been north of mediocre, have twice been far below and probably ended up somewhere around average this season.