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Did the Trail Blazers Get “Lucky” in the Western Conference Race Last Season?

The Western Conference playoff race was tight last year. How “lucky” did the Trail Blazers get avoiding the injury bug?

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

In 2017-18 the Portland Trail Blazers finished higher in the NBA Western Conference than most people expected. All summer long as I listened to people recap the Blazer’s season or forecast for the next one, I heard a common thread: “the Blazer got lucky with injuries”. I heard it so often that I needed to know, just how lucky did the Blazer get?

One thing we know is that the Blazers were very healthy this year and plenty of teams who had significant injuries. This tweet from @mangameslost shows the overall number of games lost due to injury for each team. The Blazers are right there with the Oklahoma City Thunder as the teams with the fewest injuries.

In this case, “Games missed” means how many players missed games, not how many games did they lose because of injuries. But I’m looking to quantify how many games did a team win because of injuries to the other team? That is what people seem to be implying when they say the Blazers got lucky--that they won against teams who were injured and therefor got a better record than their talents or expected win total would indicate.

I’m not saying that the Blazer’s couldn’t have finally caught a break this season in being relatively healthy while other teams struggled. I just wanted to know if they were luckier than other teams in the race.

What is lucky?

I’m taking “lucky” to mean that the Blazers won a game that they might not have won if the other team had been at full strength, or at least had all of their impact players. And since we’re talking about how they lucked into that third spot, let’s compare them with the other teams who were fighting for positions #3-9 in the Western Conference.

Lets define games they “should have won” as games against non-playoff teams and games they “might not have won” as games against playoff teams. This includes everyone who made the Eastern Conference Playoffs, all the Western Conference Playoff teams, plus the Denver Nuggets who were in the race right to the end.

This chart shows all of the teams who finished in the #3-9 range in the Western Conference who were ultimately separated by just 3 games. It shows the number of wins overall, the number of wins against playoff teams and the number of games they won against opponents who were missing a player or players who were named in Sports Illustrated Top 100 Players of 2019. It also includes how many of their own players they were missing in these “lucky” games.

A few players missed almost all of their games so I did not count them when figuring in for luck. For example, I didn’t tally games that Gordon Hayward missed since no one played against him. I also didn’t include Kawhi Leonard because virtually no one played against him either. I did count games where DeMarcus Cousins, Paul Millsap and Rudy Gobert were on the injured list because the were integral parts of their teams rotations before they went down and after they came back.

Using this admittedly imperfect method, Portland didn’t “luck” into the most wins. Using these metrics (which are just one way to look at the issue) their number was high, but it wasn’t the highest. Utah actually won the most games against teams with injured top 100 players. Denver, who ultimately finished outside the race, won the most games against playoff teams while playing among the fewest against injured opponents.

Measuring impact

The chart below shows who was missing in the games that the Blazer’s got “lucky”, i.e. against teams they beat when they might otherwise not have won. The “Impact” column attempts to quantify how big a loss the opposing team suffered based on their injured player’s Sports Illustrated Top 100 rankings.

Here is the somewhat random way that I assigned impact. Again, this is imperfect, but it is a starting point.

A: Missing player ranked 50-100

B: Missing player ranked 49-16, or two A players

C: Between 15-4 or 2 B players

D: Missing player top 3 or 2 C players

Trail Blazers wins against teams missing top 100 players

When the Blazers played Minnesota without Jimmy Butler, that was a C game because Butler was ranked #10. When they played Golden State without Steph Curry and Andre Iguodala, that was a D game because Steph Curry is a top 3 player.

The player I had the most trouble figuring out what to do with was DeMarcus Cousins. I used the 2019 SI Top 100 list because while it is a projection for the upcoming season, it is based on the performance last season. I don’t think DeMarcus Cousins’ 2019 ranking at 68 reflects how he was playing before he went down last year. It might have been more fair to give him the 23 ranking from 2018 in which case Portland would have had one more B game, instead of an A game.

Here is how all the rest of the teams in the Western Conference race fared in terms of A, B, C and D games. You can find more details including exactly who was missing here.

This bar chart shows the breakdown of A, B, C, and D games by team. D games means the opponents were missing their biggest starts while A games meant they were missing a good role player. “Lucky” teams have the most D games and the fewest A games.

Utah looks pretty lucky here. They got the most wins (9) against playoff teams who were missing top 100 players. They beat Golden State twice without Steph Curry. On one of those occasions they also didn’t have Kevin Durant, Draymond Green or Klay Thompson. I know Dan Marang is going to ask and the answer is yes, in three of those games they were without their own Top 100 players--in one game they were without Mitchell and Gobert and once each they won without Gobert and without Rubio (again, there were wins against playoff teams). Portland was without Al-Faruq Aminu in two of their eight “lucky” games.

As you can see, the Western Conference was a tangled web last year. While Portland was lucky in that their team had fewer injuries, they really didn’t do much better than the other teams in the race when it came to facing off against injured opponents. I think we can put the “Portland got lucky” mantra aside for now, as they don’t seem to have benefited any more from playing weakened opponents than other teams in the race.

What do you think of this line of thinking? What would you do differently or how would you measure “luck” when it comes to seeding? Let us know in the comments below!