Tuesday, December 17, 2013

So What's Up with Portland?

What if I told you that an anonymous NBA team was led by a center that spends the majority of this time taking midrange jumpers - to the tune of 12.5 per game. Then I told you that their second best player was a second-year, shoot-first point guard...who doesn't shoot all that well, checking at 41.2% for the year. The rest of their starters were journeymen, having spent time playing for numerous other NBA teams, not to mention teams abroad. Their bench was just one year removed from being - by FAR - the worst bench in the league. And their coach was seen as a numbers nerd, who had never had a winning season as an NBA head coach before. How many games would you guess this team would win? 32? 25? Enough to get the #3 seed in the East?

When taken separately, none of these facts seem to be strong indicators of NBA success. But somehow, in Portland this year, a wild and wacky collection of players has come BLAZING out of the gates (I crack myself up sometimes). At 21-4, they have the best record in the West to this point and sit behind only Indiana, who they recently beat, for the #1 overall seed in the league. More impressively, they are doing most of this work with solid team play rather than outstanding individual work, although Lamarcus Aldridge is a shoo-in for the all-star team if they keep performing like this. But how, exactly, did they get to this point?

Here's a hint: None of these guys helped.

Coming into this season, most experts predicted Portland would be a solid, but not spectacular team, that would struggle in a division with a title contender (OKC), contender for homecourt advantage (Denver), and an infamous "playoff contender-if-healthy" (Minnesota). Vegas only plugged their over/under at 38.5 wins - enough to get home field advantage in the East...but definitely out of the playoff picture in the West. For Portland last year, their starters typically played well, but once their rotation extended behind sixth man Meyers Leonard, they were a complete disaster. When players like Will Barton, Victor Claver, and the immortal Luke Babbitt (who Jack once guessed had 6,700 career points, roughly 6,000 more than his actual total) are getting big minutes, your starters hardly matter: your team is likely doomed.
This offseason, amidst rumors that Aldridge wouldn't be willing to tolerate another rebuilding year, GM Neil Olshey made a number of changes to shore up the roster depth. He acquired center Robin Lopez from Phoenix to allow Aldridge to a) play power forward and b) focus more on offense, with Lopez being a major upgrade on former frontcourt-mate J.J. Hickson. Olshey also moved to shore up the bench, signing veterans Mo Williams and Dorrell Wright in an effort to keep Babbitt off the court whenever possible. Sure enough, replacing terrible players with competent ones is a remarkably effective strategy for improving your team, and Portland moved from dead last in bench PPG to...still only 25th. But that was certainly a good start for a team whose bench was such a disaster last year.
"I'm replacement-level! Yes!"
The real difference, though, has been in the play of Portland's starters. I listed some of their least desirable traits in the introduction, but clearly there have been a lot of positives in their games this year. Starting with Lillard, he has maintained a high shooting volume while being generally efficient, even though his standard FG% seems on the low side. A large number of his attempts come from the three point line, where he shoots 40%, and his free throw rate (number of free throw attempts per FGA) is up to .358 - a number in the top 20% of all guards, and the highest of any guard who shoots even close to as many three-pointers as Lillard. Thus even though his raw shooting percentage is low, his true shooting percentage, which accounts for free throws, is a robust 56%, a completely acceptable number for a high-usage PG.

Don't have to tell me twice.

The complementary pieces in the starting lineup have also been effective behind Lillard and Aldridge. Matthews and Batum are both shooting over 41% from three on at least 5.5 attempts per game. Lopez, although limited offensively, is shooting a high percentage and pulling in almost 9 rebounds per game. All this is contributing to a ridiculous offensive rating of 118 (per 100 possessions) for the Blazers' starting five-man unit, which would have easily led the league in any season in recent memory. Some of this may be driven by unsustainable three-point shooting, but with three 40% shooters from distance thus far, they clearly have the ability to keep it up. What's more, in the playoffs, when the bench is less important, Portland might be even better than it is in the regular season. Aldridge seems determined to make fools out of the advanced metrics community with his 12.5 mid-range jumpers per game, and if he keeps making them at a 50% clip, he just might do it. If they are able to keep this up, Portland just might set the NBA world...ABLAZE.

No comments:

Post a Comment