Portland Hope

Posted on October 16, 2008 by


The Boston Celtics posted the biggest turn-around in NBA history in 2007-08.  Although the level of improvement at the team level was unprecedented, it was not unexpected.  Once the Celtics added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen last summer it was expected that Boston would become much better.

The Unexpected Blazers

If we wish to look at unexpected improvement, we have to look to the other side of the country.  Portland won the draft lottery in 2007 and selected Greg Oden.  Unfortunately, Oden was hurt last summer.  And once it was learned that he was not going to play in 2007-08 it was expected that Portland would rank among the league’s worst teams. 

But that’s not what happened.  When the season ended the Trail Blazers had won 41 games.  Although this mark left Portland out of the playoffs in the Western Conference, it would have been good enough to make the post-season in the East.  So what happened? 

For an answer, let’s look at Table One.

Table One:  The Portland Trail Blazers in 2007-08

Table One actually reports two tables.  The first is the standard view offered in this forum.  The team is evaluated both in terms of what the players did in 2007-08 and what the team could have expected given these player’s performances in 2006-07.  As one can see, the difference between these two views is 20.3 wins.  In sum, this team clearly exceeded expectations.

Beneath this table we can see another view that explains much of this improvement.  The second view considers how many wins the Blazers could have expected if Joel Przybilla, Steve Blake, and Channing Frye played as each did in 2005-06.  If we had expected these three players to return to what we saw two years ago, then our expectation for this team would have risen to nearly 33 wins. In sum, most of the improvement we saw in Portland this year was tied to Przybilla, Blake, and Frye returning to form (a point made last January).   

What of the remaining difference?  Much of this can be explained by the emergence of James Jones (also noted last January).  Prior to this past season Jones had only produced 3.6 wins in 4,505 career minutes.  Last season Jones produced nearly three wins in less than 1,300 minutes.  And much of this improvement was due to his ability to hit his shots from beyond the arc.

Looking Forward

In the off-season, Jones departed for Miami (and subsequently was injured).  Jarrett Jack, the team’s primary reserve guard, also left the team. Despite these two departures, Portland fans are quite optimistic about the future.

That optimism is derived from the following additions:

  • Greg Oden, the top pick in the 2007 draft is now healthy
  • Rudy Fernandez, the 24th pick in the 2007 draft, is joining the Blazers after playing last season in Spain.
  • Jerryd Bayless was drafted with the 11th pick in the 2008 draft

It’s expected that these three players will more than make up for the loss of Jack and Jones.  But is that really true?

A few weeks ago I posted the following evaluation of the 2008 draft class.

Table Two: Reviewing the 2008 NBA Draft with Win Score

Missing from this table was an evaluation of Greg Oden.  In 2006-07 – at Ohio State – Oden posted a 16.2 Win Score per 40 minutes (WS40).  From 1995 to 2008, the average center drafted out of the NCAA posted a WS40 of 12.3.  This means that Oden’s Relative WS40 was 3.9.  Such a mark ranked 5th in the 2007 draft class and would have ranked 7th in 2008.  Oden, though, was injured at the start of his one college season so that might have depressed his performance (and plus, he was only a freshman).  After four preseason games in 2008, Oden has posted above average numbers.  So that suggests – as we all expect – that Oden will help Portland.

Before moving on to the other additions, we should note that Oden doesn’t just help with his own production.   With Oden added to the team the Blazers now have four players to take the bulk of the minutes at power forward and center (Oden, Przybilla, Frye, and LaMarcus Aldridge).  This should mean that Travis Outlaw can get most of his minutes at small forward.   As a power forward Outlaw has a problem with rebounding (and with shooting efficiency), so the Blazers will be better if they don’t have to put him at the four spot. 

Okay, Oden helps.  What about the two new guards? 

Let’s start with Bayless.  We have three sets of numbers on his performance.

Of these three sets of numbers, two have been shown to be correlated with regular season NBA performance.  Unfortunately for Portland fans, those two are what a player does in college and what he does in preseason.  Summer league numbers, as noted last July, really don’t seem to mean much.  So what evidence we have on Bayless suggests that he is not going to help immediately.

The news is better for Fernandez.  Although we don’t have college numbers for him, his preseason numbers have looked very good.  So we do have evidence – albeit quite limited – that Fernandez is going to help.

The Big Picture

With the acquisitions reviewed, let’s go to the big picture.  For next season I think there is a good chance Portland will be better.  The additions of Oden and Fernandez will more than likely offset the loss of Jones and Jack.  How much better?  If Oden can produce immediately, this team could win between 45 and 50 games. 

Of course, Portland fans want more.  This team wants to challenge for a title.   Given the talent and age of the Lakers, I am not sure a favorite for the championship is going to exists outside of LA for awhile.  But injuries and dumb trades happen, so a Laker dynasty could be derailed.  If that happens, can the Blazers step up?

The team has some productive players.  Brandon Roy and Przybilla have both shown that they can be very productive NBA players.  It’s expected that Oden and Fernandez will also be above average.  If these players can surpass the 0.200 mark in WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes], then Portland will have a nucleus that can contend. 

Consequently the key — at this point – is the development of Oden and Fernandez.  Yes, these are not the only young players on the team.  The early returns, though, on Aldridge, Bayless, Outlaw, Frye, and Martell Webster are not promising. Consequently, I think if this team is going to become a legitimate contender, it’s the aforementioned quartet that will lead the way. 

So I think Portland fans should have hope.  Some pieces are in place for this team to contend.  I don’t think it will happen in 2008-09, but if Oden and company improve – and bad things happen to the Lakers – it could happen in the years to follow.


The WoW Journal Comments Policy

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.