Portland Misses and Misses and… Wins?

Posted on August 6, 2009 by


Who was the second best team in the Western Conference in 2008-09?  For many NBA fans, the answer to this question would take a bit of thought.  It’s well understood that the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, and Orlando Magic dominated in the East.  And the Lakers led the West.  But after the Lakers, who would be next in the West?

If we focus on won-loss record, second best is a three-way tie between the Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs, and Portland Trail Blazers.  Each of these teams won 54 games.  In evaluating teams, though, we tend to think (at least, this is what I think) that efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) is what matters most.  And when it comes to efficiency differential, the Portland Trail Blazers mark of 5.9 trumps what we saw from San Antonio (4.1 differential) and Denver (3.5 differential). In sum, despite what happened in the playoffs, Portland was the second best team in the Western Conference during the 2008-09 regular season.

Portland’s objective this summer was to close the gap between them and the Lakers.  It appears, though, that this gap has actually gotten bigger. The Lakers were essentially able to exchange Trevor Ariza (a former second round pick of the Knicks) for All-Star Ron Artest (yes, he did make an appearance in this game in 2004).  Meanwhile, the Blazers made every effort to sign Hedo Turkoglu, only to have Turkoglu sign with Toronto at the last moment.  Then the Blazers turned to Paul Millsap, only to see the Utah Jazz match Portland’s offer.  Finally, in an apparent act of desperation, the Blazers finally got Andre Miller to accept their money.  This sequence of events had led Ken Berger of CBS Sportline to list the Blazers as one of the NBA’s losers in the 2009 off-season.  

But did the Blazers really fail this summer? 

To answer this question, let’s start with where the Lakers and Blazers finished the 2008-09 regular season. 

The Lakers in 2008-09

Here are the top 10 players – in minutes played – for the Lakers last season (WP48 = Wins Produced per 48 minutes):

Pau Gasol: 2,999 min., 15.6 Wins Produced, 0.250 WP48

Kobe Bryant: 2,960 min., 15.0 Wins Produced, 0.244 WP48

Derek Fisher: 2,441 min., 2.6 Wins Produced, 0.051 WP48

Lamar Odom: 2,316 min., 10.6 Wins Produced, 0.220 WP48

Trevor Ariza: 1,998 min., 8.0 Wins Produced, 0.192 WP48

Andrew Bynum: 1,446 min., 4.8 Wins Produced, 0.158 WP48

Sasha Vujacic: 1,293 min., 2.7 Wins Produced, 0.099 WP48

Jordan Farmer: 1,192 min., -0.9 Wins Produced, -0.035 WP48

Luke Walton: 1,166 min., 2.2 Wins Produced, 0.091 WP48

Vladimir Radmanovic: 771 min., 1.5 Wins Produced, 0.094 WP48

Totals for Top 10: 18,582 min., 62.2 Wins Produced, 0.161 WP48

The Lakers won 65 games.  But their efficiency differential of 7.8 (and correspondingly, the team’s Wins Produced) was consistent with a team that won 61 games (wins that can essentially be connected to the ten players listed above).  So the Lakers were not quite as good as their won-loss record indicated.

The Blazers in 2008-09

LaMarcus Aldridge: 3,004 min., 6.7 Wins Produced, 0.107 WP48

Brandon Roy: 2,903 min., 15.3 Wins Produced, 0.253 WP48

Travis Outlaw: 2,246 min., 2.6 Wins Produced, 0.055 WP48

Steve Blake: 2,188 min., 5.3 Wins Produced, 0.117 WP48

Rudy Fernandez: 1,993 min., 6.9 Wins Produced, 0.167 WP48

Joel Przybilla: 1,952 min., 11.7 Wins Produced, 0.288 WP48

Nicolas Batum: 1,454 min., 3.7 Wins Produced, 0.123 WP48

Greg Oden: 1,314 min., 4.2 Wins Produced, 0.154 WP48

Sergio Rodriguez: 1,225 min., 2.2 Wins Produced, 0.087 WP48

Channing Frye: 746 min., -2.3 Wins Produced, -0.146 WP48

Totals for Top 10: 19,025 min., 56.4 Wins Produced, 0.142 WP48

Again, Portland’s Wins Produced for the entire team was 55.1; so the Blazers were about six wins off the pace set by the Lakers.

Evaluating the Changes

Now let’s consider the changes made to each team’s top 10. 

First the Lakers:

The Lakers lose…

Trevor Ariza: 1,998 min., 8.0 Wins Produced, 0.192 WP48

Vladimir Radmanovic: 771 min., 1.5 Wins Produced, 0.094 WP48

Total Loss: 2,769 min., 9.5 Wins Produced, 0.162 WP48

The Lakers add to their top 10…

Ron Artest: 2,452 min., 4.6 Wins Produced, 0.089 WP48

Josh Powell: 703 min., -0.6 Wins Produced, -0.040 WP48 or

D.J. Mbenga: 181 min., -0.2 Wins Produced, -0.066 WP48

Total Gain: 3,155 min., 4.0 Wins Produced, 0.060 WP48 (with Artest and Powell)

Overall Direction: The Lakers appear to be worse.  Artest is simply not as productive as Ariza.  And whether Powell or Mbenga takes the 10th slot, the team is really not helped.

Now the Blazers:

The Blazers lose:

Sergio Rodriguez: 1,225 min., 2.2 Wins Produced, 0.087 WP48

Channing Frye: 746 min., -2.3 Wins Produced, -0.146 WP48

Total Loss: 1,971 min., -0.1 Wins Produced, -0.001 WP48

The Blazers gain:

Andre Miller: 2,976 min., 11.1 Wins Produced, 0.178 WP48

Jerryd Bayless: 655 min., -1.4 Wins Produced, -0.104 WP48

Total Gain: 3,631 min., 9.6 Wins Produced, 0.127 WP48

Overall Direction: The Blazers appear to be better. Miller is clearly an upgrade over Sergio Rodriguez at point guard.  It also helps that Channing Frye went away.

Once again…when we compare each team’s efficiency differential (and Wins Produced), it appeared the Lakers were only about six wins better than the Blazers in 2008-09.  With the moves each team has made, this gap seems to have vanished.  In sum, if all we look at is what the veteran players on each team did last year, the Blazers are at least as good as the Lakers.

On the other hand…

Of course, all good economists have “the other hand” to look at.

It’s important to note that the Lakers did not have services of Andrew Bynum for much of the 2008-09 season.  If Bynum is healthy, he could substantially improve the Lakers. 

On the other hand… the same story could be told about Greg Oden. 

Then again, on the other hand… Phil Jackson does appear to be one of those coaches who can change a player’s productivity. Maybe he can make Ron Artest better.

Then again, on the other hand…. Artest will be 30 years of age in November, so his production is probably going to slip. 

Then again, on the other hand… Andre Miller is already 33 years of age. So how many more years can he be productive? 

Then again, on the other hand… we are completely ignoring the changes made by the Mavericks, Spurs, and Nuggets. These teams, like the Blazers, might also be better.

Wow, that’s quite a few hands.  Let me try and summarize.  Contrary to what Berger argued, I think the moves the Lakers and Blazers have made have actually closed the gap between the two teams.  The Lakers were clearly the best team in the West last year.  It doesn’t appear to me, though, that the Lakers are clearly the best in 2009-10.  So although we can’t guarantee the Blazers will make it to the NBA Finals in 2010 (remember what we found on the other hands), I think Portland fans shouldn’t think their team ranked among the losers this summer.  As for fans of the Lakers… well, Phil Jackson really is a good coach so maybe it will still work out.

– DJ

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.