ESPN.com scribe, advanced statistics guru and part-time Portlander John Hollinger recently took some time away from compiling power rankings, playoff odds and PER diems to answer a few questions about the Trail Blazers' improvements this season, the reasons for those improvements, the trade deadline, the Northwest Division playoff race and why being a young team in the postseason isn't as bad as you might think.
Casey Holdahl, Center Court: Your initial projection for the Trail Blazers record this season was 42-40, good for 8th in the Western Conference. Finishing 8th still seems like a legitimate possibility, but barring a total collapse, it looks as though Portland will easily eclipse 42 wins with 23 games remaining. Is that due to the Blazers simply performing better than your initial projections, or does it have more to do with outside forces, such as other teams in the West dropping off?
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: They're simply better. In particular, Brandon Roy, Steve Blake and Joel Przybilla have done far better than I had projected. Roy's jump from year 2 to year 3 has been even greater than his Year 1 to Year 2 increase, which is fairly rare, and Przybilla and Blake are having arguably the best seasons of their careers.
Casey Holdahl, Center Court: Last season, you noted Portland’s 41-41 record could be attributed, in part, to good fortune. Seeing as how the Trail Blazers have continued to improve this season, is it possible last years successes might have had less to do with luck and more to do with maturation? Or are they simply getting lucky again in 08-09?
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Well, the season by Blake and Pryzbilla a year ago no longer look like outliers, that's for certain. But they won 41 games with the point differential of a 38-win team and stayed relatively healthy, so no matter how you slice it they also were fortunate.
Casey Holdahl, Center Court: While most of the Trail Blazers are at or below their preseason PER rankings, Brandon Roy (+3.83), Steve Blake (+3.9) and Joel Przybilla (+3.42) are all outperforming your initial projections. Is the improvement of those three players significant enough to at least partially explain Portland’s better record? How significant of a jump is a 3 point improvement above projection when it comes to PER?
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Yes, as I mentioned above those three are the main reason the Blazers are faring better than my preseason estimate. A good rule of thumb is that one extra point of PER over 2,000 minutes is worth one extra win, so you can see how those three players above might take Portland from a win total in the low 40s to a total in the low 50s.
Casey Holdahl, Center Court: In your season preview you noted that 3-point shooting would be a problem for the Trail Blazers, especially with the departure of James Jones. But Portland has been one of the better outside shooting teams this year (6th in 3P%, 10th in makes, 12th in attempts). Do you have a sense of why there hasn’t been much of a drop in that category this season?
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Basically, a bunch of guys got better at it. Travis Outlaw and Brandon Roy shoot the shot more frequently than they did a year ago, Steve Blake has essentially replaced what James Jones did, and Rudy Fernandez has been far more effective than I expected in his rookie season -- usually European rookies struggle with the longer distance before improving them in their second season.
Casey Holdahl, Center Court: Have the Trail Blazers rookies (Oden, Fernandez, Bayless and Batum) been better, worse or about as good as you would have expected?
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Fernandez and Batum have been better than I expected. I was very high on Fernandez based on his translated numbers from Europe but thought he would need more of an adjustment period for the defensive end and the longer 3-point shot. Batum has really surprised me too, we'll talk more about him in a minute.
As far as Oden and Bayless, I was less sure of what to expect so I guess I'm less surprised as a result. I can give you a pretty narrow range of what to expect based on a player's pro stats in Europe; the same isn't true for players coming out of college.
Casey Holdahl, Center Court: You’ve caught some flack from Trail Blazers fans for not being as high on Nic Batum as other members of the media. Is he playing better than you would have projected, or is he getting the benefit of the doubt from the public at large due to being a 20-year old rookie starting on a potential playoff team?
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Some of both; he's certainly further along than his translated numbers from Europe the past two seasons would have you believe -- based on those he was, at best, a CBA player. Obviously he has some offensive limitations, but he hits just enough shots to justify giving him some minutes for his defense, and with Martell Webster being out all year that's been very important.
Casey Holdahl, Center Court: You were one of the few writers who didn’t criticize the Trail Blazers for not making a big trade at the deadline. You also made the statement, against what could probably be best described as conventional wisdom, that Richard Jefferson isn’t much of an upgrade over Travis Outlaw (and at 4 times the price). How did you come to both of these conclusions?
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Jefferson is a bigger name based on his past, but in trades all that matters is future production. Jefferson has a PER of 14.68; Outlaw has a PER of 14.70. Jefferson is 28; Outlaw is 24. Jefferson is a better defender but has a spottier history health-wise. Basically, there's no reason to think Jefferson would outperform Outlaw over the next two seasons or so.
The other part of this that everyone overlooks is this: If you presume the Blazers would pay to keep Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge -- which I'd think nearly everyone would agree with -- then adding Jefferson or Vince Carter would almost certainly have put the Blazers into the luxury tax in 2010-11, and possibly in 2009-10 as well. So unless you think that one of these guys was the missing link to a championship, it's hard for me to see Paul Allen agreeing to that kind of financial hit.
Casey Holdahl, Center Court: On the topic of youth: Is it harder to project out for a young team like the Trail Blazers? Does PER, your power rankings and playoff odds factor in an age variable? It would seem, especially when it comes to playoff odds, that team age, or at least experience, could play a part in the likelihood of making the postseason.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: It could be a factor, but it might work in a very different way from how you're thinking. Younger players tend to be healthier, and tend to make more in-season improvement, which means it's often the younger teams rather than the savvy veteran ones that are charging the hardest come spring.
The same can be said of the playoffs -- there's a massive trend toward confirmation bias, where if the older team wins we say of course it was because of their experience, but if the younger team wins nobody re-evaluates whether their assumptions made any sense.
Here's a surprising tidbit for you: Other things being equal, younger players tend to outperform older ones in the postseason -- presumably because the 100-game grind has worn them down considerably less.
Casey Holdahl, Center Court: Along those same lines, do you think something as difficult to quantify as “culture” or personality will ever factor into metrics like PER? And what direction do you think statistical analysis is going in the NBA? What different variables do you see stat amalgamations like PER, SCHOENE, and Win Shares integrating as more information becomes accepted and available?
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: I think that's the type of thing we always need to be conscious of, but I'm very leery of mixing the soft, fuzzy stuff with hard data. There are some things that hint at this stuff -- on-court vs. off-court data, for instance -- but there's never going to be a locker room variable for basketball, just like there isn't one in baseball or football.
I think in general advanced metrics are becoming a lot more accepted in NBA circles, and with far greater speed than I had imagined. If I knew where it was headed next I'd be in Vegas, not Portland, but the big quest that's out there and nobody has quite cracked is trying to measure player's defensive impact.
Casey Holdahl, Center Court: Is the Northwest Division the most difficult in the NBA, or does that distinction go to the Southwest Division?
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Still have to go Southwest, but that may be temporary. The Northwest is definitely gaining ground, and if Oklahoma City makes a leap into playoff contention next year I think they'll surpass the Southwest.
Casey Holdahl, Center Court: Denver, Utah and Portland are clumped together in the NW Division standings. Do you have a sense of which team is going to end the season as division champs?
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: I'm still projecting Denver to win the division -- Utah is probably a better team right now but has an extremely difficult schedule over the final six weeks, while the Blazers would probably need to win Thursday and again on the last day of the season in order to catch them.
Denver is sneaky dangerous to me because they're playing well even though Carmelo Anthony has been way off his game. If he gets his shot going and the bigs stay healthy, they're going to be extremely tough to beat in the postseason.