Through games of November 11, the Portland Trail Blazers are 9-3, second in the Western Conference behind only the 10-3 Utah Jazz. They’ve beaten the 8-4 Phoenix Suns twice. The team has the fifth-best defense in the league powering their early surge.
But on the other hand, the Washington Wizards started last year 10-3 and fell off a cliff. Washington, whose advanced stats didn’t present as a 10-3 team, ended up dropping all the way to 35-47 and landed 12th in the East.
Portland’s advanced stats look awfully similar at this point in the season. So are they headed off a cliff as well? Or are we looking at a potential playoff threat come spring?
Let’s get right to it.
Net Rating? More like NOT RATING AMIRITE?
Portland’s two wins over Phoenix were both by two points. Trouble is, Phoenix also owns a win over Portland in which the Suns, at home, stomped the Blazers 102-82. Over three games, that’s an average margin of victory of plus-5.3 for the Suns.
Portland also got mauled by Miami, 119-98 on November 4. Those two big losses, plus the fact that four of their nine wins were by one possession, mean Portland stands at just a plus-2.6 Net Rating so far this season.
Put that together and 2.6 points per game is the hallmark of a 48-win team. Yes, Portland’s pace is 96.6, slower than the Net Rating assumption’s 100, but it’s close enough.
There’s also the problem of six of Portland’s wins coming against teams at or below .500. Sure, they beat Denver, but it’s worth pointing out that all three of those wins against good teams came at home.
They’ve had a solid road trip in the sunny Southeast this week, winning at Miami, Charlotte, and New Orleans, but until they beat playoff teams on the road, that’s not going to count for much.
Point is, the record on paper says 61-21. The record in the advanced stats says 48-34. And the record in terms of quality of opponent? Well, OK, that also seems to suggest high-40s for a win total. It might get you the 4 seed if the West stays top-heavy, but otherwise that’s a first-round out for Portland if they have to beat quality teams on the road.
Damian Lillard has already missed five games this season. Anfernee Simmons has been red-hot picking up the scoring load as the second option, but who else do they have?
Drew Eubanks isn’t going to keep up a .165 WS/48 pace for the entire season. Simmons’ advanced stats don’t impress either (.096 WS/48, 0.2 VORP, and terrible defensive advanced numbers.)
Can we count on Jusuf Nurkic to stay healthy? He’s only 28, but he’s suffered some gnarly bumps in the course of his career so far.
Who else do they have? Nassir Little‘s looked good off the bench, but he’s never put up any kind of per-36 counting stats that hold up over a season. He’s also missed a ton of games before his 23rd birthday.
Josh Hart is another guy who’s flimsy as tissue paper durability-wise, and while he showed some flash in 13 games in Portland last year, he’s never been any good anywhere else.
The upshot of all this is that the roster looks utterly fragile. If Dame keeps missing games and Nurkic gets hurt again, what you’re left with is a team led by a dynamic scorer who can’t guard anyone, and there goes your top-5 Defensive Rating.
The thing about these kind of early-season analyses is that you can always see the cracks in the foundation, but it’s not like teams haven’t massively overachieved in the past. The league’s history is full of such squads.
But on the other hand, as Washington showed us last year, when you’ve got the seeds of a bad team that just get off to a hot start, it doesn’t take long for a drought to keep that seed from growing to any kind of decent harvest.
I don’t think the 2023 Trail Blazers are nearly as bad as were the 2022 Wizards. But I don’t think they’re anywhere near as good as 9-3 either. Four one-possession wins mean 7-5 (since those tend to break even over the long term) seems more realistic.
And 7-5 works out over 82 games to…well, right around 48 wins.
So that’s my mid-November prediction for the Blazers. They’ll flirt with the 4 seed at points later this season but ultimately end up somewhere between fifth and seventh depending on whether Golden State and Dallas can get themselves together and whether New Orleans is ever going to be as good as they always want us to believe when they’re on.
But their ceiling is losing in the first round of the playoffs.