The Portland Trail Blazers have been an object of fascination for this here site ever since they got off to a spectacular 28-18 start despite at that point in the season having a negative Net Rating from having gotten their butts kicked by 20 points or more on seven separate occasions while having just two wins of that margin to their name.
They seemed to spit in the face of the logic that great teams win big and lose close, and at the time I predicted that it would come back to bite them hard in the playoffs.
And sure enough, Portland seemed on the verge of collapse not long thereafter, first getting wrecked by double digits in three of their next five games, then hitting a stretch where they lost seven out of eight games and went 1-4 in games decided by two points or less. Their lone win was a one-point squeaker, but they lost three games by that same single point.
It looked like the Basketball Gods were restoring order…
…until Portland closed the season winning 10 out of 12, eight wins coming by double digits, four coming by 20 or more, and the two losses a nine-point defeat at the hands of East 5 seed Atlanta and a one-point loss to the 2 seed Phoenix Suns.
Their final Net Rating for the season? Plus-1.8. Their expected won-lost record based on that differential? 40-32, just two games worse than their season actually went.
Instead of regressing to the mean and ending up having to win a play-in game or maybe even two play-in games to get into the playoffs, Portland took the 6 seed, forced the Lakers to play an extra game to get in, and booked a first-round date with the Denver Nuggets.
Sadly, the Nuggets beat them in six, posting a plus-1.3 Net Rating (and plus-8 actual point differential thanks to an 11-point win in Game 6) to end the series…an odd case where the Blazers were, after five games, on the losing end of the series 3-2 despite at that point having scored more points than they allowed.
Which, I suppose, means those Hawks and Suns losses were telling in their own way, coming as they did against playoff teams.
But it also goes to show just how crazy—and how utterly capricious—trying to predict a team’s fortunes at any point in the season based on metrics that are, by design, meant to look in hindsight at seasons past can be.
Because sure, teams regress to the mean. It often happens in the playoffs, when teams that weren’t as good as their record lose “stunning upsets” to teams that had better regular-season statistical fundamentals.
But sometimes, after the All-Star break or in the last few games of the season, teams go on a white-hot streak and make the mean regress to them.
It’s as if statistics were personified in a heckler and the Blazers turned to that heckler and said “we’re not as good as our record, you say? Well, check THIS out.”
If the Blazers had 82 games instead of 72 and they kept winning big and losing close, it’s not out of the question that not only could they have continued to close the gap between the stats and the Ws and Ls, they could have surpassed them and actually become, technically, underrated.
This was such a weird season for Portland. For the longest time, they were the best bad team in the league, a team in the hunt for a top-four seed even as the stats said they shouldn’t have even been in line to make the playoffs at all.
Then they got a run of heartbreaking losses, seeming to prove that very point.
And then, in a shocking twist, they became the scariest, hottest team in the league, the “peaking at the right time” team, the “team nobody wants to face in the playoffs”, and all of those superlatives that bring to mind NFL teams that start out 3-6 then win seven straight, make the playoffs, and win the Super Bowl.
But then the playoffs happened…and Portland got bounced in the first round. And they almost did it while outscoring their opposition, falling short of that mark by just eight points in six games.
I hope Blazers management doesn’t take the wrong lesson from this season and finally blow up the team. Because this team deserves another chance to run it back with this roster they’ve got, maybe with one or two minor changes (read: dump Carmelo Anthony, who is washed up) in the offseason.
Then again, a 44-38 projected 82-game record might just mean I’m too caught up in the what-might-have-been to see that the opposite effect could happen and lead to a situation where Portland posts another good Net Rating next year but goes full 2018 Charlotte Hornets and only wins 36 games.