When the Phoenix Suns lost at Dallas Sunday, the Portland Trail Blazers clinched their first playoff appearance since the 2002-03 season, ending the NBA's longest active postseason drought. Because the youthful Blazers have built by drafting and developing their own talent, most of their players will be making their first playoff appearance. In fact, of Portland's rotation players, just two, starters Steve Blake and Joel Przybilla, have ever played in the postseason, and even they have combined for just 14 career playoff games.
Add in deep reserves Shavlik Randolph and Michael Ruffin and the Blazers' active roster--not including veteran center Raef LaFrentz, who has not played all season due to a shoulder injury and is not with the team--has combined for 35 career playoff games and 489 minutes in the postseason. Only one team in the past 14 seasons, the 1996-97 Los Angeles Clippers, has been less experienced going into the NBA's second season.
Player G Min
Blake 9 197
Przybilla 5 35
Randolph 2 4
Ruffin 19 253
Total 35 489
To put that in some perspective, last year the "inexperienced" team in the Western Conference was the New Orleans Hornets, who reached the playoffs for the first time as a group and had star guard Chris Paul making his postseason debut. Still, thanks in large part to veteran forward Peja Stojakovic, the Hornets combined for 194 playoff games and more than 4,500 minutes. Stojakovic himself had played in 59 postseason games, more than the Blazers' entire roster has.
If columnists could doubt the Hornets' playoff credentials, they're bound to question Portland because of the team's lack of experience. Is that a legitimate reason to write off the Blazers' chances? To help answer that question, I turned to historical data provided by Justin Kubatko of the indispensable Basketball-Reference.com.
For each postseason going back through 1996, I calculated a "Playoff Score" based on the similar measure used by our Baseball Prospectus colleagues which adds one point for each playoff win, subtracts one point for each playoff loss, and gives four points for making the playoffs and for each subsequent series win. I also created a projected Playoff Score based on a team's regular-season record, point differential and its seed.
With those metrics in hand, we can see whether teams overachieved or underperformed in the postseason and compare this to their experience in terms of career playoff games. Doing this shows a very, very slight value to postseason experience. For each 250 additional games of postseason experience, teams on average gain one point of Playoff Score relative to their projection--that is, about one extra win. The difference between the '96-'97 Clippers and the most experienced team in that span (last year's San Antonio Spurs, with 1,028 career playoff games between them) is about four points of Playoff Score.
If we look strictly at the least experienced playoff teams, it's hard to find much evidence that their youth worked against them. The 12 teams who entered the postseason with fewer than 100 games of playoff experience on their roster combined to post a Playoff Score of 4.1 with an expected score of 2.9--they actually overachieved as a group.
To get a better perspective of how teams similar to the Blazers have fared in the postseason, let's take a more detailed look at the other teams who had the least experience.
- 1996-97 L.A. Clippers (30 playoff games, 465 minutes)
Projected Score: 0.0 / Playoff Score: 0 / Difference: -
Making their only playoff appearance in a 12-year span, the Clippers had just one player (forward Rodney Rogers) with any appreciable postseason experience. However, that Clippers squad was hardly comparable to a Portland team that is closing in on 50 wins. The '96-'97 Clippers were one of the worst playoff teams in NBA history at 36-46, taking advantage of a Western Conference that was lacking depth. Predictably, they were swept out of the postseason by the Utah Jazz.
- 2001-02 Boston Celtics (56 games, 1,374 minutes)
Projected Score: 7.2 / Playoff Score: 13 / Difference: +5.8
In many respects, the 2001-02 Celtics resembled this year's Blazers team. Led by homegrown stars Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce, Boston snapped a lengthy postseason drought (six years, one longer than Portland) and earned home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Celtics knocked off the defending Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia 76ers, upset a favored Detroit team in five games and gave the New Jersey Nets a scare in the Eastern Conference Finals before coming up short. The most experienced postseason contributor was (who else?) Rogers, acquired from Phoenix in a midseason deal.
- 2004-05 Washington Wizards (63 games, 1,682 minutes)
Projected Score: 2.5 / Playoff Score: 5 / Difference: +2.5
The 2004-05 Wizards made the team's first playoff appearance in eight years (I'm sensing a theme here), though with fewer growing pains as a group. Stars Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison had all come from elsewhere. The Wizards bounced another young team (Chicago) in the first round before falling to Miami in a four-game sweep.
- 1996-97 Washington Bullets (64 games, 1,888 minutes)
Projected Score: 0.3 / Playoff Score: 0 / Difference: -0.3
Washington's previous playoff trip came with a different nickname and ended yet another eight-year playoff drought. Young stars Juwan Howard and Chris Webber teamed with veteran point guard Rod Strickland to lead the Bullets to the promised land. Their trip was short, ending in a sweep at the hands of the eventual champion Chicago Bulls.
- 2007-08 Atlanta Hawks (66 games, 2,536 minutes)
Projected Score: 0.0 / Playoff Score: 3 / Difference: +3.0
Before the Blazers took the title, the longest active playoff drought belonged to the Hawks, who had not been to the postseason since 1999. Adding point guard Mike Bibby (51 career playoff games) to a series of lottery picks got the Hawks back in the playoffs. Expected to be fodder for the eventual champion Celtics, Atlanta instead extended the series the distance before falling in seven games.
- 2001-02 New Jersey Nets (67 games, 1,406 minutes)
Projected Score: 11.3 / Playoff Score: 17 / Difference: +5.7
By far the least experienced team to reach the NBA Finals in recent memory, the Nets had just two starters who had played in the playoffs before advancing to the league's biggest stage. While they faced an equally inexperienced Boston team in the Eastern Conference Finals, New Jersey had to eliminate two veteran teams--including an Indiana team two years removed from the NBA Finals--to get that far.
A deeper look confirms the notion that inexperience is not a major hindrance for playoff teams. Three of the six least experienced teams won at least one series, with one even reaching the NBA Finals. There are reasons to pick against Portland in the postseason, starting with the team's poor road performance, but a roster untested in the playoffs should not be one of them.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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