Blazers-Clippers series won’t be decided by experience

Commentary: Micah Rice

By Micah Rice, Columbian Sports Editor

Published:

 

Numbers don’t lie, unless they do.

There are thousands of ways to analyze a NBA playoff series.

And the most striking disparity between the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers is this: 410 to 82.

That’s the difference in playoff experience between the veteran-laden Clippers and the upstart Blazers.

Those on the Clippers roster have played in a combined 410 playoff games. In the past four seasons, Los Angeles has reached the conference semifinals three times and lost in the first round once.

The Blazers’ roster, meanwhile, has a whopping 82 playoff games to its credit. Damian Lillard and Mason Plumlee are Portland’s, ahem, battle-tested veterans with 16 postseason games each.

The Clippers’ Chris Paul, JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have played in more than 40 playoff games.

So, conventional wisdom makes this series easy to predict, right?

Surely, the savvy Clippers will step up their game while the wide-eyed Blazers wilt under the playoff pressure.

Conventional wisdom also said the Blazers wouldn’t come close to sniffing the playoffs this season.

I’m not predicting Portland wins this series; I have the Clippers in six. But relying on numerical cliches can be risky, especially with a team like Portland that has spent this season defying the odds.

“We may or may not have a lot of playoff experience,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said this week. “But we have players who have been in the league for a while and we’ll be OK with that.”

The value of playoff experience is hard to quantify. There are veteran-laden juggernauts like the San Antonio Spurs and veteran-laden flops. From 2013-15, Brooklyn won just one playoff series despite having the veteran core of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams.

Ask Damian Lillard whether playoff inexperience hampered him against Houston two years ago, when he hit the series-winning shot in just his sixth postseason game.

Sure, playoff experience is good if it’s the right kind. The Clippers have made a habit of playoff disappointments, including blowing a 3-1 lead to Houston in last year’s conference semifinals.

If anything, playoff experience paints the Clippers as a group that has plateaued, not one that has spent years building toward a breakthrough.

A few academic stat-heads have actually studied whether NBA playoff experience makes a difference. The results say it doesn’t.

In 2012, James Tarlow of the University of Oregon presented a study titled “Experience and Winning in the National Basketball Association” at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

Tarlow crunched the numbers of 804 NBA seasons played by 30 teams between 1979 and 2009. He found no correlation between a roster’s playoff experience and it’s success in the postseason.

The study found more value in a coach’s postseason experience and how long a team’s five most heavily-used players have been on the roster together.

By those measures, the Clippers and coach Doc Rivers have an advantage over Portland.

There are many reasons the Blazers might not win this series against the Clippers. But it won’t be something as simplistic has a lack of playoff experience.

Micah Rice is The Columbian’s Sports Editor. Reach him at 360-735-4548, micah.rice@columbian.com or on Twitter @col_mrice.