Given the news earlier today that Joel Freeland likely won’t be back before the playoffs as was hoped, it seems more and more like we should expect nothing from him until next season. It’s possible Portland will extend or win a first-round series and he’ll have recovered enough to make an impact, but it’s not something that we as fans or the Blazers should be banking on.
The question that naturally arises, then, is what Portland is losing without Freeland. As our Dear Leader David MacKay mentioned this morning, the loss of Freeland coincided with the Blazers playing about two months of mediocre basketball. But examining the numbers reveals a more ambiguous picture. Portland’s Net Rating (net points per 100 possessions) is actually better since the injury than before, at 3.7 vs 3.1. This change breaks down into two pieces–the defense got better by 2.1 points and the offense got worse by 1.5.
These numbers directly oppose what one’s intuition would be about the loss of Freeland. He’s known as a defensive guy who works hard to not be a train wreck on offense. In fact, ESPN’s new fancy-schmancy real plus-minus backs this up; Freeland rates as a slightly above-average defender but a well below-average offensive player. (Side note: my favorite thing about the new numbers is that if you order the league’s centers by defensive plus-minus, Byron Mullens shows up dead last, on a separate page from everyone else, as if he’s so bad he needs to be quarantined. He’s a full 3 points worse than any other center, so there might be truth to that.)
And here I think we bump into the truth of Freeland. By himself, he probably doesn’t matter that much. When he played, he averaged just over a quarter of basketball per game. That certainly isn’t enough to swing a team from good to bad, or even good to mediocre. The Blazers’ slide started a good bit before the injury and probably had more to do with regression toward the mean than with Freeland.
But Freeland does matter, mostly because of who he replaces. Thomas Robinson has been a fixture since the injury, dropping below ten minutes just twice. Per ESPN’s numbers, he’s the tenth-worst power forward in the league. Dane Carbaugh at Blazer’s Edge had a great breakdown a while back of the myriad ways Robinson gums up Portland’s offense. Truth be told, they both do that some. The difference is that T-Rob does it while moving LaMarcus Aldridge to center, while Freeland is a center. Ultimately, though, there’s not much difference, and the metrics all a) disagree with each other and b) say that neither is great.
Last night’s game was a good example. Portland’s center, Robin Lopez, had foul trouble all night, which limited him to 22 minutes. The Blazers struggled without him, but managed to hold the lead and have a decent defensive game. They did it by playing Robinson and Wright, forcing a few turnovers, putting Aldridge at center, and playing their starting forwards quite a bit.
In the playoffs, the starters will be playing heavy minutes. We know this because it’s already basically the playoffs, and they’re already playing heavy minutes. Thing is, they’d be doing the same if Freeland were available and healthy. Terry Stotts isn’t Thibodeau-ish yet, but he’ll play his guys big minutes if he has to. With Batum’s recent surge of rebounding, he knows he can probably get away with a small frontcourt. As a result, whatever Freeland’s advantages over Robinson (and Leonard, who’s a total afterthought at this point), any bench issues are marginal. The exception is Mo Williams, but as I wrote last week, there is really no alternative.
If this were December and Freeland had just been declared out till the playoffs, I’d be concerned, because he does play an important role in spelling Aldridge. (A-L-D-R-I-D-G-E. Sorry.) But it’s April, so Aldridge probably won’t get spelled much for the next month or so with or without Freeland. Long-term is another issue. Joel Freeland’s development into something resembling Nick Collison (a bizarre sixth in RPM, by the way) would be huge for future Blazers teams, because a young Collison is both extremely useful and a trade asset. For now, though, his absence isn’t incredibly troublesome.