When the Phoenix Suns lost at the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday, the Portland Trail Blazers clinched their first playoff appearance since 2002-03, 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 make their playoff debuts next week. In fact, just two of Portland's rotation players -- Steve Blake and Joel Przybilla -- have played a postseason game, and they've appeared in only 14 contests. Add in deep reserves Shavlik Randolph and Michael Ruffin, and the Blazers' active roster (excluding Raef LaFrentz, who has not seen action all season because of a shoulder injury and is not with the team) has played a total of 489 minutes in 35 playoff games.
Do those sound like small numbers? They should, because 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. 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 Peja Stojakovic, the Hornets' roster 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.
If skeptics doubted the Hornets' credentials, they're bound to jump all over the Blazers, given Portland's lack of experience. Is that a legitimate reason to write off the Blazers' chances? To help answer that question, we turned to historical data provided by Justin Kubatko of the indispensable Basketball-Reference.com. For each postseason going back to 1996, we 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 awards four points for making the playoffs as well as for each subsequent series win. We also created a projected playoff score based on a team's regular-season record, point differential and seeding.
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 every 250 additional games of postseason experience, teams on average gain one playoff score point relative to their projection -- that is, about one extra win. The difference between the '96-97 Clippers and the most experienced team in the past 13 seasons (last year's San Antonio Spurs, with 1,028 career playoff games among the players) is about four playoff score points.
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 that entered the postseason with fewer than 100 games of playoff experience on their roster combined to post a playoff score of 4.1 despite an expected score of 2.9. In other words, 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 that had the least experience:
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