Why The Blazers Should Be Concerned

Apologies, some of the numbers may have shifted slightly since I began writing this.  Having no power for four days was a game changer.

For at least the first quarter of the season one of the more interesting stories was the emergence of the Trailblazers.  Between finishing last season back in the draft lottery and the number of quality teams in the Western Conference not much was expected of the Blazers this season outside of the Portland area.  But, with LaMarcus Aldridge taking his game to another level, Damian Lillard improving upon his ROY season, and the upgrades at both Center (Robin Lopez) and the bench (Mo Williams, Dorrell Wright, Thomas Robinson) the Blazers jumped out to an impressive 13-3 record after the first month of the season.  Their excellent start continued into mid-December awarding them with a 22-4 record after a December 17th win over Cleveland.

The Obvious

Since the Blazers December 17th win over the Cavs they have gone 12-10, with inexcusable losses to both the Sixers and Kings.  The rest of their losses came against playoff teams (the one exception being the Pelicans), but if they are to make a deep run in the Western Conference they are going to need to perform better against the best teams.  A .545 winning percentage hardly screams contender, especially in the West when the currently 8th seeded Mavericks have a .571 winning percentage.  Now, I have no data really to back this theory up, but I think all teams at some point in the season experience a few week stretch when they are playing at the ceiling of their potential and a few week stretch when they are playing at the basement level of their potential.  To use another team as an example, the Sixers were 6-8 to start the season, which is about the best anyone could expect from them.  That same Sixers team is in the midst of a 3-13 stretch.  So the Blazers, like the Sixers, got off to a great start and are maybe just going through their roughest patch of the season right now.

It’s February, players are somewhat rundown and in need of the All-Star Break, so the Blazers issues could be as simple as, there aren’t any concerns and this is just the lull every team goes through at some point during the season.  However I think if you dig a little deeper there is some real potential cause for concern with the Blazers hopes of winning the Western Conference.

The Defense

The most talked about flaw regarding the Blazers since the start of the season has been their defense.  After limiting opponents to under 100 points through the month of November, the wheels began to fall off.  In December the Blazers were giving up an average of 106.2 ppg and followed that up with allowing 105.3 ppt in January.  On the season as a whole, they are giving up 103.3 points per game, which lands them in 27th place out of the 30 teams.  When pace is taken into account their ranking does improve slightly as the Blazers have a defensive rating of 105.4, that is 22nd in the league.  Unfortunately, at 22nd the only Western Conference playoff team worse than the Blazers is the Mavericks, who are 23rd.  Five of the other current Western Conference playoff teams (Thunder, Warriors, Spurs, Clippers Rockets) all rank in the top 10 in Defensive Rating.  The other Western Conference playoff hopefuls (Minnesota, Phoenix, & Memphis) rank 11th 12th and 13th respectively in Defensive Rating.

From watching the Blazers and looking at the numbers there are a few things that stand out when watching them play defense.  First, they are very dedicated to preventing teams from taking three-point shots, as evidenced by their league leading 17.3 3FGA allowed per game.  As discussed by numerous outlets, Terry Stotts adopted this strategy from watching the Pacers and Bulls style of defense. A smart strategy considering those two teams are first and second in points allowed per game.  The trouble though is that the Blazers talent on defensively doesn’t match either of those teams.  Even with the Blazers best effort at running opponents of the three-point line, opponents are shooting 36.8% from behind the three-point line, which ties the Blazers for 23rd in the NBA.  And like anything in life, when you focus on one thing, another is left unattended.  For example, when you are eating a burrito and concentrating on making sure the back of the tortilla doesn’t break, you wind up spilling some salsa and carnitas down the front of your shirt.  Defense in basketball is no different, and with the Blazers concentration on preventing the three comes vulnerability in the paint.

The Blazers give up the 3rd most points in the paint (46.7), better than only the Lakers and Jazz. Concentrating on preventing the perimeter shot stretches the Blazers defense out leaving Robin Lopez, LaMarcus Aldridge, or Joel Freeland alone to protect the rim.  When Lopez is left alone, things are alright as he is only allowing a 43.9% FG% on shots around the rim.  That places Lopez (7th) among the best in the league.  Of all players (74 total) having played in at least 30 games, having at least 4 FGA at the rim against them, and getting at least 14 mpg Bismack Biyombo is first at 38.8% and Roy Hibbert is second at 41.5%.  But if either LaMarcus Aldridge (50.7%) or Joel Freeland (55.8%) are left protecting the rim opposing teams find much more success.  To add a little more context to the numbers, the Bulls interior defenders Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson allow FG% of 45.1% and 42.5% respectively.  In Indiana the Pacers two big men FG% allowed are 41.5% for Roy Hibbert and 43.7% for Ian Mahimni.

The last piece of the Blazers defensive troubles is their inability to cause turnovers.  While the Blazers are one of the best at protecting the ball (4th fewest TOV) they are equally bad at forcing their opponent into turnovers.  Their starting backcourt of Damian Lillard and Wes Matthews average a combined 1.6 steals per game.  Of the starting point guards in the league only Trey Burke Greivis Vasquez, and Tony Parker average fewer steals than Lillard (.7) per game.  The lack of steals extends beyond the backcourt though, as the Blazers as a whole average a league worst 5.6 steals per game.  The team with the next fewest is the Bobcats at 6.2 per game.  You’d have to go back to the 2007-2008 season to find a team that averaged fewer steals than the 2013-2014 Blazers.  And that team that averaged only 5.5 steals per game was………..  THE BLAZERS.  To the surprise of no one, since the Blazers only average 5.6 steals per game they also rank last in creating turnovers with 11.9 per game.  The Heat are tops in the league, creating an average of 17.5 turnovers per game.  Despite their commendable job protecting the ball, the lack of havoc created defensively gives the Blazers the 4th worst turnover differential at -1.7.  With turnovers typically comes opportunities to get easy points in transition, which leads perfectly into the offensive issues with the Blazers.

A few additional stats and thoughts:

  • With a win on Wednesday the Blazers are now 6-5 when they score less than 100 points this season
  • Since December 1st the Blazers have only held opponents under 100 points 7 times out of 33 games.
  • Just my opinion, but no team might benefit more from trading for Omar Asik than the Blazers.

The Offense

Forcing your opponent to turn over the ball can lead to easy baskets on the fast break.  And when a team experiences a shooting funk, one way to stay in the game or jump start the offense is with an easy basket in transition.  The Blazers ranks 23rd in fast break points and 28th in points of turnovers.  The Blazers fast break point differential sits at -1.8 points per game.  And as everyone has said in the playoffs when the game slows down and it’s a tight score that 2 point differential could be the difference between a win and a loss.

The Blazers dearth of easy baskets extends beyond fast break points though.  They are around the middle of the pack when it comes to team FG%, currently ranked 13th with a 45.3 FG%.  At the same time though the Blazers average a league best 108 points per game and have the 2nd best 3FG% at 38.2%.  The three biggest sources of offense for the Blazers are the mid-range shot, three-point shooting, and 2nd chance baskets which is their only real source of easy baskets.  With those three pillars of their offense, the Blazers run into trouble when their perimeter shots aren’t falling since they rely so heavily on their superb outside shooting ability, and have very little inside offensive game to speak of.

Anyone who has played basketball long enough knows there are some games when your shot just isn’t falling and the only way to get points is to make some easy ones around the basket or get it to the big man in the middle and let him do his work around the rim.  The Blazers don’t have that sort of offensive presence in the paint since Robin Lopez’s offensive game is minimal and Aldridge is in his comfort zone taking mid-range shots.

So far this season Aldridge has taken 649 mid-range shots.  The player with the next most mid-range shots is Dirk Nowitzki with 455.  Aldridge’s 649 mid-range shots put him on pace to shatter his previous high from last season when he again led the league with 753.  This trend is nothing new for Aldridge.  Since his rookie season Aldridge has always relied on his mid-range shot. But as his career has progressed he’s leaned on that shot more each year, with the one exception being the 2010-2011 season.  Since then season though his number of mid-range shot attempts has skyrocketed. Here are the number of mid-range shots he’s taken each year in the league along with what percentage the percentage of his total shots come from mid-range.

2006-2007:  234 (48.35%)
2007-2008: 611 (52.67%)
2008-2009: 633 (50.93%)
2009-2010: 623 (53.29%)
2010-2011: 564 (39.86%)
2011-2012: 494 (52.39%)
2012-2013: 753 (57.13%)
2013-2014: 649 (62.95%)

On its own this isn’t an issue, however Aldridge has never been a very efficient mid-range shooter.  This season his 42.5% FG% on mid-range shots ranks 36th out of the 100 players with the most mid-range shots so far this season.  Courtney Lee leads the pack at 50.8% and Dirk is second at 48.8%.  For my readers that are 76er fans, Evan Turner’s mid-range shooting percentage is 41.37%.  Aldridge isn’t the only Blazer that settles mid-range shots, as the Blazers lead the league in mid-range shots per game at 28.4 per game.  This strategy flies in the face of teams using advanced analytics, who look at the mid-range shot with the same disdain most parents have toward The Wiggles.  The thought being shots around the basket, off from the wing or post moves in the paint, yield a higher rate of success and while less successful shots beyond the arc earn you an extra point.  So on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Blazers are the Rockets who attempt a league low 8.9 mid-range shots per game.  Personally I tend to agree with the opinion of the analytics guys, but that could be because my team is led by a disciple (Sam Hinkie) of the NBA’s supreme leader of basketball analytics, Daryl Morey.

The Blazers’ reliance on mid-range shots has a domino effect on the rest of their offense leading to them being tied for the second fewest points in the paint per game at 36.7 with the struggling Orlando Magic.  What’s alarming though is the team’s surrounding the Blazers in fewest points in the paint per game.  The bottom 10 in order are the Knicks, Magic, Blazers, Nets, Bucks, Cavs, Bulls, Lakers, Celtics, Raptors.  Of those teams only the Blazers, Raptors, and Knicks rank in the top half of the league in Offensive Rating, with the Blazers 2nd the Raptors 13th and the Knicks 15th.  Of course there is the possibility the Aldridge and crew can keep up this offensive output all season, but my concern is the bottom could drop out on this offense at some, and without an average defense things could get troublesome for Portland in a hurry.

As I said earlier, the Blazers are an excellent three-point shooting team ranking second in the league at 38.2%, and as a result they rank 6th in the percentage of their points that come from behind the three-point at 26.3%.  The high rate of three-point shooting becomes detrimental to the Blazers when those shots aren’t falling.  In their 35 wins this season the Blazers 3FG% behind the arc is 41.1%, but in their 14 losses they average just 31.6% behind the three-point line.  So for Portland when the threes are not falling at an above average rate, the result is typically a loss.

A few additional stats and thoughts

  • Damian Lillard is 7th in the league in total drives to the basket with 386, however his 34.4% FG% on the drives ranks 97th out of the top 100 players with the most drives to the hoop
  • Mo Williams is second on the team in drives to the basket with 162, but he too has struggled converting only 37.9% of his attempts.
  • Evan Turner could be a big help in the driving to the basket department for the Blazers.

The Blazers have been a lot fun to watch this year and look like a team that has taken a leap to that next level.  My concerns about the offense could be nothing more than nitpicking, and I like watching this team so I hope it is just a matter of me being a bit of a lunatic.  But the defensive problems the Blazers have are real, and as the deadline approaches making the argument that the Blazers should trade for another defensive post presence or a wing with some ability to finish around the basket and create some turnovers.  I’d like to see the Blazers make a run since I’m going need to find some team to root for come playoff time when my Sixers are collecting every lucky charm in existence for the lottery.  I’m just looking out for you Rip City.


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