Before I get into dissecting the Trailblazers, let me just say that I love this team’s construction. It is such a classic set up with a sniper point guard, a shooting guard with size, strength, and range, a long, athletic Swiss-army-knife small forward, a post up / pick and pop oversized power forward, and a defensive anchor / dirty work specialist at center. This is a team where every opponent knows exactly what’s in store and can’t do a thing about it. Love it.
The Trailblazers are currently the 5th best team in the league by Simple Rating System (margin of victory factored against strength of schedule). They have the 6th best average margin of victory. They score the most points per game of any team, and they also have the highest points per possession ranking, meaning that their offense is both the most prolific and most efficient in the NBA. They are so efficient that they lead the league in points scored per game despite the fact that they are not even in the top ten in pace (possessions per 48 minutes).
How do they maintain such great offensive numbers? With a very balanced attack plan. While not spectacularly great like Miami’s or San Antonio’s, Portland sports a top 10 Effective Field Goal percentage (eFG% factors the value of the 3 pointers made into regular FG% for a more accurate estimate of scoring efficiency on field goal attemtps). Speaking of the 3 pointers, they are 2nd in the league in 3 point field goal percentage and top at in three pointers taken per total field goals attempted (sandwiched between the 3 point-happy Warriors and Heat). The only weak spot in the Portland offense is getting to the free throw line. They are ranked 22nd in free throw rate. However, they shoot free throws at a league-best percentage so their made free throws per field goal attempt ratio (one of Dean Oliver‘s famous Four Factors) is actually league average and doesn’t drag their offense down.
Where the Blazers really excel is in possession maintenance. They have the third lowest turnover rate and the second best offensive rebounding rate. No other team in the top 5 in ORb% has an above average eFG%. So they shoot better than average, almost never lose scoring opportunities to turnovers, and they extend possessions on missed shots better than anyone except the oversized, shooting challenged Pistons.
What I think works best about Portland’s offense is that the responsibilities are properly spread. The perimeter players, especially Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum, play make. Those two along with Wes Matthews and Mo Williams off the bench provide their great three point shooting. The primary scoring option, LaMarcus Aldridge does not take open threes, and he doesn’t lurk under the basket taking up space that rebounder / layup offense only Robin Lopez needs to be effective. LaMarcus does his damage in the most difficult scoring space on the floor, the midrange. Because the leading usage player on the team is taking the difficult shots in the middle of the half court, he leaves lanes to get dump down passes to Lopez or kick outs for threes to the guards and wings. The floor balance works because the best player does the heavy lifting, and the talented role players are in position to do their roles. As a team they also work the ball very quickly into scoring positions, keeping the pace crisp and moving the ball well. Lillard has made great strides as a pick and roll decision maker, and he’s shooting threes off the high screens like Stephen Curry.
This team’s major issues occur at the defensive end of the floor. They allow the 5th most points per game and the 10th highest points per possession. That’s bad. They do a decent job contesting shots, holding opponents to just under league average eFG%. They also control their defensive backboard, again a little bit above average in DRb%. They also keep their fouling to a minimum – top 10 in opponent made FTs per FGA. Their real weakness is that they are a conservative defense that ranks dead last in causing opponent turnovers, and while opponents don’t shoot a high proportion of threes against the Blazers, they do shoot them very well against the Blazers, top 8 in fact and well above league average 3PT%. Some of this is by design. Terry Stotts has the team in a conservative defensive scheme. The bigs tend to sag on pick and roll coverage instead of challenging the ball handler at the point of the screen. This limits opportunities to force turnovers and leaves some good shooters open coming off the screen. But it discourages drives to the rim and limits opponent opportunities to draw free throw attempts.
In an interview with Zach Lowe, Coach Stotts basically admitted that he runs this conservative defensive scheme to save his players’ energy on offense. I suspect the Blazers’ other weakness, depth, contributed to that decision. Outside of the starting lineup, only three Trailblazers are providing real minutes, and none of them has a PER over 15 or a WS48 over .100. I don’t think Stotts is willing to tax his starters at both ends while asking them to carry such a big burden. This is reminiscent of the Pacers who don’t ask for a lot of complexity on offense since their main guys expend so much physical and mental energy on D.
Right now Portland is second in the Northwest Division behind the Thunder and third overall in the West with a slim lead over the Clippers. If they can maintain a top 4 spot in the conference and take home court advantage into the playoffs, the Blazers will have a strong opportunity to advance to the second round. Though to be fair bowing out in the first round in the West this year is no cause for shame. It looks like round two will be a matchup against either the Spurs or Thunder (assuming no big swings are coming our way in the second half of the season), and I wouldn’t expect Portland to win a 7 game series against either of those deeper and more experienced squads. A semi-finals exit against one of those great teams would have to count as a successful season for this team that missed the playoffs last season and would set them up for future playoff success.