The Hangover 3: NBA Edition

"We talkin' about practice. I know I'm supposed to be there, I know I'm supposed to lead by example. I know that. And I'm not shoving it aside like it don't mean anything. I know it's important, I do, I honestly do. But we're talking about practice man ... We're not talking about the game, the actual game when it matters. We're talking about practice ... How the Hell can I make my teammates better by practicing?" -Allen Iverson

To answer the question posed by the inarguably** best monologue on practice of all time, it turns out you can make your teammates quite a bit better by practicing. There has been a great deal of criticism of Raymond Felton's game this season, largely due to his poor shooting, bad decision making, and turnovers. On all of the various "let's rebuild" or "blow it up" FanPosts, the BlazersEdge community seems united in its desire to see Felton off the Blazers' roster. There is also a segment of fans who seem convinced Nate McMillan is a terrible coach who should have been fired years ago.

**Monty Python Corollary: nothing is truly inarguable.

The reason for these complaints is simple: the Blazers are statistically a top-10 team, but only have a 17-15 record to show for it.** Consequently, fans want someone to blame. According to John Hollinger, the Blazers are 11th in offensive efficiency, and 6th in defensive efficiency. According to Basketball Reference, are 11th in Offensive Rating (pts/100 possessions) and 5th in defensive rating (pts allowed/100 possessions). They also have the 5th best point differential in the NBA at +4.81. After starting the season 7-2, they sit tied for third place in the Northwest Division, 7.5 games behind Oklahoma City, and tied for the last Western Conference playoff spot. Why?

**All stats are pre-Laker embarrassment.

Well, as we all know by now, the Blazers are an NBA worst 2-10 in games decided by 5 points or fewer. That has been the main contributor to their 10-13 slide. I looked at why here, and feel free to read it if you want, but the simple explanation is that the Blazers don't have a closer. The Blazers brought in Jamal Crawford to replace what Brandon Roy did in the 4th quarter of close games and to be a creator, but he simply isn't the player Roy was and never will be. LaMarcus Aldrige is evolving into a franchise player, but isn't there yet. Due to the poor shooting of the Blazers' guards this season teams are doubling LA down low and daring Felton/Crawford and Wesley Matthews to beat them from deep. LA hasn't yet developed enough to be able to score consistently on double teams, and Crawford is having a down year shooting-wise. There are other issues, such as Crawford having too high a usage rate and and poor ball handling, but that's the crux of the issue.

Many fans are simply placing the blame on the players and coaches for the Blazers' poor performance this season. However, saying Nate is a bad coach or Felton is just a terrible point guard is not entirely satisfying, is it? I feel there is a fairly simple underlying cause for why the Blazers are playing so poorly: they are experiencing lockout hangover.

There are several symptoms of lockout hangover that can be summed up as "sloppy play". Sloppy play manifests as an increased turnover rate, lower scoring, and as it turns out, poor shooting. How do we know this? Well, just compare the league-wide statistics from the last lockout-shortened season to the one before it, the 1997-98 and the '98-'99 seasons:

























Across the board the basketball played during the lockout-shortened season was worse than the season before it. The league points per game dropped by over four full points, shooting percentages decreased, the offensive rating of teams decreased, and turnovers were up. (To be fair, they were up by one thousandth of a percentage point, but I'll get to this in a minute. You have to keep in mind this was before the NBA changed defense rules in the mid-2000's to outlaw hand checking and a number of other things in order to increase scoring). It was sloppy basketball. The same holds true for this season:

























The numbers are even more striking this season. Points per game are down by nearly five full points per game, and turnovers have increased almost a full percent.** The underlying cause of teams' sloppy play is practice. Or, more accurately, the lack of practice. Look at it this way: the league year/free agency begins on July 1 after the draft. Then summer leagues (mainly for first and second year players) start in August and September. Then training camps happen, then a full slate of preseason games. By the time November rolls around rosters have been set and been playing together for six full weeks. This season free agency, training camps, and the preseason - a process that normally takes four months - were all rolled into the span of four weeks.

**This is actually a fascinating commentary on the NBA's defensive rule changes. Even with the sloppy play of the lockout-shorned season the TOV% is still not as high as it was during the '97-'98 season, points are almost to the level they were at during the '97-'98 season, and shooting numbers are up across the board. Yes, I think it's safe to say the NBA achieved its goal to increase scoring.

Losing that much practice time affects the quality of play for every team. So the question then becomes why some teams are succeeding and others are not. The answer is the lockout schedule: 66 games in 120 days. That's insane. Teams are playing back-to-back-to-backs on a regular basis, players are tired and get no rest, and you hear the term "lockout loss" used a lot. The schedule benefits two types of teams: deep teams, and teams who had low roster turnover from last season. Having a deep teams keeps your legs fresher, and teams with low roster turnover have better chemistry and familiarity from the get-go.

The Blazers have a deep team. The rotation goes nine-deep, and the statistics bear that out. However, the Blazers have an almost entirely new roster. Blazers newcomers Felton, Crawford, Kurt Thomas and Craig Smith represent 44% of the Blazers rotation, so instead of being able to work on things like shooting form and ball handling during training camp and the preseason, Nate had to focus on integrating four new players into his system and developing chemistry.

Now all of that may not seem like such a big deal, but consider this: the Blazers were dead last in the NBA last season in pace at 87.9 (pace is an estimate of possessions per 48 minutes). This season, they are 9th in pace, at 92.5. So not only did Nate have to integrate half of his rotation, he had to get the whole team used to playing at a new pace. Think a team who adjusts pace that radically with as many new players as the Blazers might benefit from a little practice time to work on things like ball handling and shooting? It's not an accident Felton is enjoying the worst season of his career from a points/assists/turnover perspective (9.9 PPG, 6.7 AST/G, 30.0 AST%, 2.9 TO/G, 20.3 TO%, all career worsts) in a lockout shortened season on a new team. It's not because he is a bad point guard, he's just merely had no practice time to find a rhythm with the rest of the team. It is also no accident his, Crawford and Matthews' shooting numbers are the worst of their careers.** With so little practice time at the start of the season, the coaches could not correct some bad habits they may have developed. Now with the regular season schedule they get no practice time to iron out things like poor shooting form or better decision-making in a faster paced offense.

**As it turns out, Matthews is shooing the best out of the guards and by a fairly wide margin. Here are their lines (FG% / 3P% / FT% / eFG% / TS%): Matthews, .415/.347/.844/.488/.530; Crawford, .385/.333/.984/.439/.499; Felton .366/.215/.797/.402/.442. However, Batum has been the best shooter on the team this season: .461/.416/.827/.549/.598. This is partly due to the fact Batum is simply maturing as a player and entering his prime. But it's also not a coincidence the best shooter on the team is also the player who played in Europe during the lockout.

Some of you will say I'm simply making excuses for the Blazers. I'm not. I recognize a lot of the Blazers wounds this season are self-inflicted. For instance, it is definitely concerning that Felton appears to visit VooDoo every day for breakfast in a contract year. If he had cared enough he could have certainly kept his weight down to a more reasonable level during the lockout. I am not arguing that Felton would be a top-5 PG if they Blazers had a full offseason, just that we know he is a better player than he has shown this season. Also, while it is not the Blazers' fault Roy retired, Nate is still using a shoot-first, high-volume shooter too much late in close games instead of going to LA more. He is, however, an excellent coach; there isn't a coach in the league who could have gotten more out of the Blazers' injury-ravaged lineups the past few seasons.

What I am saying is the Blazers are not as bad-off as many of you seem to think. They are suffering through a horrible lockout hangover. Overall they are playing well, and have a deep lineup filled with quality players. Given a regular offseason the Blazers would probably have better guard play. Better guard play would probably have led to the Blazers being in fewer close games, which would have masked their lack of a go-to crunch time scorer. At the end of the day, if you want to assign blame for the Blazers' poor play this season, blame the lockout. I'm not saying the Blazers should or should not resign Felton, or that we as fans should just accept the Blazers' poor guard play. But we should recognize it for what it is.

A really, really bad hangover.

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