Portland Trail Blazers All-Star Break Assessment Part 1: The Team

One of the few pleasant wrinkles of the 2011-12 schedule is giving us a chance to breathe exactly halfway through the campaign. With 34 games gone and 32 left to go it's time to look at the Portland Trail Blazers and see how they're stacking up. Today we look at team performance, tomorrow at individuals.

Record: 18-16, 2nd in Northwest Division, 8th in Western Conference Home 13-5 (9th in NBA), Away 5-11 (22nd)

Looking at the big picture, the Blazers are within expected parameters at 18-16 and 8th in the West. The 3rd-10th positions in the conference are separated by 4.5 games. A couple more wins would make their start look amazing by seeding standards, a couple more losses disastrous. At this point position is a poor measure other than to say they're doing far more poorly than the elite teams in the conference but far better than the dregs. Somewhere around the middle is where they were projected to be. So far they're on track.

The issue with the Blazers has been how they've acquired that .529 winning percentage. They started the season 7-2, inviting ill-fitting comparisons to last year's Dallas Mavericks. Since then they've muddled along at 11-14, falling off the national radar. The roller-coaster is supposed to be typical of the young team that the Blazers were three years ago, not the current team stocked with veterans.

Portland's road record of 5-11 has been worrisome. All teams struggled with travel at the beginning of the season, getting used to the strenuous schedule. The mantra then was, "Everybody loses on the road." Things have normalized and now a dozen teams are within a single game of .500 or better on the road. These are, for the most part, the best teams in the league. The Blazers are not among them despite an impressive home record. Away games are killing this squad...again a hallmark of younger teams. Veteran leadership apparently bows to fatigue, especially when the rotation runs 8 deep. Thus far the Blazers have been forced to choose how they'll lose quality of play: playing guys who aren't ready or playing guys who are exhausted because you avoided the first choice. The lack of practice time afforded by the schedule has exacerbated the difficulties of involving the deep bench...players who are either young or completely new to the team.

More disturbing than the road record has been Portland's utter lack of victories in games decided by 5 points or less. They're working on a 2-11 performance in that category. Splitting those contests 6-7 would put them in 3rd place in the conference instead of 8th...a specious designation given the bunch-up in the West but it'd be better to be at the head of that pack instead of being mired in the middle. Once again you point to Portland's name-level talent--players who have been around the league, put up stats, even won a little--and you think late-game execution shouldn't be an issue. Several of those players are new to the team or new to their roles, though, not felicitous when practice time is precious. Late-game fatigue also plays a role. That doesn't entirely excuse the dismal showing. Portland has enough talent to hang with these teams. For whatever reason they're not maximizing it, nor coming up with the critical plays necessary to close games.

The conclusion so far: the odd circumstances of the season are wreaking havoc with the Blazers but they're inches away from coming through it in fine style, playing above expectations. That they're meeting expectations while playing sub-optimally could be a ray of hope for the second half of the season. The counterpart is that they're bowing to external pressures and their own shortcomings instead of transcending them. That's not the behavior of a team that's going to make waves. Elite teams refuse to lose, finding new strength and resolve in the precise situations where the Blazers have tripped over their own shoelaces this season.

Click through for a statistical look at Portland's offensive and defensive production, plus wrap-up conclusions.

Offense

Here's the line on Portland's offensive production so far:

Category

Rank

Offensive Efficiency

8th

Fast Break Points/Game

24th

Fast Break Efficiency

28th

Points in Paint/Game

17th

Field Goal %

14th

Effective FG %

12th

True Shooting %

10th

Three-Point %

16th

Free Throw Att/Game

14th

Free Throw %

6th

Turnovers Per Possession

3rd

Assists Per Possession

10th

Offensive Rebounding %

18th

The number that stands out is the Offensive Efficiency. For all the guard troubles, adjustments, fatigue the Blazers are still producing per possession. They're producing on a per-game basis as well, ranking 6th in bulk points per game. When you think of how bad the Portland offense has looked at times this year, this makes you shake your head in wonder.

The Blazers are thriving on extra points, particularly from the free throw line. You see their production improve relative to the rest of the league when three-pointers are factored in and jump again when charity tosses are considered. The free throw percentage sticks out, the highest ranking of a positive stat in Portland's arsenal. They're average drawing fouls but they make the most of their opportunities.

Adding to the overall efficiency of their attack: lack of turnovers. Typical of a Nate McMillan team, the Blazers take care of the ball. This is particularly impressive when you also consider they generate the 6th most possessions in the league and the 10th most assists per possession. They're getting plenty of looks at the hoop relative to their friends and neighbors, at least occasionally moving the ball to do so, and it's working.

A couple caveats mar the rosy portrait, however. Being 17th in points in the paint doesn't hurt much. One look at the roster tells you that the Blazers will be no better than average in that department. But an "up tempo" team ranking 24th in fast break points and 28th in fast break efficiency raises eyebrows. The Blazers aren't dependent on fast break points outright. It's usually enough for them to get the ball up the floor and initiate the offense early. That brisk, early offense doesn't register in the fast break category but its success is reason enough for Nate McMillan to yell at his team to "run". The problem comes when the Blazers get better-than-usual opportunities on an outright break and do worse than almost anybody converting those opportunities. That's like giving away free points. The Blazers don't need too push harder. More breaks won't necessarily help their offense because they don't have the manpower to sustain that kind of running and they'd be working around, not through, some of their better players. But they do need to do a better job converting the breaks they have.

The 18th position in offensive rebounding percentage is also of interest. Early in the season this was a strength but the Blazers have abandoned it somewhat in favor of getting back on defense. We'll see how well that's working in a minute.

The overall impression: Portland's offense is working just great when things go well. But it's pretty clear they're just average when playing straight up. They need those free throws, the ball movement, some tempo, and every paint and break point they can get in order to prosper. Now consider what happens when Evil Mr. Fatigue steps in or they meet a team with a personal interest in slowing them down into isolation. All of a sudden Portland looks normal and eminently beatable.

Defense

Here are some defensive numbers to ponder:

Category

Rank

Defensive Efficiency

6th

Opponent Fast Break Points/Game

25th

Opponent Fast Break Efficiency

27th

Opponent Points in Paint

16th

Opponent Field Goal %

15th

Opponent Effective Field Goal %

12th

Opponent True Shooting %

12th

Opponent Three-Point %

3rd

Opponent Free Throw Att/Game

17th

Opponent Turnovers Per Possession

4th

Opponent Assists Per Possession

5th

Block Shot %

10th

Steals Per Play

4th

Defensive Rebounding %

6th

Once again this looks pretty spiffy. Defensive Efficiency is great. Perimeter defense looks excellent with three-point percentage and assists allowed low plus steals and forced turnovers extremely high. It's pretty certain nobody wants to play against Portland's wing defenders. Interior defense is not bad with points in paint allowed average, blocked shots good, and defensive rebounding excellent.

Here too, though, if you take away the extra effort the Blazers look ordinary...or worse. Field goal percentage allowed is only the median for the league. And Lord, if that's what Portland's transition defense looks like when they're forsaking offensive rebounds and trying to defend, I'd hate to see what happens when they give up. Oh wait...we have from time to time. It's ugly. When they Blazers don't force turnovers, dive in to cover the paint and then back out to cover the three, and rebound with passion the rest of their defensive game gets just as ugly. The conclusion is the same as on the offensive end: play hard or lose.

The evidence here, combined with a lengthy eye-test, seems to point to Portland's self-assessment being fairly accurate. We've heard from players all season that the team has ability but doesn't always execute. Flat stats alone don't explain why the Blazers aren't better than barely-above-.500. They've got chops on both ends of the floor. Extra effort in transition defense, blowing the transition offense, not making the hustle plays that take their play from average to excellent...these things are costing the Blazers critical points in close games. They've won a few talent-based games this season, lost a few others, but those crucial middle games tell the story of an otherwise proficient system getting derailed by mistakes, a lack of attention to detail, perhaps lack of energy or drive.

Stats are sketchier than usual this year because of the unbalanced, weird schedule but when you compare the 8th most efficient offense and 6th most efficient defense plus killer defensive rebounding with an 18-16 record--14th best in the league--you're left feeling like the kid who knew every answer on the math test but somehow still ended up with a C. Maybe they're fatigued, maybe they don't know each other well enough, maybe they lack leadership, or maybe they just don't test well. Either way, the only stat that really counts is the win-loss total. We'll see if Portland can bring that around in the second half and climb a little higher than the bottom rung of the playoff ladder.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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