A life of frustration is inevitable for any coach whose main enjoyment is winning. - Chuck Noll
This season must be the most frustrating of Nat McMillan's career. More frustrating than his first year in Portland, the '05-'06 campaign, when the Blazers went 21-61, because the Blazers were just a plain awful team. I would bet it is also more frustrating than his last season in Seattle, when the Sonics lost to the Spurs in the conference semi-finals.
By all measures, save the most important one, the Blazers are a top-10 (if not top-5) team this season. They are 4th in the NBA in point differential (+6.08) behind only the 76ers, Bulls, and Heat. Those teams have a combined 57-19 record. The Blazers are also one of only 4 teams in the top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (not surprisingly, the 76ers, Bulls, and Heat are again the other three).** However, for all of that point-scoring and defending, they have a mediocre-at-best 14-11 record to show for it. The 76ers, Bulls, and Heat are in first place in their divisions, the Blazers are in third. Why?
**The statistics I am using are from Basketball Reference or NBA.com.
Well, because the Blazers are 1-7 in games decided by four points or fewer. They are 0-5 in games decided by three points or less. In those games, the Bulls, Heat, and Thunder are 9-1. See the problem? The Blazers can't close out games. For someone as methodical and disciplined as Nate McMillan, this has to be infuriating. I feel there are several reasons for the Blazers' inability to close out close games.
First, Jamal Crawford shoots too much. This is not a debatable point, this is something that must change if the Blazers have any hope at improving their abysmal record in close games. Crawford not only has the second highest usage rate on the team at 27.9, he has the 5th highest usage rate amongst SG's who play more than 20 minutes a game (in case you're curious who he is behind, it's Kobe, Wade, Monta Ellis, and Louis Williams). That in and of itself is not a problem, the problem is he's not been a particularly good shooter this year; his shooting percentages are down this year, .379/.321/.432 vs. his career totals of .409/.350/.475 (FG% / 3P% / eFG%). He needs to get back to his '09-'10 form when he won NBA 6th Man of the Year award with the Hawks, when his usage rate was 25.8% and when he shot .449/.382/.523. Yes, the Blazers brought him in as a scoring spark off the bench, and to take some pressure off of the other guys, but what Nate (and Blazer fans) needs to realize and adjust for is the fact he is not Brandon Roy. He isn't a franchise player, he's a journeyman who can score. When Roy's body betrayed him, he left the Blazers with one someone who could close out close games, who was so clutch we just knew the game was over if it was close. Crawford is not that player, and Nate needs to stop giving him the shots Roy used to take late in close games.
**eFG% is Effective Field Goal Percent. It takes into account that three-point shots are worth more than two-point shots.
And yes, I'll be the first to admit I dislike him as a player. He is a horrendous defender and is possibly the worst rebounder in the league. There is no excuse for a 6'6" player to have never averaged more than 3.5 RBD per game. Take Wesley Matthews for example, he does not have the footwork to be an elite-level defender, but the effort he gives to guard the Kobes and Ray Allens of the NBA makes him a solid defender. But if Crawford can cut his usage rate back and to be a more efficient scorer off the bench, I wouldn't care so much about his defense because at least he would be bringing a skill the Blazers desperately need (shooting) to the table.
Second, and most importantly, LaMarcus Aldridge needs to get the ball more. If he is going to be a franchise-level player, he has to improve against double teams, and be the go-to guy down the stretch. He has to be the player taking the shots Roy used to take. Just for comparison purposes, here is how LA's usage rate stacks up against all-time great power forwards. The percentages are the range of usage rates during the players' primes.
- Patrick Ewing: 26.5-31.5%
- Tim Duncan: 26.2-29.7%
- Dirk Nowitzki: 25.5-30.3%
- Kevin Garnett: 25.4-29.6% (with the Timberwolves)
- LA: 19.3-25.3%
What the list shows is that LA does not touch the ball enough to be a franchise level power forward. His percentages need to be around 28-30%. Now, the list is slightly disingenuous, because it does not include his USG% from this year, which is 28.5% - right where he needs to be. LA's closest comps on the list are the Big Fundamental and the Big German. TD was a better rebounder and shot blocker while LA has a better long-range game, and Dirk has a better inside-out game. My guess is LA will end up being not quite as good as Duncan, and have a similar offensive game, though probably a better back to the basket game, to Dirk. The trick for LA is to become a better rebounder while simultaneously getting better at fighting through, and scoring against, double teams.
I am going to use Monday's Thunder game as an example. Now, for those of you saying "well it would be 2-6 if it weren't for the blown goaltending call", you are wrong. Yes, the ref's probably sent the game into OT given the situation, but the Blazers lost not because they put themselves in a situation to lose. They put themselves in the situation where the blown goaltending call sent them into OT. They had a six point lead with two minutes to play and could not close the game out. Part of it was Raymond Felton was injured and his replacement, Crawford, is one of the worst defenders/rebounders in the league. (Don't believe me? Crawford was out rebounded by Westbrooke 11-2. Pathetic.) Maybe if he was healthy he could have helped contain Westbrook. And part of it is the Thunder are a very good basketball team. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are two of the best players in the game, and they have the ability to come back from a six point deficit with two minutes to play. But the biggest reason the Blazers lost is LA went 3-11 in the 4th quarter and OT.
In those two periods of play, LA faced a double team nearly every time he touched the ball. As he develops his offensive game, he will get better at scoring when teams double him. Part of this will be developing a better face-up game, a lá Dirk. This will give him better court vision to see cutters and when teams bring a help defender if he drives to the basket. An encouraging sign for his face-up game is he is shooting his highest FG% of his career this year (.514), which forces opposing power forwards to respect his jump shot and not sag. By playing up on him, LA can use his quickness to drive on bigger PF's, and can simply shoot over the smaller ones.
The Blazers' success this season depends on three things: health (the thing every Blazer season depends on), Crawford cutting his usage rate and becoming a more efficient scorer off the bench, and, ultimately, how far we go depends on how far LA can carry the team. If he can score and make better decisions against double teams and become a legitimate inside-outside threat, he could carry the Blazers through a playoff round or two. But he must develop into the Blazers' closer. Otherwise Brandon Roy's ghost will haunt this season, and it will end with another first round playoff exit.