If you had told me at the start of training camp that the Blazers would be a top-10 defensive team, I would have given you a look of doubt and said "Maybe. I certainly hope so." If you told me the Blazers would be better on defense than they were on offense, I would have thought you had flown over, under and around the Cuckoo's nest and reported you to the homer police.
Don't look now, but the Blazers have the third best defense and the eighth ranked offense, scoring 2.6 fewer points a game this season compared to last. This really makes no sense as the Blazers' primary offensive weakness last year, the bench, is substantially improved.
Complaining about 2.6 measly points a game may seem nitpicky, but that's pretty much all anyone can write about a 26-8 team. Plus, in a brutal Western Conference, minor flaws could be the difference between a first round exit and a Finals appearance. The Blazers are still a good offensive team but they're getting fewer offensive rebounds and rarely get to the free throw line.
*Note: All stats are from basketball-reference.com or stats.nba.com unless otherwise stated. For an explanation of what the four factors are check out the Blazer's Edge Defensive Check-In or basketball-reference's glossary.
The offensive rebounding makes sense and is part personnel, part injury, and part approach. The addition of Chris Kaman and Robin Lopez's injury have meant fewer minutes for our two best offensive rebounders. The Blond Bearded One is no slouch crashing the glass, but he's not elite like Lopez or Thomas Robinson. Nicolas Batum has also seen his offensive rebounding percentage cut in half to a career low 2.3%. It's impossible to know how much this is simply lack of aggression or luck, but a change in transition defense philosophy has the greatest affect on the small forward. The two bigs pretty much always crash but teams have different rules for when, how, and if wings should go for the board. With all the talk about transition defense from coach Terry Stotts, it's possible this is simply the result of Batum executing a new game plan.
All in all, the drop has been moderate and will pick back up a little once the Big Goonie returns. The Blazers' improved shooting more than makes up for a few less second chance points so this isn't a cause for alarm. The real problem has been foul shots and, unfortunately, the explanation is much less clear.
Looking to the same explanations, new personnel is unsatisfying. Steve Blake basically never gets to the line but Kaman draws more fouls than our other bigs so that should be a wash. Lopez was never a big portion of our foul shots so his injury isn't sufficient either. The Blazers run the same offense so it's not a stylistic or philosophical shift.
Our first clue is that Blazers' shot distribution has changed, trading a few shots at the rim for three pointers.
This actually understates the shift as it only tracks field goals attempts. Nyloncalculus.com has a snazzy stat that tracks both field goal attempts and fouls drawn within three feet of the basket. In that statistic, the Blazers have dropped from 29.1% to 25.4%. In other words, last year 29.1% of Blazer plays ended in a field goal attempt within three feet or, they drew a foul within three feet. This year that number is down to 25.4%. Ouch.
If you're shaking you head thinking you haven't noticed a stark decline in the Blazers getting to the rim, you're not alone. Before researching this article I didn't think the Blazers were having trouble attacking the basket (at least not more than usual). In many ways, that perception was right. Portland is actually averaging more drives to the basket than last year, riding the coat tails of their burgeoning star. Lillard is driving the ball an extra 1.5 times a game, equal to the team's increase, and finishing them at an impressive 49%. That's good for fourth in the league among players that average at least nine drives per game and ahead of the like of James Harden and LeBron James. The criticism that Lillard can't finish at the rim is quickly becoming an antiquated inaccuracy (now, he still has absolutely no floater, shooting an abysmal 24% between three and 10 feet, but that's a conversation for another day).
Individual brilliance tends to dominate everyone's attention and can blind you from what's happening elsewhere. Everyone knows that Wesley is on fire and Batum is in a shooting slump, but what's really concerning is that their games have changed. Both guys have seen big drops and career lows in their shots at the rim, drives, and fouls shots. Portland is shooting four fewer foul shots a game and three of those have come from Matthews and Batum's struggles.
Some of this is certainly aggression and what's wrong with Batum has been a common question this year. Neither wing is turning the corner as often on the pick and roll and even if they do they're settling for runners or pull-ups. Batum has his lowest Usage Percentage since his rookie year and just hasn't seemed as involved in the offense. Much of this criticism falls on the individual players, but the fact that Matthews is also seeing a change in his shots supports an observation I haven't been able to substantiate till now.
I think the Blazers' play calling has changed.
Last year, "Around the World", where both wings move in a circle around the court, was one of their favorite plays. It's also unique which is why I chose it for the Choose Your Own Adventure breakdown. I was shocked how rarely they ran it this year and how long it took me to get all my clips together. Even if they do run the play, they often do so as a way to enter the ball into the post rather than look for curls or cuts to the basket. The curl is an important action because the wing catches the ball while moving toward the basket. That, and dribble hand-offs that quickly reverse the side of the ball are two of the main ways to get Wesley and Nicolas shots at the rim. I've seen fewer of both in exchange for post-ups and high pick and rolls. Those actions are pretty good in their own right, but it's meant a different role for our wings and fewer trips to the line as a whole.
Statistical evidence for this kind of subtle shift is difficult to find. The changing shot distribution for Matthews and Batum is one piece. The other two I would point to are a lower assist percentage on two-point field goals and more close touches per game. Portland is shooting the fewest two point field goals ever for the franchise and a lower percentage of those shots are assisted. This is strange since the Blazers are averaging an extra close touch per game. A close touch is one that begins within twelve feet of the basket. Put those two together and you have players catching the ball inside more often but rarely putting the ball in immediately. That screams post-ups rather than cuts as players that catch it inside are forced to make an individual move before shooting.
These changes are slight. The overall motion and passing of the offense hasn't changed, as the team is averaging about the same number of miles travelled and passes per game. The difference is they're moving in slightly different ways towards different outcomes. The result is a unique offense. Only three teams have averaged fewer than 20 free throws per game and managed to get over 50 wins. Luckily, two of those teams made the conference finals or beyond so there's no reason to believe this style of offense can't make a run in the playoffs.
However, as everyone is quick to bring up, this won't be a typical playoffs. In maybe the greatest conference of all time, any opportunity for improvement needs to be explored, and the Blazers can find a more optimal mixture of plays and actions. This, along with a healthy roster and more aggression from our wings, can get Rip City back to where it was last year and maybe even beyond. An eighth ranked offense might be good enough in a typical year, but there can be no settling in the West.