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Blazers Getting Away From Winning Formula

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The Trail Blazers have split their first four games of the 2016-17 season, but a couple worrisome trends have developed early on. How can Portland tighten things up?

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

As the whistle blew and the Portland Trail Blazers walked off the floor after getting thoroughly beaten by the Golden State Warriors Tuesday night, a thought dawned on me - If not for Damian Lillard going full-blown supernova, this team could easily be 0-4. It’s way too early to panic, but a bit of worry may be setting in as the things the Blazers have hung their hats on on are disappearing quickly and problems that were known are now glaring weaknesses.

Rebounding

Last season, the Blazers were a top-10 unit overall in rebound percentage (51 percent) and third in offensive rebound percentage (25.9 percent). While undersized at times in the frontcourt, Portland featured a bevy of bigs who absolutely feasted on the offensive glass. After four games, the Blazers don’t feature a single player in the top 50 in offensive rebounds per game. Last year they had two in the top 20 with Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee.

In every game this season the Blazers have been beaten on the offensive glass, and they’ve only won the rebound battle once. That came against a Utah Jazz team missing Derrick Favors and saw Rudy Gobert gobbling up 14 rebounds.

Second chance points that come off those offensive rebounds are something the Blazers count on in their nightly game plan. This season they’re losing out to their opponents by an average of three points per game in that department, so they’ve gone from second-chance scoring being a position of strength to somewhat of a push. In a tightly fought contest, those three points either way can be the difference in a win or a loss and right now the Blazers are on the losing end.

On the defensive backboards, denying second chances is almost as large a key to Blazer success as earning them on the other end. Not only are they struggling to generate their own second chances they’re allowing opponents to get more than they’re accustomed to.

Certainly I should note that the first three teams they’ve played - the Jazz, Clippers and Nuggets - are big, mobile, and aggressive on rebounds. But getting beaten by the Golden State Warriors, who feature Zaza Pachulia and a couple of forwards? If Portland keeps that up, they’ll be in for a long season.

Fast Break Points

While the Blazers have never really pushed the pace under coach Terry Stotts, they have also been notoriously stingy when it comes to allowing opponents to run as well. They’re just slightly below last season’s numbers for fast break points, but early on opponents are getting just shy of four more points per game than they did last season.

There has been talk of Portland extending its defense and looking to push the pace offensively. So far, they’re certainly pushing the pace - up from 98 to over 103. The problem is, with that increased pace Portland is turning it over more and only generating 0.2 more points on the break. If you add up the differences of points off turnovers, second-chance points, fast break points, and points in the paint, the Blazers are giving up over 20 extra points to the opponent on average. That’s a staggering deficit to try and overcome on a nightly basis and one would assume that at some point these things would even out over time, but it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.

Defense

When you take a look at the individual breakdown of play types, the Blazers rank middle of the pack or better in most categories. The pick-and-roll is not something that sticks out as a sore thumb analytically. The areas they’re struggling in will come as no surprise to those who have been watching early on - the cut and the hand-off. Together these two only account for roughly 16 percent of the plays run against them but it shows a larger problem: Portland is struggling early on with off-ball movement, navigating through traffic, and what appears to be a breakdown in communication.

While these issues are nothing to shy away from, the elephant in the room is points in the paint. Through the first four games they’ve given up 50, 42, 52, and 60 points in the middle. In the game against the Clippers where they only allowed 42 points inside, they also gave up 46 free throws. Which leads to the next point: fouls.

Not only are the Blazers getting beat inside, they’re allowing those buckets and sending teams to the line. Only the Memphis Grizzlies and the Phoenix Suns foul more than the Blazers. Last season Portland committed the sixth most fouls per game (21.7), and the early results have them a shade under 25 per match so far this year. Not only are teams pounding the Blazers inside, they’re getting to the line, as well - to the tune of 31 attempts per game.

To recap, the Blazers aren’t rebounding as well on either end, they’re giving up more fast break points, getting beat up in the paint, and they’re sending teams to the line at an alarming rate through four games - not exactly the way a team that carried over a starting lineup that played so well down the stretch last season was hoping to kick off the season.

Continuity

Much has been made about the continuity of the Blazers, retaining nearly everyone who played significant minutes last year and putting out a starting lineup of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Mason Plumlee that, while in limited time (290 minutes), sported an Offensive Rating of 113.2 and a Spurs-ian Defensive Rating of 98.8. Through 58 minutes on the floor this year that same lineup still holds up well offensively, registering a 110.5 ORtg, but on the other side of the floor their DRtg looks like it spent time at the Mike D’Antoni Program during the offseason, coming in at 111!

Only one lineup that’s played more than ten minutes together has a DRtg under 111 (Allen Crabbe, Ed Davis, CJ McCollum, Even Turner, Noah Vonleh) and that lineup has the single worst ORtg of any lineup Portland has put on the floor this season. One would expect some early bumps in the road as free agent acquisition Evan Turner works his way into the fold, but every other one of these players spent significant time with each other throughout last year. So it’s more than a bit surprising that at times they’ve looked incredibly disjointed on both ends of the floor.

While none of these areas of contentions will derail the Blazers on their own, save perhaps points in the paint, collectively they serve as an early season warning that Portland could be teetering on the edge of a “letdown.” Again, it’s still way too early to be worried about each of these for the long haul - they’re more negative trends than anything else.

Collectively these will keep the Blazers from performing on a consistent basis, but the hope, of course, is that with time these negative trends will level out and fall back into place. Davis and Plumlee will resume their rebounding ways. The defense should eventually tighten up in the interior and start deterring offenses, and the Blazers will likely start dictating and controlling the pace on both ends of the floor more often as the season progresses.

As Portland plays its next four or five games, the sample size will become larger and the opponents more varied. With that, they’ll have 10 percent of the season in the books and these trends, both positive and negative, start to settle in a bit more. If the Blazers hope to push for home court advantage and a deep playoff run, they’ve got to start addressing these short falls quick, fast, and in a hurry.