The Portland Trail Blazers have a problem. They cannot score within five feet of the basket this season. Key players like Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic, and CJ McCollum have been almost unbelievably bad at converting on lay-ups.
It’s gotten to the point that the Blazers aren’t just dead last in the league in field goal percentage around the rim – they’re 11.6 percent worse than last year’s least accurate team, the Memphis Grizzlies (43.7 percent vs. 55.3 percent, respectively). Ouch.
What, exactly, has gone wrong with Portland’s inside scoring?
Is it the fastbreak points (or lack thereof)?
The Blazers are last place in the league in fastbreak points at only 4.7 per game. This has been cited as a possible contributing factor to their inside scoring woes. Fastbreak points are high percentage shots that are usually scored around the rim, so it seems logical to assume that a lack of transition buckets is dragging down the Blazers’ percentage within five feet.
But that logic doesn’t quite hold up on deeper examination. If the Blazers added six points per game on fast breaks they would be tied for No. 12 in the league with the Phoenix Suns. Assuming those six points came on perfect 3-for-3 shooting, the Blazers would still be in last place in the league at around 51 percent.
Who’s missing the shots? Is the opposing defense the problem?
The next thing to consider is who is missing shots compared to last season. This table summarizes the per game differences by player over the last two seasons:
The key column here is “FG% Diff” – that’s how much each player has improved or regressed this year with positive numbers indicating that they have shot worse this season.
Alarmingly, every returning Blazer except Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner has gotten worse at shooting around the rim. McCollum has fallen by a remarkable 24.5 percent. Even Ed Davis, who has been having a great season, has gotten worse by about three percent.
Lillard, McCollum, as the team’s high volume scorers, may get the most blame for this trend, but the reality is that it is a team wide problem.
It’s also possible that the Blazers have just had an unlucky schedule so far and played against the best rim defending teams in the league. Here are the eight teams the Blazers have played in their nine games with each team's rank for defense around the rim in parentheses:
A couple of those teams are pretty good, but it’s hardly a murderer’s row of stingy defenses. The average rank of those teams is 15, which is right at the league average, and that’s without considering that their rankings might be slightly inflated by having played the Blazers.
From a purely statistical standpoint, this means the Blazers will need to look for internal adjustment to fix their shooting woes, and won’t be able to rely on an improved schedule in upcoming games.
Does this matter?
If field goal percentage within five feet of the hoop doesn’t affect wins then it’s possible that none of this really matters. But take a look at every team’s win total from last season considered with shooting around the basket:
There is a correlation (0.577), suggesting that as teams shoot better around the rim they do tend to win more games. In short, this is a problem the Blazers will need to correct as the season progresses if they hope to stay competitive. Unfortunately, it’s also a problem that seems to be rooted in the team’s gameplan or execution, which may make it slightly harder to solve.
Closing Note: The Blazers are also the top team in field goal percentage defense around the rim, which has likely been helping to offset their shooting woes. The season may hinge on whether or not their shooting improves, the defense gets worse, or some middle ground occurs.