This season has felt more like two for the Portland Trail Blazers. There’s the pre-All-Star break morass of disappointment and the post-All-Star break reinvigoration. Jusuf Nurkić’s arrival demarcated the two, but how much of a difference has he really made?
Let’s check in on the offense one last time and see if Nurkić’s impact shows up in the team’s statistical profile.
Blazers Team Offense
Offensive Rating: 109.6, No. 6 (106.8, No. 13)
*note: all stats are from stats.nba.com unless otherwise noted. Numbers in parentheses represent the team’s statistics this season before Nurkić’s arrival.
There’s no doubt the Blazers have been on a tear since the All-Star break. Their offense has gone from almost average to almost top-five. But this feels oddly similar to last season when the team got hot to end the season and everyone thought the team would pick up where they left off. Last year it was the starting lineup change.
This season it’s Nurkić Fever.
Before we get our hopes up, is there evidence that this is a sustainable upswing? Let’s keep digging.
- EFG%: 54.4%, No. 4 (51.3%, No. 14)
- TOV%: 15.4, No. 27 (13.6, No. 10)
- OREB%: 23.6 percent, No. 15 (22.7 percent, No. 17)
- FT Rate (FTA/FGA): 0.301, No. 7 (0.270, No. 19)
Right away, meaningful differences appear. The Trail Blazers’ shooting has spiked along with their free throw rate. This would definitely be consistent with a big bruiser manufacturing points inside and attacking the rim with force. Turnovers are also way up, another predictable outcome if you add a turnover-prone center to the mix.
However, with the small sample size, these things could easily be caused by players who were already on the roster fluctuating. To tease out these questions, we have to take a look at the entire roster in the context of each statistic.
Throughout the season, Portland’s shot distribution remained remarkably consistent. While the offensive output varied, the way the team tried to generate points didn’t. Portland was a team that rarely (relatively speaking) got all the way to the basket and made up for it with lots of 3-pointers at the top of the key.
That may be changing.
Portland has taken significantly more shots in the paint and within the restricted area. That has come at the expense of 3-pointers as more of the Blazers’ offense has moved inside. Both corner threes and above the break threes have dropped since Nurkić’s arrival.
It’s pretty basic to understand this shift. Compared to Mason Plumlee, Nurkić is much more likely to roll hard to the rim than the kick the ball out to the perimeter. Nurkić is averaging almost two more shots a game at the rim compared to Plumlee’s production.
From a purely numbers perspective, this shift in shot selection is almost a wash. Three-pointers and shots at the rim are the most valuable areas on the floor. What you’d prefer to do is move shots out of the mid-range into one of the those two areas. Shuffling between the high-efficiency areas will have a muted effect in comparison.
So how do we explain the team’s increased shooting percentage?
Woah! Look at those 3-point percentages. Portland has gone absolutely nuts from behind the arc since the break. They’re leading the league in shooting outside over that time period from both major areas. There’s also been a slight uptick In the paint and slight regression from the mid-range but these changes are relatively small. What’s really driving the Blazers’ improved EFG% is their hot shooting from behind the arc.
Basketball is a very interconnected game and one could argue that a new center could directly cause improved shooting from the outside. If they set better screens, guards will have more time and space. If they draw attention on the inside, they’ll set players up for choice catch-and-shoot opportunities.
This is certainly happening. Nurkić has helped free Damian Lillard and company with his big body and aggressive rim runs. The problem is the extent.
Literally every shooter on the team is current shooting well above both their season and their career averages from behind the line; some of them are significantly above their averages. We all know CJ McCollum is a great shooter. But is anyone willing to bet he can shoot 48 percent from deep for a whole season? These kinds of team-wide hot streaks just aren’t sustainable. Maybe we could hope one or two players would exceed their career averages next year, but not the whole team.
Nurkić has made a difference, but a hot streak is driving the team’s recent offensive performance.
This one you probably can pin on Nurkić’s arrival. Nurkić is averaging almost twice as many turnovers as Mason Plumlee in roughly the same amount of minutes. At the same time, no one else’s turnover numbers have changed much since the All-Star break. We knew turnovers were one of Nurkić’s weaknesses and, in that respect, he’s come as advertised.
If he’s to blame for losing possessions, Nurkić is also responsible for creating extra shots. Portland’s offensive rebounding numbers have gone up a modest one percentage point, but it’s pretty much all due to their new big man. Everyone’s numbers are almost identical, and Nurkić is handily outpacing Plumlee’s production. He’s grabbing 12.9 percent of the available offensive rebounds while Mason only collected 9 percent.
This picture is a little more complicated. Nurkić is averaging an extra half a free throw a game compared to Plumlee, not nearly enough to explain the team’s uptick. No one has spiked in this area but half the roster has improved slightly. This seems like a collective effort to be more aggressive. Perhaps it’s because they’ve all caught the fever but I’ll need to see this trend last for awhile longer before I put any stock in it.
Why is the Blazers’ Offense Clicking so Well Right Now?
As potent as Nurkić fever has been, it’s Damian Lillard who has increased the temperature. His hot shooting, and that of his fellow guards, has driven this uptick in offensive performance over the past several weeks.
That shooting is probably not sustainable. Lillard has never put together a whole season at this level of production, and it’s unreasonable to think most of his teammates could continue exceeding their career averages by this margin.
That may sound like a wet blanket, but it really isn’t if you stop and think about it. Nurkić hasn’t taken the Blazers to a new level offensively but he also hasn’t hampered them, either. He’s got a different game than Plumlee and that signature is visible throughout the team’s profile. By trading centers, they traded rim-runs for kick-outs and got more rebounds and turnovers. It’s hard to untangle all of those competing trends, but they probably come out about even.
Many fans dreamed of getting a center who could mimic Plumlee on the offensive end while providing a rim-protecting presence on the other. We’ll get into the defensive end later, but Nurkić has more or less produced at that level. And he’s doing that at age 22 with a ceiling as high as anybody’s.
This hot shooting streak won’t last forever, but that doesn’t make Nurkić’s future any less bright with the Blazers.