If you paid much attention Portland Trail Blazers’ 2016-17 regular season, you’re likely keenly aware of how the mid-February arrival of center Jusuf Nurkic provided a spark for the team on both ends of the floor.
Portland’s shooting, rebounding, scoring and defense all improved with Nurkic on the court. Basketball-Reference provides the on-court/off-court evidence of the impact he had in 20 games this season as a Blazer:
You’ll notice Portland’s effective field goal percentage, total rebounding percentage, offensive rating and opponent offensive rating all benefited greatly with Nurkic healthy and playing...but there’s one question on everyone’s mind: did he lead to the team dunking more?!
Calculating Dunks Per Game and Dunk Percentage Rate
Almost two years ago, we took a look at the Blazers’ chances to dunk more often after adding Al-Farouq Aminu, Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Gerald Henderson, Noah Vonleh and Moe Harkless to the roster in the 2015 offseason. Using Basketball-Reference’s shot finder tool, we were able to determine an ultra-scientific and accurate “dunk percentage” for each Blazer: successful dunk attempts divided by total made field goals.
With the 2016-17 season all wrapped up, fans are no doubt clamoring for an update on Portland’s individual dunk percentages, and we’ve delivered. This spring’s edition, however, also includes dunks per game for additional context. Let’s start by showing the NBA’s top 10 dunkers by volume, courtesy Basketball-Reference:
DeAndre Jordan—who led the league this regular season with 253 of his 412 made field goals registered as dunks—clocks in with over 3.12 dunks per game and an insane 61.4 percent dunk rate (i.e. 61.4 percent of his made field goals were dunks). Karl-Anthony Towns slammed home 130 of his own this year to earn the No. 10 ranking in total dunks, with 1.59 per game but a modest 16.2 percent rate as a more balanced scorer.
Now that we know how the league’s most prolific dunkers are performing, let’s get back to the Blazers to see if Nurkic helped his new team get more flushes at the rim post-trade.
How Often Did the Blazers Dunk Before and After Nurk?
Portland definitely had a few solid dunkers in the first 55 games of the season, as evidenced by Mason’s numbers that put him on pace to be a top-10 NBA dunker:
Plumlee’s 1.67 dunks per game and 38 percent dunk rate led Portland early on, while no other player on the roster even managed a single flush per night. Ed Davis and Al-Farouq Aminu had solid percentages, but both were both lacking in terms of volume. For being the youngest team in the league this season, the Blazers sure didn’t seem to dunk much before Nurkic came around.
Did Damian Lillard and Co. pick up the pace at the rim and finish with more authority in the 20 games with the Bosnian Beast? Let’s take a look:
There are definitely some interesting results.
Whose Dunking Was Most Impacted By Nurk’s Arrival?
Adding a 7-footer with the size, footwork, screen-setting skill and rim-rolling ability of Nurkic allowed a handful of other players to get to the rim more often and finish stronger, apparently. Plumlee also clearly left a vacuum for others to dunk more, as he led the team in total dunks, dunks per game and dunking percentage rate before being traded.
Who was affected most, and how?
The above table displays all 14 Blazers besides Plumlee and Nurkic who registered one or more dunks this year, sorted descending by the percentage change in dunks per game with Nurkic in Portland. The last column—the change in dunk percentage—represents the increase or decrease in dunk percentage points before and after the Nurkic trade.
As you can see, Vonleh, Harkless and Aminu benefited most from the addition of Nurkic, both in terms of dunks per game and percentage increase. With Nurkic dunking roughly half as often as Plumlee, his frontcourt teammates picked up the slack.
Does This Mean Anything?
Probably, but it’s hard to say for sure. Plumlee facilitated more often than Nurkic in coach Terry Stotts’ offense and also dunked more, but Nurkic was much more of an all-around threat—at least from the opposition’s perspective—and likely had a larger gravitational pull, garnering more attention from the defense.
If you consider that Nurkic shifted the focus of opposing defenses onto himself more than Plumlee did—who, conversely, allowed defenses to focus on others—it might be fair to assume that Nurkic’s overall effectiveness as an offensive player led to his teammates dunking more than Plumlee’s masterful passing from the top of the key did. Remember, Nurkic is no slouch at passing, either.
What, then, changed for Vonleh, Harkless and Aminu post-trade that allowed them to dunk more, besides playing time? Why didn’t the Blazers’ backcourt—with former NBA All-Star Slam Dunk Contest competitor Damian Lillard scoring a career-high 27 points per game—dunk much at all? Check back next week, when Blazer’s Edge begins rolling out individual player reviews!
--Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter