The Portland Trail Blazers hit the NBA All-Star Break fresh off a victory over the Golden State Warriors, with a 32-26 record and some semblance of positive momentum. Let’s examine Portland’s season so far by the numbers to see what, if anything, has changed for them and what we might expect the end of the year to bring.
Here’s a look at Portland’s overall record in 2016-17 and 2017-18:
There’s no comparison between Portland’s record after 58 games last year and this. This year’s Blazers got off to a better start, kicking the ever-loving tarnation out of their 2016-17 winning pace. A couple caveats:
- Their overall record doesn’t project to be that much better, even should they maintain their current pace. The Blazers went 18-8 after the All-Star break last year, buoyed by the acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic and a semi-soft schedule. If they had continued winning at that rate this season, they’d own a 40-18 record instead of 32-26. Obviously, they didn’t. They’re far better than their early-season doppelgangers last year, but they’re well short of the “Nurk Fever” Blazers everyone hoped to see.
- The stretch opponents aren’t going to be semi-soft this year. Portland has the 9th-toughest schedule in the league between now and the playoffs. They seem to be home-agnostic and are actually doing better on the road this season, but their main gains have come against teams below .500. Those teams will be rare in March and April. Not only will the Blazers have difficulty matching last year’s end-of-season run, they may be hard pressed to keep up their own pace.
We turn to Portland’s offensive numbers and rankings.
The Blazers have slipped below last year’s offensive production rates, mainly due to a lack of easy buckets. They’ve stayed even in paint points, but they’re short more than 4 fast break points and 3 free throw attempts per game off of last year’s totals. Their weaknesses haven’t gotten much stronger. The offensive rebounding that boosted them through the early season has come back to earth. A stellar performance from the three-point arc is keeping their offense from looking bad, but they aren’t much north of mediocre.
Fortunately Portland’s defensive numbers look better:
The Blazers have made giant strides in points allowed and Defensive Efficiency. They’ve done it by mirror-imaging their offensive strengths and weaknesses: denying the opponent the same easy shots that the Blazers themselves lack, turning opponents into shadow-selves. The Blazers have shaved a point off of paint points allowed, 2.6 points off in transition, and give up 4.5 fewer free throw attempts per game than they did last season. Their Achilles’ Heel remains three-point defense. Despite that, the overall effect is quite positive. The guards and wings deserve kudos for getting back in transition. More security in the lane and on the glass—likely as a result of Nurkic’s big body and Ed Davis playing well—also factors in.
The Story So Far...
Overall, the numbers paint a picture of a team trying to shore up their major deficits, succeeding to a point, but not transforming enough yet to change their status in any major way. The Blazers rank Top 5 in two offensive categories (three-point percentage and free throw percentage) and two defensive (points in the paint allowed and field goal percentage allowed). A couple of those are major accomplishments, but there’s too much mediocrity mixed in to allow the gains to tell. If there’s a corner to turn, Portland hasn’t gotten enough traction to reach it yet. Nurkic, a rejuvenated Davis, and the career-best year of Al-Farouq Aminu are making a difference, but it’s not as significant as hoped. If the Blazers can duplicate their phenomenal run at the end of last season, they can recapture a claim to relevance. Failing that, they’re going to end up where they have for the last couple years: decent (in a slightly different way this time) but still not where they want to be.