The Trail Blazers have struggled to score, at times, this season. They currently have an offensive rating of 105.4, No. 14 in the league and the team’s lowest since 2012-13.
Some of the scoring problems can be attributed to Portland’s poor shooting around the rim. They’re tied with the Celtics for the worst field goal percentage within five feet of the hoop — not great for a team that’s also in the bottom third in 3-point field goal attempts per game.
So, what’s the problem? Why are the Blazers struggling around the rim? To begin to answer that question, it’s informative to consider how well each player on the roster shoots within five feet, compared to other players who play the same position (note that this analysis only includes players who have taken 50 or more shots in that range — sorry, Meyers Leonard):
(Also note that Connaughton, Turner, Collins, and Davis are all listed at two positions. I classified Connaughton as a guard, Turner and Collins as forwards, and Davis as a center for this table.)
First, the good news: Portland isn’t freezing out an around-the-rim savant!
Now, the bad news: the Blazers don’t really have any players who are super-effective at scoring at the hoop. Nobody on the the roster is in the top half of the league for field goal percentage within five feet, so it’s not possible to “re-assign” shots from one player to another and have the team become elite.
There also doesn’t seem to be a lot of potential for improvement, or hope to find a player with a hidden talent for scoring at the hoop. Compared to last year’s team, only McCollum is shooting significantly worse within five feet:
For Lillard and McCollum this is, unfortunately, a likely consequence of having few other offensive threats on the roster who can draw the defense’s attention. Opposing teams are free to overload and McCollum and Lillard and force them into ineffectiveness.
What About Nurkic?
Perhaps the biggest problem here is Jusuf Nurkic. He has been downright awful around the rim, shooting only 56.2 percent and ranking No. 71 out of 75 centers in the league. He’s also taken more shots from that range than any other Blazer by far. If coach Terry Stotts hopes to improve the Blazers’ efficiency, Nurkic seems to be the most obvious candidate for improvement. But why is Nurkic struggling?
Let’s take a look at his effectiveness on various types of plays:
Since we’re primarily concerned with Nurkic’s scoring around the rim, it’s striking to notice that his percentile on points per possession is below 30 as the roll man, posting up, and while cutting — mostly shots within five feet of the basket, presumably.
When compared to last year, his post-ups have taken the most dramatic drop, moving from the 60th percentile to the 19th (he did not register as a roll man for the Blazers last year and he was in the tenth percentile as a cutter).
A video review confirms frequent critiques of Nurkic’s game this season. Last season he seemed to savor physical contact, often taking time in the post to body up against the defender and use his significant bulk to get up a good shot. Even when he didn’t score, his physical style looked effective:
By comparison, this season Nurkic receives passes in the post and often quickly flips up an off-balance and imprecise shot — patience and willingness to use his size to punish smaller defenders has disappeared. He seems to almost flail at times, putting up terrible shots while nearly falling over:
It’s barely hyperbole to say he’s transformed from Shaquille O’Neal to Shawn Bradley. (Okay, that’s probably a bit much, but the point stands!)
That’s not to say Nurkic was perfect a year ago — he had his fair share of flippy/flailing shots last year too — but the frequency of poor shots in the post has increased significantly, and his falling efficiency reflects that. Perplexingly, and without any discernible reason, his low-post fundamentals also seem to have regressed. Not a great trend for a 23-year old player with reported work ethic issues.
The Blazers are ...not good... around the rim. Given their personnel, that’s unlikely to change significantly — they don’t have a single player who shoots well within five feet of the basket. That said, Nurkic proved he could be effective in the low post last season, but has struggled this year. Portland will hope he re-discovers his bruising power moves in time for the playoffs.
(All statistics retrieved from stats.nba.com and accurate as of Feb. 22.)