The Portland Trail Blazers are having a fine season with a 21-16 record, a spot in the Western Conference Playoffs bracket, and another All-NBA season from point guard Damian Lillard all in hand. Last weekend, we documented some of the things going right for the team. Today we’re going to look at 5 things that aren’t going as well...factors possibly keeping the Blazers from taking the next step into actual relevance.
Three Point Defense
You knew this one already, but to recap:
- The entire world is pivoting towards the three-point shot.
- The Blazers aren’t defending those shots well.
Portland currently ranks 27th in the league in opponent three-point shooting percentage, allowing 37.1%. A couple factors mitigate the dismal outlook. They’re not that far off of the 36.6% they allowed last season, and that was good (errr... mediocre) enough to rank them 19th in the league. They also rank 11th in opponent three-point attempts, allowing 30.5 per game. Though they need to get better, it’s not like they’re ceding the arc completely.
Portland’s own three-point shooting is less damning than their three-point defense, but ultimately it may tell the story of the season more.
At the beginning of the year, the long-ball became a mantra when the Blazers were asked what had changed over the summer. “We’ve got shooters now!” echoed across the airwaves like Advanced Stats Despacito.
It hasn’t worked out that way...at least not enough.
So far in 2018-19, the Blazers rank 18th in the NBA in three-point rate. Though their 34% ratio is technically higher than last year’s 32.5%, they’re in the exact same spot relative to other teams, who have also slightly increased their rate. The Blazers remain squarely in the middle of the league in percentage of points generated from three-pointers. They’re OK, but not special.
In actual three-point shooting percentage, the Blazers rank 9th, helped a couple spots forward by their torrential shooting game against the Philadelphia 76ers the other night. 9th is solid, but their actual percentage of 35.8% is slightly lower than last year’s 36.4%. They are shooting more threes by percentage of total shots than last year’s Blazers (again, the whole league is), but they’re not shooting them better.
Effective Field Goal Percentage factors the significance of three-point shooting into overall percentage. In this category, the Blazers rank a homely 19th. That’s better than their 23rd-place finish last season, but it’s not enough. As of last weekend, the only team ranking below the Blazers in EFG% with a winning record were the Oklahoma City Thunder.
This incarnation of the Blazers is not going to excel through defense. They need to field an average defense, coupled with a world-class offense in order to break through. The three-point attack is a big part of those world-class aspirations. Right now, it’s just not happening.
Points in the Paint
Points in the paint have not been a strong point for Portland in recent years, but if they’re not going to tear apart the league with the long ball, cutters and post-plays are the next best scoring options. Right now the Blazers rank 21st among 30 NBA teams, generating 46.4 points per game inside. The good news: that’s way better than the 43.5 they generated last year. The bad news: the entire league is scoring more, and they’ve only moved up two spots comparatively with the increased scoring. They’re still stuck in the bottom third.
Opponent Fourth-Quarter Scoring
Ask observers what the story of Portland’s season is, and many will tell you it’s coming back from deficits to earn thrilling victories late. That happens sometimes, but on average the Blazers have not excelled in the fourth period. They rank 13th in points scored in the final frame with 26.9. They rank 28th in points allowed in the fourth, with 27.9. The resulting -1.0 average puts them 25th in the league.
P.S. Portland’s best scoring margin comes in the first quarter, where they’re +1.9, good for 6th overall.
With suspect defenders in the lineup, the Blazers have generally opted for safe defensive schemes, cutting off desirable sections of the floor and trying to force opponents into mid-range shots rather than layups or open triples. They’re not into gambling and don’t trade on turnovers. This costs them opportunities to generate extra possessions and speed.
The story is no different this year. The Blazers rank 29th in turnovers per possession, ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers. Turnovers don’t correlate directly with success; Golden State ranks 24th and the Milwaukee Bucks 26th. Both of those teams are doing fine without the extra lift that forced TO’s would provide, though.