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Trail Blazers Defining Midseason Stories: McCollum, Nurkic, Strength of Schedule and More!

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Eric Griffith digs into the four stories that have defined the season so far for Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers

NBA: Orlando Magic at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers reached midseason last night with their victory over the New York Knicks. Jusuf Nurkic has dominated the newscycle while the team has generally played above expectations, achieving a 24-17 record. Read on for four stats that describe what’s gone on with the Blazers to this point.

Jusuf Nurkic’s free throws

I was originally going to write exclusively about Jusuf Nurkic today but he’s been so popular over the last week there’s been a virtual deluge of Bosnian Beast content at Blazer’s Edge and on all the other usual sites.

So I’ll highlight one element of his game that I haven’t seen talked about: free throw shooting. Nurkic’s free throw rate has risen from .287 last season to .447 while his conversion rate has jumped from 63 percent to 74 percent. That 56 percent jump in trips to the line has helped Nurkic boost his efficiency significantly and played a huge role in his effectiveness.

CJ’s shooting will improve

In contrast to Nurkic, CJ McCollum has been going through a bit of a slump this year, shooting only 33 percent on 3-pointers despite averaging more than 40 percent over the prior three seasons.

Here’s the good news: Last time I checked, there are no Mon-Stars in Portland. CJ didn’t just magically losing his shooting ability over the summer.

Outside shooting is one of the most fickle stats in the entire NBA — one analysis suggested that it takes 750 attempts before 3-point percentage even begins to normalize. Call me crazy, but I’m going to assume the nearly 1400 attempts McCollum converted at a 40 percent clip from 2015-2018 more representative of his ability than the 234 attempts he’s taken this season.

There has been some hand-wringing about how McCollum has failed to add to his repertoire (e.g. his assist percentage remains 33 percent lower than Nurkic’s), but his shooting will improve eventually and he will return to his role as a solid second or third option for the Blazers.

Games missed due to injury

Ten of Portland’s 11 rotation players have combined to miss a total of six games due to injury this year.

SIX!

That’s less than one game per player!

This remarkably good health has been part of a large trend for the Blazers. Last season Portland missed the second fewest games in the league due to injury, and they have missed the third fewest in the last five years. Note that this analysis even includes the 82 games Festus Ezeli sat out! This season Portland has continued to stay healthy as everyone on the roster, except Maurice Harkless, has avoided missing any significant time.

Obviously every team is at risk for a freak Gordon Hayward-esque broken ankle, but the Blazers medical staff seems to be reducing the likelihood of injuries, in general. That trend has played a major role for the Blazers and will continue to be a storyline to watch as teams jockey for playoff seeding.

Blazers are winning more than expected

The Blazers have 24 wins at the midway point of the season; that’s the most wins they’ve had through 41 games in the post-LaMarcus Aldridge era. That record can simultaneously be interpreted as both an overachievement and and a sign that the best is yet to come.

Both Basketball Reference and ESPN calculate that the Blazers have an expected record of 22-19 — this means that they’ve won two more games than you would expect based on their overall statistics. Specifically, their margin of victory sits at only +1.2, 0.1 ahead of the 22-19 Lakers and 0.1 behind the 19-20 Hornets.

On the other hand, virtually every analysis I can find says the Blazers have had one of the most difficult schedules in the NBA so far, suggesting that they may have won even more than 24 games if they had played a “normal” schedule.

Overall, this paints the picture of a team that is capable of continuing on their current 48-win pace barring any major setbacks, and could flirt with 50 if they go on a late-season surge. Given the roster’s limitations, that is about the upper limit of wins that could be expected so Blazers fans should be happy with how the team has performed thus far.