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Early Season Trends for the Portland Trail Blazers

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With just over a week of basketball now in the books, here are some things—both positive and negative—of note.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers’ season is just over a week old. Their record of 3-2 could easily be 4-1 or 2-3 if a few bounces (or overturned calls) had gone differently. Five games (four of which were on the road) is an extremely small sample size, but with that caveat it’s still worth taking a look at some positive and negative trends that are emerging thus far.

Positive: Damian Lillard scoring inside. This isn’t a huge surprise, but Damian Lillard is still really good. Portland’s All-Star is scoring 29.2 points per game on 44.4 percent shooting while adding 7.6 assists per game. His scoring has been consistent as Lillard has scored 32, 35, 28, 28, and 23 in Portland’s five games. These numbers aren’t much different than it was last season when he averaged 29.6 points per game in October, but he is driving more often and doing a better job of finishing at the rim. Lillard is attempting 7.6 shots per game from the restricted area making 63.2 percent of them. Both numbers are up from last season when Lillard shot 55.1 percent on 6.73 attempts from the restricted area.

Lillard’s scoring could be even better, but his three-point shooting has been slightly off so far. Entering Wednesday’s game he was connecting on only 29.4 percent of his 8.5 attempts per game from beyond the arc (down from 2018-19’s 36.9 percent on 8 attempts). Wednesday’s 4 for 9 outing increased his overall percentage to 32.6. Lillard seems to be avoiding inefficient midrange shots. Only 15.7 percent of his field goal attempts have been from between 15 and 24 feet, down from 22.9 percent last season.

Negative: Three-point defense. Last season the Blazers only allowed opponents to make 10.7 three pointers on only 29.8 attempts—both numbers among the top ten in the NBA. Before Wednesday’s game, however, teams were hitting 13.3 threes on 35.3 attempts per game putting them in the bottom ten. Denver torched Portland from downtown, connecting on 18 of 32 in the season opener. The Blazers three-point defense was better against the Spurs and Thunder, but both teams are in the bottom five in the league in terms of three-point volume.

Teams are shooting more frequently from beyond the arc this season. Last year only one team attempted 40 or more threes per game (Houston with 45.4 attempts). This season there are five teams doing so. Portland needs to prioritize its perimeter defense and close out quicker on shooters, especially against the higher volume three-point shooting teams.

Positive: Hassan Whiteside’s contributions. So for Portland fans have to be pretty satisfied with Whiteside’s play. The 7-footer is averaging 12.8 points and 12.2 rebounds in 25.4 minutes per game. His rebounding average is the seventh best in the NBA, but everyone above him is playing five to ten more minutes per game. His rebounding rate of 26.8 percent tops all players.

Whiteside’s scoring has been a welcome addition. He’s shooting a career high 64.1 percent on 7.8 attempts per game. The vast majority of his 39 field goal attempts have been layups (20) or dunks (8), and he’s finishing well at the rim. One area where Whiteside has significantly improved is at the free throw line. The career 59.5 percent free throw shoot hit only 44.9 percent last season. However, Whiteside has focused on improving in that area and the results, so far, are there. He’s knocked down 77.8 percent (14 of 18) this season.

Negative: Bench scoring. One positive off the bench is that Anfernee Simons has shown some flashes of his potential that has excited Blazer fans. The 20-year-old is averaging 8 points on 51.6 percent shooting in 17 minutes so far this season. Unfortunately, he’s pretty much the only Blazer reserve shooting well.

Portland’s bench has scored 26.2 points per game—the fourth lowest mark in the league and down from last season’s 36 points per game. They are shooting only 42.7 percent from the floor and a dismal 29.3 from three. New acquisitions Kent Bazemore and Mario Hezonja, who lead the team in minutes off the bench, are shooting 37.5 and 33.3 percent respectively. The Blazers will need more consistent contributions from them especially. One trend to keep an eye on: Bazemore shot 1-7 and 1-9 in Portland’s two losses while shooting 4-7, 4-8, and 5-9 in the team’s victories.

There is plenty of basketball still to play, so here’s hoping Portland can turn around some of their negative trends while not slowing down on their positive ones.