The first few games are in the books for the Portland Trail Blazers, and the warning sirens are already echoing up and down the Willamette Valley. The severe injuries to Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic have depleted the front court on what was supposed to be a title contender.
At first glance, there is not a lot wrong. Sure, every opponent outside of Oklahoma City has scored over 100 points, but opponents are only shooting 44.6 percent from the field, which is only 18th best in the NBA. The woeful three-point defense seems to also be a bit of a myth, with opponents shooting 34.4%, 19th best.
It is when we look at the differentials that things go south in a hurry. Portland has not been recording many assists this season. Their differential is -6.8 assists per game, which is not only the worst in the NBA, it is the worst by a large margin. The difference between Portland at 30 and Detroit at 29 is the same difference between 3rd place...and 15th. 89.4 percent of Damian Lillard’s field goals have been unassisted this season, fourth highest among qualified players behind Fred VanVleet, De’Aaron Fox, and Jeff Teague. CJ McCollum is eighth. Rodney Hood is 22nd. That’s three players on the list before twelve teams even have one. Those three players account for 57.8 percent of Portland’s scoring this year.
The other differential that is worrying is free throws. Opponents attempt 7.2 more free throws a game than the Blazers. The issue there is that Portland commits an average of four less fouls per game than their opponents, which means opponents are getting more out of their foul calls, either by getting the Blazer defenders to bite on fakes, or drawing desperation fouls when the defense breaks down.
Unfortunately, Hassan Whiteside and Anthony Tolliver have been recurring victims of both these scenarios. Whiteside’s 4.4 percent block rate is the lowest of his career, and Tolliver’s opponents are shooting 66.3 percent from within five feet of the hoop. Whiteside’s opponents are far more unlucky, shooting 27.3 percent next to the rim, but their shooting percentage goes up dramatically away from the hoop, where Whiteside has not been closing, to the tune of 78 percent. Unsurprisingly, that is worst in the NBA among qualified players.
Motion on both the offense and defense is where Portland’s style works the best, and the motion just does not seem to be there. The offense is getting pinned into isolation plays, and the offensive stars are trying to fight through it rather than pass out. The results speak for themselves, with McCollum and Hood having a rough start to the season offensively. There is only so much Lillard can do when the rest of the offense is not clicking, and the defense is struggling with basic necessities.
Help for the front court may or may not be happening, depending on who you talk to. Regardless, the Blazers have issues to work through if they want to compete this season.