True to their namesake, the Portland Trail Blazers have done a lot of “trailing” on the road, whilst simultaneously “blazing” nearly any opponent that steps onto their home floor. The chasm between the team’s home and road play could be the difference between the NBA Playoffs or the NBA Draft becoming the major discussion in the season’s waning months.
The Blazers’ upcoming schedule — a salivatory seven of their next eight and 14 of their next 18 will come at the Moda Center — makes this an ideal time to analyze this group. Blazers supporters, both players and fans, have been forced to become somewhat cathartic, rationalizing that the Blazers’ home record (10-1, second-best in the NBA) is more telling than the road record (1-10, second-worst).
Here are some ideas to consider over their upcoming home-heavy slate.
What the numbers say:
Akin to just about everything Trail Blazers-related in 2021-22, there’s a hefty mix of positive and negative to sift through. Looking solely at strength of schedule, it’s clear that this group can beat the NBA’s best at the Moda Center; the reigning Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns, upstart Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers can attest to this. Their overall strength of schedule, though, doesn’t feel fully indicative of a team prepared to make a deep playoffs push.
Over 11 games, the Blazers’ opponents at home have a combined 117-120 record as of Tuesday, which extrapolates to a 40-win team over an 82-game season. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, as these are professionals. It shows that Portland, for the most part, can beat the teams they need to. As they always have, though, those gratuities run out once the playoffs start.
On the road, Portland has dealt with the Jazz, Warriors, and Nuggets, among others. Their road opponents have a combined 118-93 record, which spaces out to a more intimidating 46-win season over 82 games.
The 40-win and 46-win differences in opponents don’t mean a ton with just a 20-game sample size to show for it. But other raw splits suggest that the Blazers have an entirely different sense of urgency when they can, as CJ McCollum called it, “sleep in their own beds.”
Net rating, 2021-22:
Blazers at home — +12.3 (No. 2 in the NBA) | Blazers on road — -12.5 (worst in the NBA)
Defensive rating, 2021-22:
Blazers at home — 104.4 (No. 8) | Blazers on road — 119.1 (worst in the NBA … by far)
3-point percentage, 2021-22:
Blazers at home — 38.8 percent (No. 2) | Blazers on road — 31.9 percent (No. 21)
Free throw attempts, 2021-22:
Blazers at home — 20.7 (No. 10) | Blazers on road — 18.3 (No. 26)
Points off turnovers, 2021-22:
Blazers at home — 18.8 (No. 5) | Blazers on road — 13.5 (No. 27)
The free throw attempts disparity is an interesting one; 20.7 and 18.3 aren’t a gargantuan difference in number, but it certainly counts. It could be the difference between the Blazers getting back on defense, as opposed to arguing a call. Or, it could be a fluctuation in how aggressive someone like, say, Damian Lillard is going to be in attacking the rim. That has been somewhat evident on film. Each of the Blazers’ three marquee stars have been better at home, Morale and confidence likely play a part.
On the flip side, there’s also likely a measure of variance. For example, the Blazers go from being the second-most efficient team on wide open shots at home — when players have 6+ feet of space between the nearest defender — to the 17th-best on the road. Venues change, but an open shot is an open shot.
A trend of that caliber suggests that those misses will subside at some point. Portland will have to hope that defensively, that changes as well.
In terms of allowing teams to shoot 3-pointers, one of the Blazers’ preeminent weaknesses, they go from allowing 36.4 percent at home to 39.8 percent on the road. For comparison’s sake, statistically, that would be the difference between leaving, say, Trae Young to shoot a 3-pointer compared to Ricky Rubio. Neither are ideal, but one is certainly more game-breaking than the other.
What history says:
If they play their cards right, the Portland Trail Blazers have an opportunity to, amusingly, head into Christmas Day with a home record in the 16-2, 15-3 range, and a road record on the opposite side of the spectrum. Which begs a burning question: if the Blazers are as futile on the road as recent history suggests, what does that mean for their ceiling?
Dozens upon dozens of teams have been able to make the postseason with sub-.500 road records, though, that line often thins when looking for teams that advance in the Playoffs.
In every season since the 2000’s began, at least one team with a sub-.500 record has advanced to the second round of the Playoffs, including 42 in total. Jason Kidd made a Hall of Fame career playing for of borderline-unbeatable Nets teams at home, who were sub-.500 on the road in every season from 2001-02 to 2006-07, and had two NBA Finals appearances to show for it. Since 2000-01, there have also been 10 sub-.500 road teams to make the Conference Finals, and four NBA Finals representatives. Though, only one of them — the 2006-07 Utah Jazz — resides in the Western Conference.
Perhaps this team could draw inspiration from the 1976-77 Blazers, a 14-win road team that won the NBA championship. Maybe the disparity is schedule-related. Maybe they need more time. Or, perhaps the Blazers are saving observers from suspense, showing exactly who they are in December. We’ll see.