The Portland Trail Blazers are receiving notice across the NBA for a surprising 5-1 start to the 2022-23 regular season, despite a relatively tough schedule. Technically the Milwaukee Bucks have a better record at 6-0, but the Bucks also have Giannis Antetokounmpo and a recent-vintage championship to their name. The Blazers came into the year with a recovered Damian Lillard and fairly low expectations, yet right now they’re doing as well as anybody in the Association.
Lillard and rookie guard Shaedon Sharpe have gotten most of the publicity in this early-season run, but a couple of factors are making the difference between Portland’s 83% winning rate and a .500 record, especially with several close outcomes peppering the schedule. Yesterday we talked about Portland’s surprisingly strong rebounding performance so far. Today we’ll talk about the second hidden factor: forced turnovers.
Portland’s defense has been more disruptive this season than in years past. They still don’t play great positional defense. They don’t boast imposing bodies to own the floor. But they’re generating opposing turnovers at a greater relative rate than in years past.
The Blazers rank 11th in the NBA in turnovers forced per possession. Technically they finished higher last year, finishing 9th, but that season was an aberration, with odd lineups and non-permanent personnel abounding. The really interesting comparison comes when you consider the 2020-21 season, when Portland ranked 29th out of 30 teams in this category. That was typical of the Terry Stotts years, when basic defense was emphasized at the expense of opportunism.
There’s more. The Blazers currently rank 11th in opponent turnovers per game, 9th in opponent turnovers per offensive possession, 12th in steals per defensive play, and 13th in steals per game this year...all average or above.
Generating turnovers does not guarantee good defense, let alone success. Plenty of athletic, sharp-eyed teams feast on opposing turnovers during the chaotic regular season, only to find that playoffs opponents don’t commit them. That usually brings an abrupt end to the Glitz Blitz and a reframing of defensive philosophy.
Even so, generating turnovers is important for the Blazers in two ways right now. First, it spurs the running game. That ups their energy and provides crucial extra points lost to their general lack of three-point shooting. (The team currently ranks 24th in three-point attempts per game.) Just as importantly, creating turnovers makes up for the turnovers the Blazers commit themselves.
As one might expect from a team that is young, getting used to a new system, and carrying unfamiliar personnel in key roles, Portland’s attack is far from smooth. The Blazers rank 25th in the league in turnovers committed per game, 28th in turnovers committed per possession. An edge in possessions equates to more scoring opportunities, which generally translates to more points. The Blazers give up that advantage most nights, just because of their make-up. Forcing turnovers from the opponent earns it back. This isn’t decoration for Portland at this point; it’s a requirement.
Staying average or higher in forced turnovers is buying the Blazers time to figure out their own offense. It’s also giving them a platform from which they can reach for wins. Without those extra opportunities, they’d find rickety boards and holes beneath their feet every time they tried to reach for the sky, caused by their own miscues.
Justise Winslow has been leading the charge, averaging 1.8 steals in 24.8 minutes per game, which equates to 2.8 steals per 36 minutes. But Josh Hart has contributed too, along with just about everybody in the lineup. Portland isn’t getting mammoth production from a single, brilliant defender. A change in approach—valuing fast, disruptive play over halfcourt, percentage basketball—is a more critical factor than any individual performance.
The importance of generating turnovers will probably wane as the season progresses. Right now, though, Portland needs every asset to cobble together victories. This has certainly been one of them.
To their credit, the Blazers are riding the advantages of their young, athlete-filled lineup, not just falling to its inevitable drawbacks. That’s allowed them to prosper during this shakedown cruise, giving hope that the season ahead might be productive, not just an extended learning tour.