The Portland Trail Blazers got a wake-up call over the last week, losing three straight games on the road before coming home to a 109-106 defeat at the hands of the lowly Orlando Magic on Tuesday night. With a 19-21 record, the Blazers now stand with the also-rans in the competitive NBA Western Conference. With a few more losses, they could lie among the lottery hopefuls casting their wishes on the wind for ping-pong balls in May. This was not where they expected to be 40 games into the season.
After the loss to the Magic, Head Coach Chauncey Billups said he “couldn’t pinpoint” what was wrong with the team during their current slump. In a two-day series, we’re going to look at some of the strong possibilities.
In our first post of the series we talked about injuries. In this post we’re covering another important topic: easy points.
Not all NBA buckets are created equal. The modern game values edges: extra scoring opportunities that come at low, or no, cost. These take three forms: fast-break points, free throws, and bonus points from three-point makes.
The Blazers currently rank 10th in the NBA at fast break points per game with 14.6. In ordinal terms, that’s pretty good. But 14.6 ranks well short of league leaders Indiana, Memphis, and Toronto, all of whom top 18 per game. Portland’s number puts them in a thicket that stretches roughly from 8th-15th. That’s better than the Bottom 5 spot they used to occupy during the Terry Stotts years, but it’s still more mediocre than great.
Free throws are an interesting story. Portland started the season at the tippy-top of the league in free throws attempted. They still rank 10th at 25.1 per game. But they’re 21st in free throw percentage, leaving at least a couple points per game on the table via missed foul shots. Both numbers have been declining as the season has progressed.
The story becomes more troubling when you look at points allowed via these avenues.
Back when they were in the Top 5 in free throw attempts drawn, the Blazers were generating an amazing 3-4 point margin over opponents each game via the foul line. That has now shrunk to less than one.
The Blazers also allow 15.1 fastbreak points per game, 24th in the league. That’s half a point more than they generate themselves.
That leaves Portland banking on the third method of generating extra points: their ace in the hole, the three-pointer. Confidence is well-justified. They field three of the best shooters in the league in their starting lineup. As a team, they rank 7th in the NBA in three-point percentage. But they’re only 16th in number of three-point shots attempted per game. That’s not for lack of willingness; they’re Top 10 in three-point rate. Their slow pace simply takes away the extra shot opportunities that would propel them from good to elite status.
On nights when the three-pointers aren’t falling, you can forget it. They just don’t generate enough two-point attempts to keep pace with even an average offense.
If you want to know one of the solid reasons the Blazers seem anemic right now, look to these extras. A shrinking margin in foul shots and a negative margin in break points take what once was a healthy 4-5 point edge down to neutral. In the absence of those extra points, Portland is forced to blizzard the long ball or slog it out with offenses that are better at generating bonus points than they.