The Portland Trail Blazers have gotten a wake-up call over the last week, losing three straight games on the road, then dropping two at home to the Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliiers. With a 19-22 record, the Blazers now stand with the also-rans in the ultra-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 halfway 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 this 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 the second we talked about the lack of easy points. Over-reliance on matchups comprised the third post. Now we’re going to talk about the specter that has haunted Portland since the onset of the season: turnovers.
The Blazers currently rank 27th in Turnovers per Game with 15.8. The scary thing about that: they play at a slow pace relative to the rest of the league. Not only should that limit turnovers inherently, they shouldn’t look quite so bad in aggregate TO’s because they generate fewer possessions in which to commit them.
`No such luck. Portland ranks 28th in the NBA in turnovers per possession. Only the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets are worse, and Golden State barely.
A Jusuf Nurkic screen violation or two aside, many of those turnovers come in “live ball” situations, the NBA equivalent of a Pick Six in football. Portland players aren’t stepping on the sideline while trying to get space for a corner three. They’re coughing up slow-tempo passes and getting stripped by opponents who, increasingly, know where their plays are coming from. To wit: the Blazers rank 25th in the league in opponent points after turnovers.
The difference in actual points given up off of TO’s between Portland and the league-leading Dallas Mavericks seems small: 18.5 to 15.1. The Blazers are only 1.2 points below the league median, even. If you’ve read this series, though, you can start to sense a pattern. Portland is giving up 1-2 points here, another couple there. It adds up.
As of this posting, the Blazers’ margin of victory differential—the number of points for and against them, on average, or the average number they win or lose games by—stands exactly at 0.0. All of the little deficits we’re mentioning add up to a 3-5 point per game drag that they then have to overcome to squeeze out a victory.
Worse, the Blazers don’t really excel in many areas to counterbalance the ugly parts of their game. They’re good three-point shooters, on average. Otherwise they’re right down the middle of the league in most categories. If the Blazers aren’t popping threes like candy, the aerodynamic drag of their weaknesses starts to tell.
Turnovers may be the most insidious of all. Not only do they have the real cost of opponents getting more opportunities—and sometimes easier scores—they take away Portland’s own opportunities at the bucket. It’s one thing to take a three and miss. That’s going to happen more than 60% of the time. Never getting to take the shot at all renders a zero percent success rate.
As Blazers fans know, it gets particularly heartbreaking when the team is trying to make a comeback, needing everything to go right in order to win. The infamous “four point swing”—losing your own shot, then having the opponent make one—is semi-fictional. Who knows if you really would have made your attempt, or if the opponent would have then missed their next one? But when the standard is “every shot needs to fall or we’re done”, the absence of the attempt really matters.
Turnovers haven’t caused Portland’s mediocre record. No single factor does. It’s not that easy. But if the Blazers can’t take care of the ball, they’re going to have to get better in other areas to compensate. Otherwise their road is going to be steep all year long.