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. The fourth covered the seemingly-eternal turnover issue. Now we get to talk about another weakness: what happens inside the paint.
Between 2015 and 2020, the Blazers had a bread-and-butter style. It involved Damian Lillard shooting plenty of threes, with Lillard also creating action that led to kick-outs for threes, with a little Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic pick-and-roll action salted in. If Lillard wasn’t pouring in points, shooting guard CJ McCollum dazzled from the mid-range. All of that left paint scoring as an afterthought. The Blazers were marksmen, not masons.
After a gap to...errrrr...retool in 2021, the Blazers came back this year with a different mission: mix up the offense, slash and dash, get inside more. Their early-season wins were punctuated by plenty of drives, thrilling finishes at the rim, and attending foul shots. Heck, Nurkic even got to touch the ball a bit.
Midway through the year, the Blazers have reverted. To the extent there is an inside scoring battle, they’re losing it.
Portland stands a mediocre 19th in the league in points in the paint, with 48.0 per game. Some of that positioning can be explained by pace. Fair enough. But they also give up 51.9 paint points to opponents, ranking 24th in the NBA in that category. That’s nearly a four point per game gap. And, as we mentioned earlier in the series, they’re no longer making it up with free throws. The Blazers hold only a 0.8 points per game advantage against their opponents in foul line scoring, and the margin is shrinking.
The Blazers can still score in the paint. We see Lillard do it on a regular basis, part of the arsenal he unleashes every time he has to take the team on his back. (Read: every game, lately.) Jerami Grant gets in there too. But their contributions come in bursts, frequently during the third and early-fourth quarter. As the game winds down to an end, opponents are ready while Portland players fatigue. Note how often the three-point shot has become the last-ditch remedy of choice for the Blazers even when they’re found success earlier in that same game driving the lane. They just don’t have the horsepower to sustain the inside attack, even when it works. When the game’s on the line and they need buckets, they’re outside the arc, not inside the restricted area.
Portland’s roster is still constructed to emphasize the perimeter, though. Jusuf Nurkic owns a quite-wonderful 53.0% success rate from the field this season. That’s only inches away from his career high of 53.5%. But he’s not a classic post scorer. His moves are inventive and opportunistic, not reliable. He takes time with the ball in his hands, brings it down to his knees, and the Blazers haven’t shown confidence sending offense through him unless he’s already moving towards the bucket on the roll. The offensive development they’ve touted most has been his developing three-pointer, not his interior play.
Josh Hart is an excellent slasher. He seldom touches the ball in crunch time. Anfernee Simons prefers threes and pull-ups to drives. The Blazers don’t have that guy, the one who will bull to the lane and get the attempt or collapse trying. Or at least, they don’t have that attribute in anyone they’re actually playing and trusting during critical moments.
Portland faces a similar issue on the other end. They haven’t emerged from the multi-season toxic soup created by defensively-challenged guards and a relatively slow center. Their perimeter defenders allow too much space and penetration speed for Nurkic to account for. His defensive choices amount to letting the play go or fouling. When he can get into position, Nurkic isn’t half bad. That doesn’t happen often enough.
Nor do the Blazers intimidate inside as a team. They’re rangy and long, but not shot blockers (24th in the league in Block Percentage) nor muscle guys inside. Opponents come to battle with clubs and sticks. The Blazers bring the inside roll from your Christmas wrapping paper.
Not all is lost. Portland rebounds surprisingly well, controlling the paint after the shot. Into what are they recycling the ball, though? Getting extra possessions only matters if those possessions are good. Otherwise it’s like putting extra coins into the same slot machine where the house edge is against you. You might play longer that way, but you’re not going to win.
Getting a fully-healthy roster back will probably help with Portland’s interior attack. They might need some personnel changes too, though. Either way, despite shooting well, they aren’t shooting prolifically enough outside to make up for their anemic inside play. That’s making wins harder to get.