The Portland Trail Blazers are stuck in a victory valley after descending their last real peak two months ago. If and when they trudge back up the hill and start winning again is a mystery but, first, they need to sort out some of their issues. “Cough cough” turnovers “cough cough”.
A multitude of factors have prompted the slide from the top of the Western Conference to below the 2023 NBA Play-In picture. While today’s topic isn’t at the top of the list of issues, it’s become pretty noticeable, at least for me.
Starting small forward Josh Hart provides a whole host of services on a basketball court. He defends, hustles, dribbles and passes, all skills executed with an above-average basketball IQ. These traits are adaptable and valuable to all 30 NBA franchises — which may lead Hart to play out the rest of the season in a different jersey, given his 2023-24 player option. We’ve already discussed that ad nauseam.
One thing Hart isn’t doing particularly well is getting the ball in the hoop from behind the arc. His 2022-23 numbers are down, both in attempts and makes.
Attempts is what brings us here today. Hart is taking a career low 2.0 threes a game and is making a career low 32.6 percent of them. It’s noticeable when compared to his two and a half seasons with the New Orleans Pelicans, where he took 4.4 threes per contest and still managed to hit 33.4 percent of them. He also put up 3.6 threes a game in the two years he spent with the Los Angeles Lakers, making 36.1 percent of them.
Unlike previous seasons, all 29 threes Hart has made over the past three months have been assisted, predominantly catch and shoot (1.8 of his 2.0 three shot attempts a game). This suggests he’s less likely to have a defender in his face at the time of the catch, as we discuss further down.
But while he’s only taking 2.0 threes a game, he’s getting a heck of lot more open looks from long range. He’s just not shooting them. This trend has led to one of the more noticeable of the multiple Portland miscues we’ve seen this season — the “Josh Hart passes up an open three, dribbles into the paint with either a shot dropping or the ball going to the other team” turnover.
It started as cringe-worthy but now elicits genuine ire, especially when we’re talking about a player of his stature, someone we know can do what needs to be done from long range.
Where’s Hart taking his shots?
For the purposes of today’s piece we’re going to compare the 47 games he played with the 2020-21 New Orleans Pelicans (his last full season with that franchise) and the 43 he’s played with this season’s Blazers. Yes, Hart was predominantly playing off the bench in 2020-21, but he was getting starter-level minutes and a diet of shots that shouldn’t be too dissimilar to what is currently expected of him.
For a large part of that 2020-21 season, Hart shot 52 percent of his shots (not including heaves) from behind the arc, good enough for the 58th percentile for all wings. A total of 3.8 of his 4.1 attempts were catch and shoot. Defenders got within two and four feet on only 0.3 of those 4.1 attempts.
During that year, Hart took 12 percent of his shots from the midrange, hitting 46 percent of them — good enough for the 86th percentile at his position.
The remainder (36 percent) were taken at the rim, with 63 percent passing through the net - an average 55 percentile for wings.
See Hart’s shot chart below, darker orange areas depict more shots.
Fast forward to the present day. So far this season, 26 percent of Hart’s shots (not including heaves) have been taken from three, the 7th percentile among wings. He’s halved the number of shots taken from three over the past two years. To provide some perspective, through the more than four years he’s spent in the league before arriving in Portland, Hart has rarely shot below 40 percent of his shots from that range.
Yes, the Pelicans, and the Lakers before that, ran different offensive schemes, but for someone previously comfortable behind the arc, like Hart was, it’s been nothing short of bemusing to watch this season.
Importantly, not one three-point shot he’s actually attempted this season has seen a defender guard him within two feet. The closest they’ve come is between two and four feet away and that has only been on 0.1 of his 2.0 attempts per game. And while this obviously doesn’t reflect the numerous passed up threes, I think it’s safe to say, opponents aren’t giving Hart the same defensive treatment as teammates Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons.
The natural response to this would be, “OK, threes aren’t great, but surely he’s doing well in the midrange?”. Sorry, but no. This season, Hart has been shooting 26 percent of his shots (up from 2020-21) from the midrange, but only hitting 33 percent of them, putting him in a dismal 18th percentile in makes for players at his position.
Conversely, his shots at the rim have benefited. He’s taking 52 percent of his shots at the basket (98th percentile at his position) and making 68 percent of them, (78th percentile for his position) which is fine.
As for the eye test, even the most casual basketball watcher will notice the 6’5 vet’s current penchant for catching the ball behind the arc, pump faking or side stepping, and then bolting into the paint. From here he either shoots in the midrange, or kicks out to a teammate, which typically leads to a rushed shot or a turnover.
Don’t get me wrong, some of those passed-up-threes-turn midrange jumpers can be effective, but it’s not the best way to support this offense, which is currently already over-endowed with turnovers.
And this is the rub. The 27-year-old is recording a career high in turnovers in relation to his usage. He’s giving the ball back to the opponent 15.7 percent of the time, currently in the 6th percentile for protecting the ball at the wing position, with only Deni Avdija, Marjon Beauchamp, Dyson Daniels, Frank Ntilikina and Davon Reed behind him.
I’m not suggesting all his turnovers occur on the catch and shoot. Hart also plays a facilitating role, bringing the ball up the floor and initiating the offense at times, but his usage this season is on par with the rest of his career - around the 13 percent mark.
For some more perspective, let’s go back to the 2020-21 season, where Hart carried a 13.5 percent usage rate and was only turning the ball over 11.4 percent of the time.
In 43 games this season, Hart has already collected 72 turnovers, compared to the 49 he recorded in the 47 games through 2020-21. That’s an extra 23 turnovers in four fewer games.
Why is this happening?
I don't know.
For anyone watching the Blazers’ losses to the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday and the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday, opposing defenses have cottoned on to Hart’s allergy to long-range shots. They’ve been sagging off him, impacting spacing for Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons trying to get to the rim.
We know Hart can shoot. Let’s not forget his game-winning buzzer beater against the Miami Heat in Florida in November.
Let’s also remember that in the 13 games played with the Blazers after February’s trade last season, Hart was knocking down 2.4 of his 6.4 three point attempts, good enough for a fairly-impressive 37 percent. This included his 44-point performance against his hometown Washington Wizards on March 12, when he drilled 6 of 9 from long range on what became a pretty impressive win for the "trying-to-tank" Blazers.
At least according to Head Coach Chauncey Billups, Hart’s reluctance to shoot deep not a team directive. Earlier this month, the coach chimed in on Hart’s penchant for passing up threes.
Chauncey Billups, asked if Josh Hart has been too reluctant to shoot: “Yeah.”— Sean Highkin (@highkin) January 15, 2023
“Yeah we’ve talked about it…he passes them up trying to be too unselfish but hopefully he’ll start shooting it more.” -Billups on Josh Hart passing up open shots— Danny Marang (@DannyMarang) January 15, 2023
Unselfish is fine, but when you’re typically a decent long-range shooter, passing up wide open shots, it helps no one, particularly the currently struggling Blazers.
I appreciate Josh Hart. I enjoy his knack for rebounds, his ability to get to the rim and his dogged effort on defense and loose balls. But I also want him hitting threes. This team needs him hitting threes, not only to put points on the board, but to also lure opposing defenses out of the paint.
Whether it’s a lack of confidence, unselfishness, or a combination of both, it's not great. But I’ve also got no doubt that Hart eventually rediscovers his love for the long-range shot. Unfortunately with the trade deadline two and a half weeks away, there’s a chance he doesn’t find it again while wearing Portland’s jersey.