The Portland Trail Blazers are off to a somewhat-expected, but still semi-disappointing, 3-8 start to their 2023-24 NBA season. Everyone knew Portland was entering a rebuilding phase after they traded Damian Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks over the summer. Watching the fallout is still painful.
Today we’re going to look beyond the reality that the Blazers are losing, exploring some of the reasons why and how. We’re going to use their own blueprint as the canvas.
Before the season started, the Blazers underlined several points of emphasis, aspects of the game on which they’d hang their season. Let’s see how they’re doing so far in the areas they identify as critical.
Earlier today we published a piece on Portland’s overall defense. Now we’re going to look at a particular subset: aggression at the point of attack.
One of the main benefits of having a young, athletic roster is being able to disrupt opponents, following the ball wherever it might lead. Blazers fans who are used to seeing Portland ice back into the lane, making halfhearted close-out attempts when opponents swing the ball to the arc for a three, might be surprised to see 20-something-year-old players darting all over the floor. It looks far more active, and pleasing, than the defense of yore. But how well are the Blazers doing at the aggression points?
Turnovers and Steals
The single biggest fruit of pedal-to-the-metal defense is forced turnovers. The Blazers need running opportunities. Poke-aways and pick-sixes are the easiest way to generate same.
The Blazers currently rank among a host of teams averaging 8.3 steals per game, or at least in the vicinity. Eight clubs average between 8.2 and 8.5, Technically Portland is tied for the 11th spot in the league, but with half a sneeze they could be 6th or 15th...average to high average. 8.3 steals is above their season average of 6.7 last year.
Portland also ranks 9th in turnovers forced per game and 9th in the league in turnovers forced per possession, much better than their 19th- and 18th-place finishes in those categories, respectively, last year.
Unfortunately, extra turnovers aren’t leading to extra points. Portland ranks 18th in the NBA with 13.5 fast break points per game. That’s actually down from their 13th-place standing with 14.2 fast break points per game last season. Aggressive defense isn’t leading to easier offense. That’s contributing to Portland’s bottom-of-the-barrel standing in points scored per game.
The Blazers hold a blocked shot percentage of 6.4%, hovering around 9th in the league, close enough to be considered anywhere between 7th and 11th. That’s way up from their 5.2% mark last year.
But as we discussed earlier, Portland’s 47.9% field goal percentage allowed isn’t anything to write home about. They’re in the league cellar in the points in the paint allowed category as well.
The book on the old Blazers was that they’d get to their defensive spot, but not be able to do anything about it once they did. These new Blazers appear to be inverted. They are effective at the point of attack, far better than their predecessors at least, but they’re not getting to the right spot often enough to make a difference.
A possible asterisk: Portland gives up size at multiple positions. They may put people around players like Anthony Davis, but still not be able to affect the play.
Either way, increased aggression is not leading to lower percentages for the opponent, nor easier opportunities for the Blazers. Portland’s defense is like a bowl of plastic fruit: looks shiny, but it’s not exactly nutritious.
Experience, together and in the abstract, might help the conversion process. Until that happens, it’s likely Blazers fans will see plenty of spectacular plays in isolation, but not the wins that should come from them.