Breaking Down How the Portland Trail Blazers Are Shocking the NBA

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Breaking Down How the Portland Trail Blazers Are Shocking the NBA
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The Portland Trail Blazers don't always pass the eye test. Conventional measures won't put this team among true championship contenders.

But looking beyond the numbers—a vital piece in both the origin and the analysis of Portland's rise—shows how just how dominant this team can be.

The Blazers put faces, bodies and gobs of three-point bombs to the league's analytical movement. More importantly, they put 15 wins, just three losses and a potential date on the championship podium to it, too.

 

Versatility on Offense

If there's a computer-based model for the correct way to defend against the Blazers, chances are it only exists in Portland.

That formula certainly hasn't made it to the rest of the league:

From a traditional lens, it's hard to see Portland as an offensive power.

Just one regular (Wesley Matthews) is shooting above 48 percent from the field (54.6). Two of the team's top five offensive options (Damian Lillard and Mo Williams) are converting fewer than 43 percent of their chances (39.6 and 42.6, respectively).

But removing that archaic measurement of effectiveness unearths one of the league's most potent attacks.

The Blazers own the league's third-most efficient offense—108.0 points per 100 possessions. In two games against the NBA's top two defenses, the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs, this group has tallied 221 points.

And two statement victories:

So, what keeps this engine humming?

Well, it starts with Portland's vicious inside-out combo of LaMarcus Aldridge and Lillard.

Aldridge is one of the most lethal weapons at the power forward spot in the league. His 22.7 points per game are the NBA's eighth-most this season, trailing only Kevin Love (23.7) among traditional 4s.

The silky mid-range jumper that's been a staple of his game throughout his career remains a potent piece of his attack.

Via NBA.com.

But limiting his mid-range touches is only part of the process of slowing his production. He's also been a force isolated on the low block (0.84 points per possession, 32nd in the league via Synergy Sports, subscription required), exploding out of pick-and-rolls (0.97. 27th) or cutting to the basket (1.26, 19th).

When defenses overcommit to Aldridge, though, they just open the floodgates.

Leaving Lillard is not an option. Not when he's splashing 40.3 percent of the 6.9 triples he fires a night. Leaving defenders on an island against the reigning Rookie of the Year is no better. He's torching his man for 1.27 points per possession out of isolation looks, the second-best mark in the league.

But containing this pair—more of a concept than a reality judging by the combined 43.3 points a night this duo produces—is only part of the battle.

Game-planning for Aldridge and Lillard sounds smart, but who keeps track of Nicolas Batum (13.4 points, 5.1 assists) then? Or Wesley Matthews (16.6 points) and his .546/.510/.766 shooting slash? What about Mo Williams, who's no doubt still getting familiar with his teammates, yet keeping the scoreboard moving nonetheless (9.3 points, 4.5 assists)?

The Blazers can batter, bully and eventually break down an opposing defense with these nonstop offensive waves. But the source for Portland's success, at both ends of the floor, starts at a specific spot on the hardwood.

 

The Value of the 3-Point Line

The analytical crowd has been preaching the importance of the three-point shot for years. But many NBA coaches, most of whom carved their basketball paths before the movement's rise, have been slow to process the wealth of knowledge these numbers possess.

Portland coach Terry Stotts is not a member of the game's flat-Earth coaching sect. And for good reason. He was one of the first to start meticulously crunching these numbers.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images
Stotts crafted his own formula for charting pace when he was an assistant coach with the then-Seattle SuperSonics.

"I had a big old spreadsheet and input all the numbers by hand every 20 games," Stotts said, via ESPN The Magazine's Jordan Brenner (insider subscription required).

Fortunately, he's no longer at risk for writer's cramp. While his staff has made the most of the numbers now available to them, they've also taken full advantage of the technological advances made outside the sports world.

The Blazers have broken out iPads during their in-game sideline huddles, via Blazersedge.com's Ben Golliver. These real-time scouting tips not only help the coaches, but they also validate the messages being sent to their players.

"You're not replaying [a possible mistake] in your head, psyching yourself out," Matthews said, via Golliver. "You can actually see it."

So, what is it that these coaches and players are actually seeing?

The three-point line is of utmost importance. At both ends of the floor.

Sam Forencich/Getty Images
Portland's starting five features three 40-plus-percent shooters from range in Matthews (51.0), Lillard (40.3) and Batum (40.0). When Stotts dips into his reserve pool, he has a pair of veteran snipers in Williams (36.6) and Dorell Wright (35.4) to keep the long-range bombs dropping.

The Blazers have shooters—Portland's 41.3 three-point percentage is tied for third—and they know it. Only seven teams take more than the Blazers' 22.9 attempts a game.

But they also understand that they must take away three-point barrages on the opposite end.

So they put a premium on stifling opposing perimeter attacks. Only two teams yield fewer three-point attempts than Portland (17.5), and just one has held opposing shooters to a lower success rate (32.9).

It doesn't take a math major to figure out the strategy here. By maximizing their own three balls and minimizing the opposition's, Portland has enjoyed a plus-11.1 edge in three-point scoring a night.

So, while the traditional crowd might struggle to process Portland's strong start, those gifted basketball minds can see the Blazers for what they really are—championship contenders.

 

Expectations Shattered...and Evolving

The Blazers were supposed to be good this season.

An incredibly young, supremely talented core was strengthened by the offseason arrivals of several battle-tested veterans. There was enough tantalizing upside to lift this team's ceiling, but also enough proven commodities to raise its basement as well.

Still, seeing Portland tied for the league's second-best record is a bit staggering.

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But should it be? At what point do the hunters officially become the hunted?

If that threshold hasn't yet been cleared, it seems awfully close.

"We’re getting team’s best shots,” Matthews said, via The Oregonian's Joe Freeman. "People are getting up to play us now."

As they should. After a 2-2 start to the season, Portland has rattled off 13 victories in its last 14 games.

This team is for real, and it could be getting even better. Remember, lottery pick C.J. McCollum (foot) has yet to make his NBA debut.

You can bet that when he's ready, the Blazers' brain trust will have calculated the best analytical niche for him to fill.

Portland is pretty good at that sort of thing.

 

*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.

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