One Team, Three Stats: Disastrous defense in Portland

Last season, the Portland Trail Blazers exceeded expectations and reached the Western Conference semifinals.

This season, they’ve been one of the league’s biggest disappointments, unable to replicate last season’s success. Only two teams – Miami and Dallas – have seen a bigger drop-off in winning percentage. And as the West stands on Wednesday, Portland is set to miss the playoffs.

The Basics – Portland Trail Blazers (15-21)

Pace: 99.8 (11th)

OffRtg: 106.9 (9th)

DefRtg: 109.7 (29th)

NetRtg: -2.8 (20th)

Blazers links: Team stats | Player stats | Player shooting | Lineups

Since Christmas, the Blazers have been dealing with an ankle injury to Damian Lillard. But they’ve gone 2-2 without their All-Star, picking up an important win against the eighth-place Kings last week.

The Blazers have played the league’s second toughest schedule thus far, but things aren’t getting easier just yet. As they try to right the ship and build on a win in Minnesota on Sunday, they’re in Oakland (where the Warriors are 15-2) for the second game of ESPN’s Wednesday double-header (10:30 p.m. ET).

Here are a few numbers to know about the Blazers’ first 36 games …

No. 1

The Blazers are the only team that ranks in the bottom 10 in each of the defensive four factors.

The Blazers’ drop-off from last season to this season has been mostly about their defense. After ranking 20th in defensive efficiency last season, they rank 29th this season. And they haven’t done anything right on that end of the floor.

Effective field goal percentage is the most important number on both offense and defense. Defensively, the Blazers seemingly have a good foundation, in that they’ve forced the right kinds of shots. Only 61.1 percent of their opponents’ shots have come from the restricted area or 3-point range, the sixth lowest opponent rate in the league. Only the Utah Jazz have allowed a lower percentage of their opponents’ shots to come from the restricted area.

About a month into the season, the Blazers ranked 11th in opponent effective field goal percentage. But they ranked 30th in defensive efficiency, because they were in the bottom three in regard to both opponent turnover rate and opponent free throw rate, and they were a bottom 10 team in defensive rebounding percentage.

Asked about those numbers, Blazers coach Terry Stotts called them “symptoms” of what was going on on the floor.

“Whether it’s getting back in transition, guarding your guy, helping and communicating, or pick-and-roll defense,” Stotts said, “I think they’re all symptomatic of just our overall poor defense. I’d like to cut down on our fouling, but that means being in the right position at the right time and anticipating. I’d like to rebound the ball better, but that means putting a body on somebody. So, there’s a lot of room for improvement in a lot of areas.”

For the next five weeks, improvement wouldn’t come. Not only did the Blazers remain in the bottom 10 in the other three factors, they also fell into the bottom 10 in effective field goal percentage.

But as the Blazers have gone 2-2 without Lillard, they’ve allowed just 98 points per 100 possessions, their lowest DefRtg mark of any four-game stretch this season. And two of the four opponents in that stretch – Toronto and San Antonio – have been top-five offenses.

The Blazers have played more aggressively defensively in this stretch, trapping more often and not sitting back as much on pick-and-rolls. That could allow their opponents to get to the basket more often, but it could also help them force more turnovers and contest more shots.

The question is whether the improved defense is more about the scheme or Lillard’s absence.

No. 2

C.J. McCollum has an effective field goal percentage of 64.6 percent in the first quarter, the best mark among 78 players who have taken at least 100 first-quarter shots.

McCollum has shot much better in the first quarter (64.6 percent) and third quarter (57.6 percent) than he has in the second (47.3) and fourth (47.4). Not coincidentally, it’s the first and third quarters where he spends more time on the floor with Lillard.

McCollum has an effective field goal percentage of 62.6 percent with Lillard on the floor and just 44.7 percent with Lillard off the floor. McCollum surely benefits from the attention defenses pay to Lillard, but that doesn’t totally explain the difference in his shooting at the basket (59 percent vs. 45 percent).

McCollum’s presence hasn’t had the same effect on Lillard’s shooting. In fact, Lillard has shot worse with McCollum on the floor (49.6 percent) than with McCollum on the bench (57.0 percent).

The problem when McCollum has been on the other end of the floor. The Blazers have been bad offensively when either guard sits down, but they’ve been outscored by almost 11 points per 100 possessions with Lillard on the floor without McCollum, because they’ve been awful defensively.

It hasn’t helped that Al Farouq-Aminu has played only 73 (20 percent) of those 376 minutes that Lillard has been on the floor without McCollum (vs. 37 percent of the minutes that McCollum has been on the floor without Lillard). The Blazers have allowed just 104.2 points per 100 possessions (a rate which would rank 13th) with Aminu on the floor, and his injuries (he’s missed exactly half of their games) have hurt them defensively.

No. 3

The Blazers have outscored their opponents by 89 points in 904 minutes with Evan Turner on the bench.

The Blazers are 15-21. The Blazers with Turner off the floor have the point differential of team that would be 24-12 in 36 games. The Blazers with Turner on the floor have the point differential of a team that would be 5-31.

It’s fair to say that the Blazers’ $70 million investment in Turner hasn’t paid off. And maybe we should retroactively give Brad Stevens the 2015-16 Coach of the Year award for getting good minutes out of Turner in between disastrous stops in Indiana and Portland. Only the Suns’ Brandon Knight (minus-276) has a worse plus-minus than Turner (minus-218) this season.

The difference between the Turner-off-court Blazers and the Turner-on-court Blazers has been almost entirely on offense. They’ve scored 13.8 more points per 100 possessions with Turner on the bench (113.6) than with him in the game (99.8).

One reason for that could be that he’s played most (about 85 percent) of his minutes with at least one of the starting guards on the bench. But in the 112 minutes that Lillard, McCollum and Turner have all been on the floor together, the Blazers have scored just 100.1 points per 100 possessions. All other three-man combinations that include both Lillard and McCollum have scored at least 104.2.

Of course, the Blazers still lost the three games that Turner missed before Christmas with an ankle injury.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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