The Pacers have started historically strong. The Eastern conference and the Atlantic division specifically is historically bad. Monta Ellis is attacking the basket and not taking too many off balance long twos. All of those are surprises but pale in comparison to the Blazers coming out of no where to look like a title contender, but will it last?
At 15-3 the Blazers are tied for the best record in the West. After beating the Pacers on Monday the Blazers are only a game behind having the best record in the NBA. This is a stark contrast from the team that finished the previous season with 13 straight losses. With mostly the same personnel, it is fair to ask can Portland keep up their current pace, or are they closer to the sub 500 team that they were last year.
If I was to sum up the Blazer’s success in one word it would be, offense. This year Portland holds the second best offensive rating in the NBA (111.3 Points per 100 possessions), trailing only the Miami Heat and one of the most efficient scorers to ever play the game in LeBron James.
Portland’s front office is at the forefront of the analytics movement in basketball. They push the ball up the court quickly to get as many opportunities as possible, they spread the defense out by playing four competent shooters with every lineup and they treasure the corner 3 like it is gold.
Despite having an offense with many characteristics of the new school up tempo three point jacking system, the Blazers do two things that are counter to the basketball analytics movement. They crash the offensive glass (grabbing 28.3% of the available offensive rebounds good for 5th in the NBA), and rarely turn over the ball, (turning the ball over on only 13% of their possessions good for 5th in the NBA). Turning the ball over is not the intention of the new school system just a consequence. Last year the Rockets were the poster children for this new system, coming second in the league in scoring but last in the NBA in turnovers, turning the ball over 14.9% of the time.
Between playing at a liberal pace, not turning the basketball over and attacking the offensive glass the Blazers attempt to win by simply having more possessions than their opponent. Similar to dominating time of possession in football, dominating number of possessions in basketball gives teams a great chance at victory.
On defense, the Blazers are far from stellar, coming in at 21st in defensive rating (106.1 Points allowed per 100 possessions), they make up for this by focusing on one thing and excelling at it. Portland allows opponents to take the 27th most threes in the NBA (1798 threes attempted), while making the 28th most threes (661 threes made). They are in effect discouraging teams from taking threes in favor of lower efficiency long twos or contested shots at the rim.
The Blazers used their stellar analytic department to figure out, something that is common sense, having the ball more is better than having the ball less. Their crack staff then figured out that twos are in fact worth less than threes. Portland makes sure to have more opportunities and trade their opponents two point makes for three point buckets, allowing them to dominate scoring chances and possible points per scoring chance.
The Portland Trailblazers are winning without many household names in a superstar driven league. They are winning by using a common sense strategy that has recently been championed by a statistic driven movement. With a sound organizational philosophy, the Blazers should be in the mix for the rest of the year.
This post was heavy on ideas, statistics and theories, so to balance things out here are some awesome TrailBlazer gifs.