BROOKLYN — Now that we’re past the hot starts of the Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns, the Portland Trail Blazers are the surprise team of the early going. Having won seven straight games, they’re 9-2, in second place in the Western Conference. They’re also the only team to have knocked off the 9-1 San Antonio Spurs.
You could argue that beating the Spurs was Portland’s only quality win. But the Blazers are also 5-1 on the road and can complete a 4-0 trip with a win in Milwaukee on Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET, League Pass). Road wins are good wins, especially when you’re a team that might be fighting for a playoff spot come April.
A potent offense has keyed the Blazers’ start. Through Tuesday, they rank third in offensive efficiency, having scored 108.1 points per 100 possessions. They’re the most improved offensive team in the league, scoring 5.4 more points per 100 possessions than they did last season …
Most improved offenses (points scored per 100 possessions)
Bonus stat: Charlotte is the most improved defensive team, allowing 9.6 fewer points per 100 possessions than they did last season.
The question is how sustainable the Blazers’ offense is, because they’re the jump-shootingest (it’s a word around these part) team in the league, with less than 39 percent of their shots coming from the paint. LaMarcus Aldridge already leads the league in mid-range attempts by a wide margin, while Damian Lillard (1st), Nicolas Batum (10th) and Wesley Matthews (17th) all rank in the top 20 in 3-point attempts.
Lowest percentage of shots from the paint
|Team||Paint FGA||Total FGA||%Paint|
Bonus stat: New York had the lowest percentage of shots from the paint last season at 38.0 percent. Coincidentally, they also ranked third in offensive efficiency.
Would it be nice if the Blazers got to the basket more? Sure, but all those guys can shoot. And so can Mo Williams and Dorell Wright, two of the important reserves that the Blazers added this summer. But a few of them are shooting much better than they have over the past few years.
Effective field goal percentage from outside the paint
|Player||Last 3 seasons||2013-14|
Effective field goal percentage = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA
Bonus stat: Among 122 players who have attempted at least 50 shots from outside the paint, the Warriors’ Andre Iguodala has the highest effective field goal percentage (76.7 percent), having shot 13-for-18 from mid-range and 22-for-42 from 3-point range. Utah’s Alec Burks has the lowest (30.8 percent).
Blazers’ coach Terry Stotts isn’t going to get caught up in the percentages or where the Blazers’ shots are coming. He understands that he’s got a jump-shooting team and just cares about how those shots come about.
“I’m not necessarily concerned about our points in the paint, offensively,” Stotts said Monday. “My concern is that we get good threes. Preferably, we get threes off the pass, in rhythm, and have confidence to shoot them.”
His belief is that better ball movement leads to more open shots and, therefore, a higher shooting percentage. This dagger three from Batum in Sunday’s overtime win in Toronto is a good example of what he’s talking about …
That looks like a Spurs possession, and Stotts sees San Antonio as the prime example of how an offense should look.
“The way they move the ball,” he said, “make the extra pass, turn down one shot to get a better shot. And they keep playing throughout the shot clock. When we were in Dallas, we played them in the playoffs a couple of years. Defensively against them, you just had to keep playing, because they were going to keep wearing you down with their passing and ball movement.”
The lineup — Lillard, Williams, Matthews, Batum and Aldridge — that was on the floor for that shot in Toronto would appear to be the Blazers’ best offensive unit. It scored 23 points in a little over nine minutes on Sunday, but just 20 points in about 14 1/2 minutes in seven other games, so its offensive numbers don’t look too good right now.
But overall, the Blazers have been strong offensively — scoring 109.4 points per 100 possessions — in 175 minutes with Lillard and Williams on the floor together.
“The NBA game’s getting more and more about having playmakers on the court,” Stotts said. “So when you’re able to have two guys who can make plays for other people and themselves, it makes our offense more effective.”
Last season, the Blazers suffered both offensively and defensively when they went to their bench. This year, they’ve actually received a boost offensively …
2012-13 Portland lineups
2013-14 Portland lineups
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
However, the defense hasn’t been too good with both point guards on the floor. And that, more than ball movement, is Stotts’ biggest concern. After ranking 26th defensively last season, they traded for Robin Lopez and changed their principles.
“For us to be a playoff team, we had to improve our defense,” Stotts said. “We’ve changed our defensive concepts, particularly on pick-and-rolls, to not extend as much.”
The Blazers are trying to mimic the Indiana Pacers’ defense (as well as they possibly can without having Roy Hibbert and Paul George), having the big man sag into the paint on pick-and-rolls to protect the basket, while the ball-handler’s defender attempts to stay attached to his man.
It’s a work in progress. Portland opponents have attempted 35.2 percent of their shots from the restricted area, the fourth-highest rate in the league. But they’ve shot just 57.3 percent on those shots, the ninth-lowest rate.
The stay-at-home-on-the-perimeter aspect of the Blazers’ defense seems to be working just fine. They lead the league in 3-point defense, allowing their opponents to shoot just 28.6 percent from there. Opponents have shot just 13-for-67 (19.4 percent) from 3-point range with Portland’s starting lineup on the floor.
Those are more numbers that aren’t sustainable, so it’s more than fair to look at Portland’s first 11 games with a skeptical eye. But the Blazers should be continue to be an improved defensive team.
If they can eventually settle in the middle of the pack defensively and in the top-10 offensively, they can certainly be a playoff team. The offense will be tested later this week when they face two top-five defensive teams — Chicago and Golden State — on Friday and Saturday, respectively.
“Every team in the league is going to be better four months from now,” Stotts said. “I’m pleased with what we’re doing. Where we got to get better is consistency defensively.
“I think, offensively, we’re going to find ways to score, inside, outside, whatever. Whatever limitations that we have, it’s going to be at the defensive end. And we got to continue to make that a priority.”