(Graphs ahead. You have been warned.)
The Trail Blazers have regressed over the last couple weeks, going 9-7 over their last sixteen games. Despite an extremely successful season, the team still has glaring holes, especially on defense. I decided to look into the progress of the team over the course of the season to see if there was any coherent trend in their most important statistical indicators. Using Basketball-Reference’s game logs, I made a bunch of rather unattractive graphs. To make the data less noisy, I averaged each game with the previous one and the next one.
Here’s the biggest area of concern: In points allowed, the Blazers have gotten worse throughout the year. It’s not dramatic, but they have gotten their three-game average below 100 points allowed once since the thirteenth game of the season. The winning streak at the beginning of the year, the one that really got people’s attention, was built on a defense that wasn’t shutting teams down, but kept teams under control. We can only hope that this is either a fixable issue or at the very least one that’s run its course and is now stable.
What about Portland’s greatest defensive weakness, their inability to force turnovers?
This clearly isn’t getting fixed either. It’s mostly stable, with something of a downward trend. I’ve had a suspicion, recently, that a lack of turnovers is mostly a function of your personnel, and that it’s difficult to change without a roster change or a significant change to the team’s defensive scheme. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s clear Terry Stotts hasn’t been able to disprove it. As the team’s most extreme weakness (they’re still dead last in the league), turnovers seem like they would be a point of emphasis in practices, but Stotts doesn’t seem able (or willing, if we’re being generous) to shake things up for the sake of creating them. Turnovers don’t actually drop much in the playoffs, so this looks to remain an issue moving forward.
Portland’s biggest strength is pretty clearly their three-point shooting, and they are having the same sort of gradual dropoff that they are in other categories. They’ve been especially bad recently, which isn’t likely to continue, but those ones in the mid-forties you see at the top of the graph are the exception, rather than the rule. We can still expect excellent three-point shooting, but not the demonically good shooting from the beginning of the season.
The biggest takeaway here is that in three of the most important areas for this team, Portland has either moved backward or stayed steady all season. It seems that for now, the team we have is the team we’ve had all season, more or less. There are still a good forty-ish games left, so maybe Stotts will use them to experiment. The problem is that in the western conference, a few games lost due to, say, aggressive hedging, or a zone defense experiment, could make a huge difference in playoff seeding. It would be pretty surprising, not to mention impressive, if Terry Stotts, in his most successful season ever, started mixing things up with the long run in mind.
The same might go for Neil Olshey. If I were in their shoes, I’d be acting like someone who had just finished making a house of cards and was afraid to fix anything, add to it, or breathe too hard. This is mostly a veteran team–there are young guys, but most of them are buried on the bench–and it’s pretty much a known quantity at this point, so the odds of the team improving to the point of becoming a contender without intervention of some sort are pretty low. I have no idea if Stotts’ defensive conservatism is the right answer, but Stotts may be too conservative to find out.