Portland Trail Blazers’ 2014-15 offense and defense


As the Portland Trail Blazers gear up for what is sure to be an eventful off-season, we can begin assessing their 2014-15 performance as a whole. For a team that wanted to make a deep playoff run, the most important results are how short they fell in the playoffs, but that should not take away from what happened in the regular season.

The regular season is when chemistry is forged, potential playoff foes are tested, and higher playoff seeds are earned. The vast majority of the NBA season is comprised of the regular season, so it is quite useful to get a feel for a team’s overall performance.

The biggest of the big pictures are simply a team’s offensive and defensive rating (points scored and allowed per 100 possessions). Statistically, this is the quickest and easiest way to judge a team – how good were they on offense, and how good were they on defense? The Trail Blazers finished with an offensive rating of 108.2, good for ninth in the league, and a defensive rating of 103.7, good for 10th in the league.

A top-10 finish in both categories is decent; especially given the team’s weakness on defense the past couple of seasons. Buried within those two simple numbers there is a deceptive amount of information, though, so let’s dive in.

To start with the offense, consider that last year the Trail Blazers were second in the league in offensive rating, at 111.5. This year’s downgrade on the offensive side is fairly significant, both in practical results and in comparison to the rest of the league.

While we may never know for sure, some of that may be chalked up to the team’s increased focus on defense. Teams only have a finite amount of time to practice and prepare, so if the Trail Blazers ramped up their time spent on defense, it is reasonable to assume that the offense would take a small step back. Even if this is indeed the case, dropping from second to ninth in the league is probably more of a precipitous drop than the team would have liked.

Apr 29, 2015; Memphis, TN, USA; Portland Trailblazers guard Damian Lillard (0) celebrates with guard CJ McCollum (3) after a play in the first half against the Memphis Grizzlies in game five of the first round of the NBA Playoffs. at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

That sharp drop on offense is quite puzzling for me, to be honest. The Trail Blazers largely returned the same cast as last year. C.J. McCollum improved, Meyers Leonard improved, and Chris Kaman supplied solid bench scoring, with the team’s only major loss being Mo Williams. Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum’s poor three-point shooting probably hurt, both in direct results and ripple effects, but I doubt that can explain it all. Wesley Matthews’ injury certainly didn’t help, but the Trail Blazers had him for the vast majority of the season.

Visually, to me, the Trail Blazers offense looked noticeably more stagnant than last year. While there is no “stagnancy” statistic to support this, in a way, the sharp drop in offensive rating is a clear indicator that something was indeed amiss. Last year’s offense was a smooth, free-flowing work of art, and it was sneakily one of the better offenses of the last decade. This year’s just felt different – just not as flowing and not as smooth.

Turning our attention the other way, the team’s defensive performance needs to be considered from a few different angles. The first is that it represented a six spot jump, after ranking only 16th last year. On the surface, this is a solid improvement, and one that the team can be proud of.

Realistically, the Trail Blazers were ranked in the top-5 in defense for most of the season, and to have such a sudden plummet at the end is surely bittersweet. While it is always dicey to pin team trends on one player, I think it is clear that Matthews’ season ending injury expedited the downturn.

Before Matthews’ injury, the Trail Blazers had a defensive rating of 102.2. If they had maintained that performance through the end of the season, that would have been good for third in the league. In the rest of their games after Matthews’ injury, the Trail Blazers limped to a 109.9 rating (which would have seen them fourth worst in the league over the whole season). This dip after the injury was catastrophic enough to slide the Trail Blazers all the way to tenth in the league.

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Again, not everything can be pinned on Matthews’ absence. There is no doubt that it was a huge factor, but the point of having a solid team defense is that the system should still be able to function (to an extent) with different players slotted in. Fatigue, and various minor injuries to other players surely played a role as well.

So yes, finishing tenth in the league in defense is a great improvement as compared to the past few years, but the looming question is how good could it have been with Matthews for the whole year? Alas, we’ll never know, but I would have loved to see this year’s team finish the season and enter the playoffs at full strength.

When it is all said and done, the Trail Blazers were a solid team. Being top-10 in offense and defense is a noteworthy accomplishment, and deserves mention. However; the Trail Blazers wanted to advance further in the playoffs this year, and it was abundantly clear that they were not at a level to make that happen. With a big off-season ahead, it will be interesting to see how the team maneuvers their roster heading into next season to hopefully fix these deficiencies.

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