Portland Trail Blazers have been at their best in the NBA Bubble

Follow along as I compare and contrast the Portland Trail Blazers play, utilizing stats before and during the NBA bubble in Orlando.

With Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back from their respective injuries, the Portland Trail Blazers have been one of the most intriguing teams to watch in Orlando. Beyond getting to see the new pieces integrated into the rotation, five of their seven games have been decided by 5 points or less.

Every game for Portland has had massive playoff implications, which makes each contest all the more thrilling. With a 5-2 record and just one win away from securing the eight seed for the Western Conference Play-in, I wanted to dive into the statistics to see what has led to the team’s success in the bubble. All statistics in this article are attributable to Cleaning The Glass.

Let’s start with Jusuf Nurkic. The “Bosnian Beast” has been terrific in Orlando, looking like he has fully recovered from his leg injury. He is a perfect short-roller when Damian Lillard gets trapped in the pick-and-roll. Nurkic is a considerable upgrade on Hassan Whiteside on those plays, as his handle, mobility, passing, and strength make him a nightmare to deal with once he gets a head of steam. His distribution also unlocks new actions for the Blazers – – most notably the dribble hand-off. He’s in the 95th percentile at his position in assist percentage (19.1).

The biggest and maybe only weakness in Jusuf Nurkic’s offensive game is his inability to make contested shots around the basket.

Stan Van Gundy commented on that in the Blazers game against Dallas: “Nurkic has played really well in the bubble, but he has missed a lot of those, right around the rim, shots you would think he would knock in.”

This isn’t new for Nurkic, as he’s struggled to finish around the basket his entire career when he isn’t afforded a dunk or wide-open layup. He’s shooting just 59 percent at the basket in the bubble – – which is in the 14th percentile for his position. He’s never been better than 61% at the rim in his seven-year career. He’s still a borderline top ten center in the league despite that weakness, and the versatility in his offensive game has made the Blazers the best offensive unit in Orlando.

Defensively he’s incredibly active with his hands getting steals and blocks. He’s an aggressive defender, occasionally lunging out at ball handlers to try and get a surprise steal or force a mistake. That strategy pays off more often than not, but also leads to fouls and easy opportunities for the opposition. This is represented in the numbers, as Jusuf is in the 91st percentile in both block and steal percentage, while being in the 15th percentile in foul rate (5.6).

Zach Collins has added much-needed depth to the roster for Head Coach Terry Stotts. The theory of Collins, a stretch four that can provide spacing on offense and rim protection on defense, is tantalizing. He’s shooting 40 percent from three in the bubble on limited attempts, and he’s occasionally shown good chemistry with Nurkic on high-low actions.

The benefits of playing two traditional big men in 2020 are apparent: added rebounding and rim protection. Unfortunately, Collins hasn’t shown a propensity for the latter. He’s in the 29th percentile in block percentage, and has a troubling 5.4 foul percentage – – an alarming trend that he has failed to improve in his three seasons in the league. The hope with most foul happy young players is that, as they get more experience, they will learn better positioning and habits to avoid committing fouls. That has yet to happen for him.

Collins has been able to attack the offensive glass, collecting 10 percent of Portland’s missed shots while he’s on the floor. That, combined with his outside shooting, has allowed him to be a semi-productive offensive piece. But the defense is a significant problem for him and the team, and if the Blazers want to make progress this year and in years to come, Collins’ progression is paramount.

Carmelo Anthony, otherwise known as “Skinny Melo,” has been more efficient in the bubble than he was before the shutdown. Part of that is shot selection: he’s still taking a ton of mid-range jumpers, as you would expect, but he’s gotten better post position on those isolations, so they are of the short mid-range variety (4-14 feet). He’s reduced his long mid-range efforts from 25 percent of his attempts pre-bubble, to 18 percent in Orlando.

Being closer to the rim on his isolations has also allowed him to draw more fouls on his pump fake. He drew shooting fouls on 9.1 percent of his shooting attempts pre-bubble, and that has jumped to 12 percent in Orlando. The other noticeable improvement in his game has been his three-point shooting. He hit 36 percent in the regular season. That number has jumped to 50 percent in the seven re-seeding games thus far. That could just be a result of small sample size – – but he looks more confident and comfortable in his role now compared to where he was in March.

Gary Trent Jr. has been a revelation in Orlando. After a successful season in which he shot 39 percent from downtown, he’s gone to another level connecting on 30 of 53 threes in the bubble (57%). He’s been equally prolific from the corners and above-the-break.

Improvement can come in various ways. The obvious and more noticeable path is improving upon weaknesses, so they can no longer be exploited by the opposition. Less recognized is the development of strengths and finding ways to utilize those strengths more frequently throughout the course of the game.

Trent Jr. has figured out additional ways to get to his three-point shot. He’s been more aggressive with pull-ups, running to the line in transition, as well as moving off the ball when his man is ball-watching. Three-pointers made up 56 percent of his shot attempts pre-shutdown. That number has spiked to 68 percent in the bubble.

Last but not least, we need to discuss Damian Lillard. The guy has carried the Blazers all year long and nothing has changed in Orlando. The most significant jump for Dame has been at the rim. He’s converted 67 percent of his shots at the basket in the bubble, after making just 58 percent before the shutdown. That’s the only significant difference in his profile. He’s been slightly better at just about every facet of the game, although that could be the small sample size and the fact that this article came out after his back-to-back 50 point efforts.

Many questioned whether Dame was a top ten player after last season’s playoff performance, but there’s no doubt now that he is deserving of that accolade. If he can get the Blazers into the Western Conference playoffs and push the Lakers, his star will only continue to grow.

There is a lot to be excited about when it comes to the Blazers. Even if they are eliminated in the next week or two, there have been plenty of encouraging signs to suggest the 2020-21 season – – if it happens – – will be one to remember.