Why The Portland Trail Blazers Are 4-0 … And How Can They Keep Winning?

The Portland Trail Blazers are first in the Western Conference, starting 4-0. We finally have a healthy Dame, paired with some scoring and rebounding help from new arrivals Jerami Grant and Josh Hart and immediate impact from Shaedon Sharpe. Let’s look at what is working for the Blazers and what they could improve on.

Billups-era Basketball

For those new to the NBA, Chauncey Billups, the head coach of our Blazers, played in an era of basketball that thrived on half-court play and shots around the rim. You can see this influence with this Blazers team. Currently, the Blazers are first in shots around the rim, with 36.5% coming from between zero to three feet. You’re bound to get to the free throw line when you get into the paint like that. They’re second in the league at free throws per game, shooting 80% from the charity stripe. You can thank slashers Dame and Grant, averaging sixteen free throw attempts per game. 

You can watch the Blazers hustle as well. While hustle isn’t necessarily a stat, you can get close to quantifying it by looking at rebounding and the advanced stat Defensive Rebound Percentage. This stat looks at all possible defensive rebounding opportunities and applies a percentage based on the success of grabbing the board. The Blazers are third in this category at the moment, gathering a total of 81.3% of their opportunities. While hustling is excellent, you must keep your composure and not play out of control. Contained hustle is what won championships for Chauncey Billups and that Detroit Pistons team. This “contained hustle” is also quantified in the opponent’s free throws to field goal attempts, which the Blazers are second in.

The Bosnian’s Beasts Offense

The Blazers run an entirely different game when one crucial player is out of the lineup. It’s not the Dame, Simons, or Grant that changes what they do; it’s Nurkic. The offense when Nurk is on the floor plays around him. For example, Nurk is a facilitator in most offensive sets, with him at the top of the key. Out of this position, he either hands the ball off, sets the screen, or throws an entry pass as a pick-and-roll ball handler. If he’s not in that position, he’s down on the right block, trying to back down his opponent for an easy hook shot. Nurk’s passing IQ as a big man is integral to how they run their offense while he is on the court. When he is off the court, the Blazers downsize, putting either Nasir Little or Grant at the five and run any combination of Lillard, Simons, Sharpe, Hart, Eubanks, or Keon Johnson out on the floor. This opens up the offense, leading to those shots in the paint I mentioned earlier. Essentially, the Blazers have two offenses that they run based solely on Nurkic’s presence.

Not So Easy Baskets

While there are so many positives on the start of this Blazers season, there are two areas they could stand to improve in. Firstly, ball movement. While we see a lot of made baskets, we’re not seeing a lot of passing. The Blazers are second to last in total assists, with Dame being their leader at 5.3 per game. This is not surprising to me, as few knockdown shooters are waiting to receive that pass for a corner three. Also, with Dame, Simons, Grant, and Sharpe, their play styles are more iso-centric, so after receiving a screen, they’re all liable to put the ball on the floor and go to the basket. Secondly, the Blazers have given up the most dunks in the league, at 29 so far. I’m not surprised by this statistic, as only Nurk is their truest big man on the roster at the moment. Without him on the floor, it would take one blowby for opposing players to have free paint to drop thunderous dunks in. 

The Blazers have gotten off to a great start this year, thanks to their high-percentage shots, free throw opportunities, and defensive rebounding skills. Their offensive sets run based on Jusuf Nurkic being in the lineup, creating two different offenses for opponents to deal with. At times, the Blazers play a fair amount of iso ball and give up a ton of dunks on the inside. They can offset this by continuing to get to the free-throw line and taking those high-percentage shots.