The result was the same for the Portland Trail Blazers Wednesday night in Boston. After Nate McMillan shook up the rotation by replacing Nicolas Batum in the starting lineup with Wesley Matthews and using Patty Mills as his backup point guard in favor of rookie Armon Johnson, the Blazers got off to a strong start and led the Celtics at the break. Yet as has become customary in what is now a five-game losing streak, Portland struggled to find consistent point production during the second half and saw its lead evaporate. A 15-0 run in the closing minutes got the Blazers close before Ray Allen secured the victory by knocking down a three-pointer with 10.7 seconds left to play.
While there is no shame in losing at Boston, the defeat dropped Portland to 8-10 on the season. For the first time in recent memory, the Blazers find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. As problematic is the bleak outlook in Portland. With Greg Oden out for the season and no miracle solution forthcoming for Brandon Roy's chronically sore knees, the Blazers have downgraded their expectations from winning a playoff series or two to just getting back to the postseason.
Portland's problems start at the offensive end of the floor. The Blazers were the league's second-best offensive team in 2008-09 before finishing seventh in Offensive Rating a year ago, when they were battered by injuries. SCHOENE projected that a healthier Portland squad would be the most efficient in the league this season. Instead, the Blazers sat 17th in the league entering Wednesday's game, scoring 0.7 points fewer per 100 possessions than league average.
While Portland's formula varied slightly the last two seasons, two features were common to the attack: Excellent offensive rebounding and few turnovers. The Blazers' big frontline has been able to pound the offensive glass, while sure-handed stars Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge ensure the team rarely coughs the ball up. Those haven't really changed this season. Portland leads the league in offensive rebound percentage and is still in the top 10 in turnover rate.
It's the other half of the Four Factors that have doomed the Blazers in the early going. Getting to the free throw line was a newfound strength for Portland last year, when the team finished fifth in the league in free throws per field-goal attempt. That's dropped to 27th this year. Meanwhile, the team's shooting, which has been average to slightly above in terms of effective field-goal percentage, has suddenly become a total liability. The only teams scoring fewer points per shot attempt than the Blazers this season are Sacramento, Minnesota and Milwaukee, all among the league's bottom four offenses.
Much of this can seemingly be traced to Roy's decline, which is entirely a product of how his sore left knee has robbed him of his former explosiveness. Roy got to the free throw line more frequently than any other Portland player a year ago and also sported an impressive eFG% given his high usage rate. Roy's numbers have dropped in both categories this year--but so too have those of many of his teammates.
Player 0910 1011 0910 1011
Aldridge .497 .452 .095 .094
Batum .619 .523 .071 .062
Camby .477 .429 .083 .070
Fernandez .494 .469 .080 .080
Matthews .539 .520 .114 .107
Miller .454 .462 .138 .105
Roy .508 .471 .142 .112
Of the Blazers' seven key players, only Andre Miller has not suffered a major drop in his shooting efficiency. However, Miller's inability to get to the charity stripe has been as responsible as Roy for Portland's decline in free throw attempts. This still might point back to Roy, as without the defensive attention he drew last season it is understandable that his teammates' efficiency might suffer. However, a look at the 17 games Roy missed last season shows that was not previously the case when he was out of the lineup. The table below has strictly performance from those 17 games listed for the four key Blazers who were part of the team for all of 2009-10.
Player 0910 1011 0910 1011
Aldridge .493 .452 .099 .094
Batum .613 .523 .066 .062
Fernandez .441 .469 .106 .080
Miller .479 .462 .104 .105
Wing Rudy Fernandez has consistently struggled to score without Roy to create opportunities for him, which makes sense given how much of his offense comes from beyond the three-point line. But Nicolas Batum was just as dangerous from downtown without Roy, Miller stepped up his scoring (albeit at the cost of free throw attempts) and Aldridge was much more effective as the team's leading man a year ago.
If it's not just a matter of Roy, then, a few other factors seem to be at play. One is simply the small sample size. Portland's wings are bound to shoot the ball better from long distance, as Batum (33.3 percent), Fernandez (33.8 percent) and Matthews (31.4 percent) are all significantly below their career norms.
More troubling is the team's lack of creators on offense when Roy is limited or unavailable. During the games their star missed last year, the Blazers relied more on backup guard Jerryd Bayless, who was able to get to the basket and the free throw line off the dribble (his free throw attempt rate was .133). Matthews has inherited that role, but playmaking really isn't the strength of his game and is not what he was asked to do as a rookie in Utah. I liked the Bayless deal at the time, but with Johnson struggling and the need for scoring from the perimeter, Portland misses Bayless now.
At last, good news on the injury front seems to be on the horizon for the Blazers. Center Joel Przybilla could make his 2010-11 debut on Friday. In classic Portland fashion, Przybilla was all set to return from the ruptured patella tendon that has sidelined him for the last 11 months before contracting the flu last Friday, pushing back his timetable. How effective Przybilla will be after such a long absence remains to be seen, but he has to be better than the alternatives the Blazers have been using behind starting center Marcus Camby--first Fabricio Oberto and more recently Sean Marks after a heart condition forced Oberto to retire.
The plus-minus numbers for Oberto and Marks are striking. Portland has outscored opponents with Camby in the middle (+2.0 points per 100 possessions) and has been especially effective when Aldridge slides to center in smaller lineups (+5.1). With Marks and Oberto on the floor, the Blazers have been outscored by 38.0 points per 100 possessions, a preposterously bad figure that has been enough to undo the good work by Aldridge and Camby despite the limited minutes played by Marks and Oberto.
Besides the obvious upgrade at backup center, a healthy Przybilla will keep McMillan from having to use Aldridge in the middle so frequently. In part, Aldridge's poor shooting numbers may stem from the heavy minutes he has had to log on a nightly basis, often against bigger defenders. Aldridge has averaged 39.3 minutes, putting him sixth in the league.
The return of Przybilla will not be a panacea, but a couple of points per game could be enough to swing some of Portland's recent close losses. If there has been good news during the losing streak, it's that Roy has shown the ability to contribute at something approximating his All-Star level of play. Wednesday's game was probably Roy's best all-around effort since returning, as he got to the free throw line nine times on the second half of a back-to-back set. That's some positive momentum the Blazers badly need.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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