The Portland Trail Blazers have received notice across the NBA for an abrupt 5-1 start to the 2022-23 regular season, despite a relatively difficult schedule. Technically, the Milwaukee Bucks have a better record at 6-0, but the Bucks also have Giannis Antetokounmpo and a recent championship to their name. The Blazers entered the year with Damien Lillard recovering and expectations somewhat low, but now she’s doing as well as anyone in the league.
Lillard and rookie guard Shaydon Sharp have had the most publicity this early season, but two factors make the difference between Portland’s 83% win rate and a score of 0.500, especially with so many close results punctuating the schedule. Yesterday we talked about Portland’s surprisingly strong rebound performance so far. Today we will talk about the second hidden factor: forced fluctuations.
Portland’s defense has been more turbulent this season than it has been in past years. They still don’t play great positional defense. They do not boast majestic bodies to possess land. But they are generating opposing transformations at a greater relative rate than in past years.
The Blazers are ranked 11th in the NBA in the number of forced turns per possession. Technically, they finished higher last year, finishing ninth, but that season was an aberration, with odd formations and non-permanent staff. The really interesting comparison comes when you consider the 2020-21 season, when Portland ranked 29th out of 30 teams in this category. This was typical of the Terry Stotts years, when basic defense was emphasized at the expense of opportunism.
there is more. The Blazers currently rank 11th in opponent turnover per game, 9th in opponent turnover per offensive possession, 12th in acquisitions per defensive game, and 13th in acquisitions per game this year…all average or above.
Generating turnovers does not guarantee a good defense, let alone success. Plenty of sharp-eyed sports teams feast on opposing turnovers during the chaotic regular season, only to find that playoff opponents don’t stick with them. This usually leads to an abrupt end to Glitz Blitz and a reformulation of defensive philosophy.
However, turnover generation is important for the Blazers in two ways at the moment. First, it stimulates the running game. This increases their energy and provides crucial bonus points that they lose due to their general lack of three-point shooting. (The team is currently ranked 24th in attempts of three points per game.) Just as important, creating shifts makes up for the shifts the Blazers are committed to.
As one might expect from a young team getting used to a new system and carrying unfamiliar staff in key roles, Portland’s offensive is far from smooth. The Blazers are ranked 25th in the league in terms of the number of trades made per game, while the Blazers are ranked 28th in turnover per acquisition. An advantage in possessions means more scoring opportunities, which generally translates to more points. Blazers ditch this feature most nights, just because of their makeup. Forcing the opponent to take it back. This is no frills for Portland at this point; It is a requirement.
Staying average or above on forced shifts means Blazers buy time to discover their humiliation. It also gives them a platform where they can access the winnings. Without these additional opportunities, they would find rickety boards and holes under their feet every time they tried to reach the sky, due to their own mistakes.
Justise Winslow leads the charge, averaging 1.8 steals per 24.8 minutes per game, which equates to 2.8 steals per 36 minutes. But Josh Hart also contributed, along with everyone on the lineup. Portland doesn’t get mass-produced from a single brilliant gun. The change in approach – evaluating turbulent quick play on basketball with half a court, and percentage of basketball – is a more important factor than any individual performance.
The importance of generating a turnover will likely diminish as the season progresses. For now, though, Portland needs all the assets to pull off the wins together. This was definitely one of them.
To their credit, the Blazers are riding the advantages of their youthful, athlete-packed lineup, not just falling for its inevitable flaws. This allowed them to thrive during this getaway, giving hope that the upcoming season could be fruitful, and not just an extended learning tour.