32 Games In: Rip City Winning Despite an HMO All-star Team

Six games ago, things looked bleak for the Trail Blazers. At 15-11, having just lost Oden and Fernandez, I was skeptical as to their playoff chances. Then, amidst the loss of its last healthy center, the Vanilla Gorilla, Portland continued to pull out tough wins against good teams—at home and on the road—improving its record to 20-12.

What has driven this undermanned team to go 5-1 against good teams while losing Przybilla along the way? Chemistry is a funny thing in basketball, and these Blazers might have found a good mix of guys. In the last six games, Portland’s offensive efficiency has risen about 2 points per 100 possessions.* Much of that improvement has come from the last three games without Przybilla, where the Blazers are scoring about 5.5 more points per 100 possessions than their season average.

The loss of two centers is costly, but Portland seems to be making up for lost ground in the best way: limiting turnovers. While centers don’t often lead the league in turnovers, this is not because they make better decisions than guards or have softer hands. It is simply because they don’t touch the ball as often, so they have fewer chances to screw up. With its new guard-laden lineup, Portland has turned the ball over just 9.3 times per game since the Thrilla went down. Considering they give the ball away 14 times a game on average, the Blazers have saved themselves nearly 5 possessions per game: possessions where they now actually get a shot up. At just over 1 point per possession, the Blazers have basically given themselves 5 to 6 points bonus each game over the last three. The margins of victory in those games have been 4, 4, and 11 points, respectively, so I’d say those 5-6 points have been pretty crucial to winning.

Oden and Przybilla are better known for their defensive prowess, and the Blazers are giving up an additional 2 points per 100 possessions defensively.  Yet the Blazers’ offensive efficiency has increased to make up for the losses on the other end of the court, and Portland has managed an 8-4 record since Oden went out for the season (including the Houston game where he only played 4 minutes).

If Portland can continue to take advantage of its guard-heavy lineups by limiting turnovers and continuing to shoot high percentages from the free throw line (78%+), then its offensive points per possession can continue to make up for the loss of two centers on the defensive end.

It is interesting to note that, even with the loss of two centers and the increase of three-guard lineups, the Blazers are still keeping the pace slow. I’m not going to complain; they’re 5-0 in their last 5 slow-paced games.

*100 possessions represents a medium-paced game.

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