The Portland Trail Blazers beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 133-85 on April 3, running their record to 30-19, sixth in the stacked Western Conference.
They also ran their season Net Rating above the zero point, a place they’ve found themselves only rarely during the season.
The previous two remarks, on paper, would seem to contradict each other. After all, one of the most powerful predictive factors in a team’s season record is their point differential, whether it’s per game or per 100 possessions—since the Blazers play at a 98.3 pace, those two numbers are close enough to tell the same story.
Specifically, a team that outscores its opponents by 0.4 points per 100 possessions over 82 games should post about a 42-40 record on average. Sure, there’s plenty of variation (longtime readers of this site know how vexed the Charlotte Hornets made me when they went 36-46 in consecutive years in which they outscored their opponents), but that’s the average.
Let’s consider that wide of a swing in the opposite direction—six games above expectation with a plus-0.4 Net Rating is 48-34. As recently as 2019, the last time the NBA had an 82-game season, the Los Angeles Clippers posted a 48-34 record with a plus-0.8 Net Rating, five games better than their expected record of 43-39 that such a point differential implies should be the case.
Further back in NBA history, the 2008 Cleveland Cavaliers posted a minus-0.4 Net Rating and a 45-37 record, outperforming their expectation by five games as well.
What Portland is doing is bonkers by any historical standard. An expected 82-game record of 42-40 and an actual prorated 82-game record of 50-32 is an eight-game spread, and while I haven’t examined whether that’s a record, it is greater than anything I found for teams hovering around an even Net Rating in the whole of the 21st century.
Put simply, nobody beats their expectation by eight games. It just doesn’t happen.
So is there anything in the stats to tell us why Portland’s record is this good even while their actual scores are this mediocre?
We could try starting with the obvious—do they make their shots? Do they prevent the other team from making theirs?
The answers to those questions are “sort of” (they’re 17th in eFG%) and “haha, lolno” (they’re 28th in opponents’ eFG%.) Mediocre offense. Absolutely atrocious defense. 30-19 record. So that’s out, let’s try something else.
Are they just lucky?
What’s their record in one-possession games, the basketball equivalent of something like baseball’s Baltimore Orioles in 2013—they went 29-9 in one-run games, 93-69 overall, beat their expected 162-game record by 11 games (they should’ve gone 82-80), and for their trouble got knocked out of the playoffs by the New York Yankees in the Division Series.
Baseball seasons are just about twice as long as basketball seasons. Baltimore, per 82 games, beat their win expectation by about five or six wins. That’s not unprecedented in NBA history, but as mentioned, Portland’s eight games above their win expectation.
Portland is 9-4 in one-possession games. Over 82 games, assuming a similar stretch for the remainder of the season in terms of both frequency and winning percentage in one-possession games, that would make Portland 15-6.
On average, one-possession games are, for the most part, toss-ups. Great teams, after all, win big and lose close, and the 1996 Chicago Bulls, with their 72-10 record and status as the greatest NBA team of all time (sorry, 2016 Warriors, but Chicago didn’t blow a 3-1 lead), went 5-3 in one-possession games.
Three of their 10 losses were by one point. Meanwhile, the only game they lost by double digits all season was a 104-72 thrashing on March 10, 1996, the lone loss in a 13-game stretch where they won eight of the 12 victories by 20 points or more.
My point in all this is that about four of Portland’s “extra” wins per 82 games can be chalked up to luck. Or, if you’re a believer in “eye test” basketball, to guys like Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum having some kind of magic ability to play better in close games.
So we’re still left looking for an explanation of why Portland has won so many games over their expectation.
A team that misses a ton of shots from the field and shoots a worse percentage than their opponent must, by definition, have taken more shots—either they won the turnover or offensive rebounding battle and just got more shots per possession for one to go in, or they shot a bunch more free throws.
Portland has the second-lowest turnover percentage in the league on offense. But defensively, they’re just 20th in opponents’ turnover percentage. On a per-game basis, they average 1.6 fewer turnovers than their opponents.
Similarly, while Portland does grab more offensive rebounds than their opponents, it’s just 0.7 per game more.
Along the same line, the Blazers actually shoot fewer free throws per game than their enemies; they get 21.2 trips to the line per game but give up 23.0. Even though Portland is a much better free throw shooting team in terms of percentage, they still make just 17.6 free throws a game (83.3 percent, good for second overall) while giving up 17.8 made charity tosses (77.8 percent, unsurprisingly about level with league average since defense can’t affect an opponent shooting a free throw.)
Add in the fact that Portland makes 1.4 fewer shots a game than their opponent, and we’re still at an impasse.
So what haven’t we examined?
If you guessed “three-pointers”, you win a prize.
The reason the Portland Trail Blazers are 30-19 isn’t because they take care of the ball. It’s because they’ve mastered modern basketball, both shooting freakishly accurate shots from the free throw line (they may make fewer actual shots overall from the line, but they make five out of every six of them!) and shooting a ton of (and making a ton of) 3-pointers.
Portland is second in the NBA in 3PAR—46.9 percent of their shot attempts are 3-pointers, while their opponents take just 39.5 percent of their attempts from long range.
What’s more, Portland is also sixth in the league in 3-point percentage, making 38.4 percent of their attempts.
The Blazers’ lousy eFG% is because they are absolutely terrible 2-point shooters. Part of this is because they still have Carmelo Anthony on their team (with his gods-awful 43.6 percent shooting and horrific shot selection, taking 43.8 percent of his attempts from between 10 feet and the arc while having absolutely zero ability to finish at the rim anymore), part of this is because nobody else can shoot 2-pointers either (Lillard is the only non-big man making more than half of his tries for two), and part of this is that the team is 22nd in the league at getting shots up from inside 3 feet.
The bottom line is this:
If you shoot enough 3-pointers at a good percentage and make an insanely good percentage of your free throws, you can flip the middle finger at the stats and win more games than any team with a near-zero net rating has any right to.
We’ll have to see whether that holds up in the playoffs, or like their baseball cousins in Baltimore, the Blazers are destined to crash out of the postseason in the first round after the play-in games.