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NBA Daily: Five Numbers That Could Define The Season

Over the course of an NBA season, certain statistical trends will reveal themselves and could provide clues as to why a team achieved or fell short of their goals, writes Quinn Davis.

Quinn Davis

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In just under two months, 30 NBA teams will kick off the journey that is the 2019-20 NBA season. There will be a myriad of storylines and statistical trends that flesh out as the season chugs along. Some of these trends can be predicted based on last season, while others could be a result of roster turnover or a coaching change.  

These trends will be of particular import for contenders and could make or break a team’s chances of winning a title. This piece will take five of those teams that fall into the contender category and highlight a statistic that could be crucial to watch for in the upcoming campaign. Without further ado…

The 76ers’ Forced Turnover Percentage

The Philadelphia 76ers underwent significant roster changes this offseason.  Most notably losing Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick, replacing them with Al Horford and Josh Richardson within the starting lineup. Last season, one of the more perplexing statistical trends was the decline in their defense. After finishing third in defensive rating in 2017-18, the Sixers fell all the way to 14th in that category during the 2018-19 season.  

Looking deeper, we see that the Sixers still managed to rank sixth in terms of opponent effective field goal percentage.  The defensive downturn, then, can be partially attributed to the drop in their forced turnover percentage, which fell from 18th all the way to 28th in the league, per cleaningtheglass.com.  

The new-look 76ers will trot out a formidable defensive lineup next season, so they are likely to return to being one of the top outfits in the league. Whether that defense can propel them all the way to a championship, however, could come down the team’s ability to force steals and bad passes. Richardson, an aggressive guard defender who makes his living on being pesky around the perimeter, will help massively in that department.

Live ball turnovers will be of high importance for the Philadelphia offense, one that may struggle in the halfcourt given the lack of an elite perimeter shot creator. Forcing these will allow the team easy transition scoring opportunities and give Ben Simmons a chance to do what he does best — lead the break.

The Lakers’ Half-Court Efficiency

The Los Angeles Lakers also experienced some major roster turnover, bringing in Anthony Davis via a trade with the Pelicans and signing multiple role players like Danny Green, Quinn Cook, Avery Bradley and Troy Daniels.

Last season, the Lakers struggled to score in the half-court and, as a result, their offense suffered as a whole. They finished 23rd in the league in half-court efficiency, along with 23rd-placed rank in overall offensive rating, per cleaningtheglass.com. This was the first time a LeBron James-led team finished outside the top six in either of those categories since the 2007-08 season in Cleveland, the year before he won his first MVP trophy.

The James injury may have played a minor role in this outlier season — but even when he was on the court, the Lakers only scored 94.7 points per 100 possessions in the half-court. This number would’ve placed them just 17th in the league.

The real culprit may have been nonexistent floor spacing. The Lakers finished 29th in the league last season in three-point percentage, shooting a putrid 33.8 percent from beyond the arc. Los Angeles had the third-lowest frequency of spot-ups in the league and had the fourth-lowest efficiency on those attempts, per NBA.com. James was forced to operate in tight spaces and had a tough time generating open looks against set defenses. The clip below shows a James post up in which every Portland defender has a foot in the paint, ready to help.

With the aforementioned additions of Green and Cook, the Lakers have added the elite shooters that could open the floor for their two stars. Davis will definitely demand double teams in the post as well, so his talents may help Los Angeles find cleaner looks at the rim.

The Nuggets’ Opponents Effective Field Goal Percentage

The Denver Nuggets will bring back every contributor from last season, with the addition of Jerami Grant and, excitedly, Michael Porter Jr. at some point. Last season, the Nuggets combined their efficient offense with an improved defense to vault to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, eventually losing in the second round to the Portland Trail Blazers in seven games.

One of the more significant defensive improvements came in their opponents’ shooting percentage. They held opponents to a 52.4 effective field goal percentage, which ranked 15th in the league, up from 27th in the previous season. Interestingly, the shooting statistics on cleaningtheglass.com show that the Nuggets gave up more efficient shots to opponents last season than they did in 2017-18.

The Nuggets ranked last in the league in giving up corner threes, the most efficient shot in basketball sans the layup.  They also allowed 37.6 percent of their opponents shot attempts to come at the rim, which ranked 24th in the league, down from 17th in the 2017-18 campaign. The Nuggets compounded this by forcing the least amount of long mid-range shots, the most inefficient zone on the court.

How, then, did the Nuggets only rank in the middle of the NBA in terms of their opponent shooting efficiency?  It’s possible that the Nuggets did a better job contesting these shots — but looking at the NBA.com tracking reveals that simple luck played a significant role.

The Nuggets gave up almost exactly the same frequency of shots across the last two seasons where the opponent was considered very open, meaning the defender was six or more feet away. In 2017-18, the opponent shot 41.4 percent on these shots, compared to just 37.6 percent on the same attempts last season. When it comes to merely open shots, situations in which defender was four-to-six feet away, the gap was even more pronounced.  Last season, the opponent only shot 31.9 percent on these attempts, compared to 35.7 percent the year before.

Needless to say, it will be intriguing to watch whether Denver can keep up their defensive improvement from last season, or if the shooting variance will swing back out of their favor.

Milwaukee’s Offensive Rating Without Giannis

The Milwaukee Bucks rampaged their way through the regular season last year, finishing with the best record and the highest net rating in the league. The MVP-awarded Giannis Antetokounmpo led the charge, dominating the paint in every contest.

The Bucks were not only successful on the back of their Greek superstar though, as they had a plus-3.7 net rating when he was off the court as well. This was largely due to a steady offense, which ranked third in the league last season with a 114.9 offensive rating overall. This number jumped to 116.2 with Giannis on the court and only fell to 112.9 with him on the bench. That means that even without their best player in the lineup, the Bucks had the equivalent of a seventh-ranked offense, per cleaningtheglass.com.

Expectedly, Milwaukee saw a decline in both the frequency and efficiency of shots at the rim when Antetokounmpo took a breather. They made up for this drop by bombing away from three-point, seeing a significant increase in both frequency and efficiency on attempts from deep.

The uptick in outside shot attempts makes sense as the Bucks’ bench lacked a true paint presence like Antetokounmpo, so the team needed to rely more on perimeter play in those minutes. The surprising statistic is the increase in three-point percentage, as it would be logical to assume that Milwaukee would be getting better looks from outside with the league’s MVP attracting multiple defenders around the rim.

Of course, Milwaukee will be without Malcolm Brogdon, their best three-point shooter last season, as the combo guard signed a contract with the Indiana Pacers this offseason.  The Bucks will still trot out an abundance of sharpshooters, however, and the onus to create open looks falls on Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton during the minutes when Antetokounmpo rests. Bledsoe is particularly good at finding open shooters, and the Bucks actually performed quite well when he was on the court without Antetokounmpo.

Their plus-9.6 net rating in those minutes was not too far from the plus-12.5 number with the MVP on the court, per cleaningtheglass.com.

Bledsoe is adept at penetrating into the lane and often uses his elite athleticism to leap and hit shooters on the perimeter at difficult angles. Below, he finds Brogdon with an especially wild kick-out.

As mentioned, the Bucks will be without Brogdon’s elite catch-and-shoot services this season, but he can be replaced adequately thanks to a bench that is littered with shooting specialists. If that bench can continue to knock down three-pointers at an elite clip, the Bucks could be on their way back to the No. 1 seed.

The Rockets’ Second Half Net Rating

Last season, James Harden experienced the second-highest usage rate in the years since 1977-78, when the stat could first be calculated. Then, in one of the most surprising moves of the summer, the Rockets swapped out Chris Paul for the player with the highest usage rate ever in that time, Russell Westbrook.   

The immense usage may have taken a toll on Harden over the course of games, as the Rockets tended to have trouble in second halves. The Rockets had a plus-8.5 net rating in the first half of games, which was second in the NBA. In the second half, the Rockets had a net rating of just plus-1.2.  That difference of 7.3 was the largest separation in the league, per NBA.com.

There could be a variety of factors that caused the split, including the fact that good teams who get out to big leads early will play more garbage time in the second half, and therefore let off the gas pedal.  It is also reasonable to infer, however, that the Rockets’ isolation-heavy play style took a toll on their superstar, becoming more predictable for opposing defenses as the game went on.

The Thunder, Westbrook’s former team, had the opposite splits last season. Oklahoma City had a meager plus-1.2 net rating in first halves last season, but this number jumped to plus-5.7 in second halves, per NBA.com. Again, there are a variety of factors for this, and Westbrook was certainly not the only reason for the second half spurt. Then again, the 2017 league MVP is known for his constant ferociousness and motor, so it’s easy to see how he may have played a role in energizing his team out of the halftime break.

It will be interesting to watch how Westbrook’s fire rubs off on this Rockets team and, importantly, if his presence takes just enough burden off of Harden to leave him fresh down the stretch of tight contests.

For these five franchises with championship-worthy aspirations, the above metrics will likely go a far way toward determining their ultimate ceilings. It’s still early on, but don’t be surprised if some of these predictions end up making or breaking a season down the line — keep your eyes peeled!

Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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NBA Daily: The Rich Getting Richer In LA

How will Paul George’s return from off-season shoulder surgeries affect the current state of things in Clipper Land? Chad Smith examines.

Chad Smith

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Paul George spurned the Los Angeles Lakers, not once but twice. The Palmdale, California kid grew up as a fan of the other team in town, the Los Angeles Clippers. Tomorrow night, he will make his debut for the franchise as one of their best players.

To say the Clippers were the laughing stock of the league for most of their existence would be a massive understatement. The tables have turned, and now the five-time All-NBA forward is part of a team favored by many to win the NBA championship.

Paul has been limited to non-contact drills for the last couple of months, and he has had enough of it.

“I’m tired of rehabbing,” George told reporters after practice. “It sucks.”

Following offseason surgery on both of his shoulders, the star forward has been chomping at the bit to make his return. Fortunately for the Clippers and their fan base, they won’t have to wait long.

According to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, George will make his season debut against the New Orleans Pelicans. With Kawhi Leonard’s load management and the recent injury to Landry Shamet, the addition of George couldn’t come at a better time for Los Angeles.

On top of that, the Clippers are finishing up a brutal seven-game stretch on the schedule. Those were games against Utah, San Antonio, Utah, Milwaukee, Portland and Toronto. They visit Houston tonight and travel to New Orleans for the second night of a back-to-back.

The Clippers currently rank 24th in three-point shooting, which is another area where Paul can dramatically help them improve. He has always been an underrated player in that department, but showed last season just how good of a spot-up shooter he can be. Even when he is not the one shooting the ball, there will be plenty of opportunities that open up for his teammates when he drives to the basket.

Paul has always been one of the premier defensive players in the league. His prowess on that end of the floor has put him in the conversation as one of the best two-way players in the game. Pairing the four-time All-Defensive player with Kawhi and Patrick Beverley is going to give opposing teams nightmares.

Working his way into 5-on-5 scrimmages, he would find himself playing against Kawhi’s team. Not only was he up for the challenge of guarding the two-time NBA Finals MVP, but he relished the opportunity.

Despite his eagerness to return to action, Paul is cognizant of the big picture. He has been through this before, at a much more frightening level. After fracturing his right leg in a Team USA scrimmage in 2014, Paul missed essentially the whole season in 2014-2015. He played the last eight games of the season with the Indiana Pacers, but it gave him great perspective. Paul stressed the importance of what pressure to put on himself, and what to avoid.

One thing Doc Rivers shouldn’t have to be concerned with is Paul adjusting his game. He has went from a young role player to an All-Star in Indiana. He averaged a career-high 28 points per game in Oklahoma City playing alongside a ball-dominant guard in Russell Westbrook. He has shared the spotlight before, and things will be no different playing with “fun guy” Kawhi.

The most mesmerizing part about the pairing of Kawhi and Paul is that they were nearly teammates in Indiana. The Pacers drafted the six-time All-Star 10th overall in 2010. A year later, they had the opportunity to select and keep Kawhi, but opted to trade him to San Antonio for local product George Hill. One major reason why Indiana made that move was that the franchise felt they were already solidified at the position with Paul.

The bond is already tight with George and his other Clippers teammates. This past Sunday, Fresno State retired Paul’s No. 24 jersey after he spent two seasons as a Bulldog. Several Clippers players showed up to surprise him, including team owner Steve Balmer. It was already a moving moment for Paul, but having his guys on hand to share the ceremony with him made it even more special.

The 29-year old forward averaged 28 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals last season in Oklahoma City, where he finished third in the MVP voting. With LA’s elite role players already established, George should be able to find his groove within the team before their game on Monday, where he will face his former Thunder teammates.

The big question will be how much will Kawhi and Paul play together? With the ability to always have one superstar on the floor at all times, Doc Rivers will have plenty of options. Should Kawhi continue to rest throughout the season, Paul should be able to handle the load as long as he is healthy. His seven games of scoring at least 40 points — including a 47-point triple-double against Portland last year — should be sufficient evidence of that.

Versatility is a strong suit for LA when it comes to rotations. The lineup to start the game could be drastically different from that which closes the game. When fully healthy, they can go big or small, shifting Paul between the shooting guard or power forward positions. With Shamet likely missing some time, Paul may spend a lot of time at the guard spot. That could arguably be the best five-man defensive lineup in the league with Beverley, George, Leonard, Maurice Harkless and Ivica Zubac.

With George returning to the floor, LA will now have both of its dynamic duos intact. LeBron James and Anthony Davis have played incredibly well for the Lakers so far this season.

Should Kawhi and Paul fulfill expectations, the Battle of Los Angeles may, in fact, reward the winner with a trip to the Finals.

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NBA Daily: Blazers’ Early-Season Struggles Cause For Lasting Concern

The Blazers are 4-6, and facing a rash of injuries. As the schedule gets tougher, is Portland at risk of falling way behind in the playoff Western Conference playoff race?

Jack Winter

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The Portland Trail Blazers’ silver lining has little to do with them.

The expectation coming into this season was that as many as 13 teams in the Western Conference could compete for the playoffs, propelling the number of victories needed to advance to the postseason into the high 40s. Three weeks into 2019-20, the number of teams good enough to vie for a playoff berth is smaller than anticipated. The Phoenix Suns have ascended to respectability and perhaps more, but the Golden State Warriors have been left for dead while the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans struggle.

The West is strong, of course, but maybe not so strong that a handful of objectively quality teams will be left on the outside looking in at the postseason come April.

Some expected Portland to stand a tier above that fray coming off a surprising trip to the Western Conference Finals. But any chatter that said this team was more likely to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy at season’s end than hope for lottery luck was always misguided. At the crux, it was optimism reflecting last spring’s matchup-dependent outcome that ignored changes sapping them of both depth and continuity.

Less than a month into the NBA calendar, it’s not quite time to panic. Still, with Portland at 4-6 and narrowly escaping an overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday, it might be time to readjust season-long expectations in the Rose City – especially given the Blazers’ upcoming schedule and rash of injuries.

Seven of Portland’s next eight games come on the road. Half of them are against teams that made the playoffs last season, including a lone home tilt versus the stoic Toronto Raptors. Merely going .500 over that stretch would be a major accomplishment for the Blazers given how they’ve fared against inferior competition thus far.

It took an extra period for them to beat the Hawks, playing without John Collins, at Moda Center, while the anonymous Warriors earned their first victory after Stephen Curry’s injury versus Portland last week. Not even a career-high 60 points from Damian Lillard, who’s reached yet another peak in the early going, saved the Blazers from a home loss to the Brooklyn Nets, who, too, are still trying to find themselves.

All of which begs the question: Just where will Portland sit in the standings when the schedule gets more palatable? Plus, the more important one: If the Blazers continue struggling over the next two weeks, will injuries prevent them from making up the necessary ground for a seventh consecutive playoff berth over the season’s remainder?

Outside of Lillard, there’s an argument to be made that Zach Collins is Portland’s most indispensable player. No roster in basketball with real postseason ambitions is lighter on forwards than the Blazers, while Hassan Whiteside’s overall lethargy and struggles to integrate offensively add to his value as a part-time center.

Collins is sidelined until March after undergoing surgery on his dislocated left shoulder. Jusuf Nurkic should make his season debut around then, too, but there’s no telling how effective he’ll be after spending nearly a full year away from the game. Any hopes he’ll immediately regain the high-impact two-way form that made him Portland’s second-best player last season should be quelled. More likely is that Nurkic will take time to fully re-acclimate to the speed and physicality of the NBA game, serving as not much more than a replacement-level player until next fall.

In the meantime, the Blazers are relying on Whiteside and Skal Labissiere in the middle, waiting for Pau Gasol to get healthy enough to play spot minutes off the bench. Lillard has already chastised Whiteside for his lack of urgency as a roll man, and it’s clear to anyone who watched Portland last season that Whiteside leaves much to be desired as a screener — a deficiency that’s plagued him throughout his career.

The Blazers, per usual, rank toward the top of the league in ball screens, despite Whiteside consistently failing to make contact with the primary defender – let alone swallow them at varied angles like Nurkic.

Whiteside has flashed more comfort as a passer from the high post and elbows in Terry Stotts’ system but is still ill-equipped to make plays in space when teams force the ball from the stars in pick-and-roll play. Labissiere, while better than Whiteside, leaves much to be desired in both regards, too. Gasol would certainly help, especially given his threat as a pick-and-pop shooter. But it’s indicative of just how thin the Blazers find themselves upfront that a 39-year-old who hasn’t played since March could give them a lift offensively.

Portland quietly finished third in offensive rating a year ago, only behind the juggernaut Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Stotts’ team currently ranks ninth in offense, scoring just over five fewer points per 100 possessions than last season. While offense is down a bit league-wide, there are signs the Blazers’ relatively slow start on that end will persist.

The franchise talked a big game throughout the preseason about prioritizing pace, a newfound emphasis that’s yet to manifest itself in more transition opportunities, per Cleaning the Glass. But the Blazers rank top-10 in pace regardless, mostly on the strength of taking a higher share of their field goal attempts in the first two seconds of the shot clock than any team in basketball. The problem? Their effective field goal percentage on those shots is 45.8 percent, fourth-worst in the league.

Portland has been just average on the offensive glass after finishing second in offensive rebound rate last season and they’re tallying over 50 fewer passes per game despite replacing Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless in the rotation with superior playmakers. Anfernee Simons has lived up to the hype in his first season playing regular minutes, but Stotts should probably scrap lineups that include neither of his star guards, especially considering his team’s lack of scheme familiarity. The Blazers’ offensive rating without Lillard and CJ McCollum on the floor is 86.2, a putrid number hardly guaranteed to improve even when factoring in the sample size.

The bright side? Three of Portland’s losses were decided in the game’s final moments, and none of them have come by double-digits. The Blazers are a few fortuitous bounces away from weathering an early-season injury storm and emerging from their first 10 games with a winning record.

But context is crucial — especially in a Western Conference playoff field that remains overcrowded — and it renders Portland’s start concerning. Other than an inevitable shot-making improvement from McCollum, who labored throughout last season before coming alive in the playoffs, just how will this team take meaningful strides not just leading up to Thanksgiving, but over the season’s duration?

It would be foolish to count Portland out entirely. Stotts and Lillard deserve every benefit of the doubt, and their teams enjoy a long track record of playing their best basketball during the second half of the season. But dreams of the Blazers being title contenders have faded entirely and faith in their presumed status as a surefire playoff team seems to be eroding in the immediate future – if not longer.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Northwest Division

This week, Basketball Insiders starts its division-by-division “Biggest Disappointments” series. Matt John kicks it off by taking a look at who that would be from the Northwest Division.

Matt John

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A couple weeks ago, Basketball Insiders started a series looking over who were some of the biggest surprises so far in this young NBA season. This week, we’re changing it up a bit by taking a look at some of the biggest disappointments. To start this off, we’re looking at the Northwest Division.

It’s funny how over the last few years, the biggest disappointment coming out of that division, and possibly in the entire NBA, has been Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins’ odd regression over the last few years has made the NBA public lose their faith in him as a player, so much that, when this season started, he was seen as nothing but a young bust that Minnesota was burning oodles of cash to have on its roster.

It looks like Wiggins listened to the haters because he’s been playing like a man possessed this season. Averaging almost 25 points a game on 46 percent shooting from the field would qualify as career-highs for him. Even as a playmaker, he’s made some strides as his 3.1 assists at the present time is also a career-best. The Timberwolves have come down to earth since their hot start, but at least Andrew’s doing his part.

This is relevant to a certain degree. For a while now, the man they called “Maple Jordan” was called a disappointment because his career trajectory was falling — and falling fast. Now, it looks like he’s restored some of the hope he once had. Much like Wiggins over the last two years, the following disappointments in the Northwest have time to pick up the pieces, but for now, they have been rather underwhelming in these first three weeks.

The Nuggets’ Suddenly Unproductive Offense

It sounds weird, doesn’t it? The Nuggets currently sit at 7-2, they’ve beaten some good teams in the last week or so – Philadelphia and Miami – and last year, their offense was one of the best in the entire league. That was evidenced by them having the sixth-best offensive rating, scoring 113 points per 100 possessions.

It gets even weirder knowing that nothing really changed for the Nuggets over the summer roster-wise. The only noteworthy additions to this team were Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. Those guys really shouldn’t make Denver worse – which they haven’t – and could still add another dimension to the team. Besides them, the Nuggets overall have the same construct they did last year, so what’s different?

In a nutshell, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have not performed as well as they had been expected to. As a result, they now have the 23rd-ranked offense in the league, scoring 103.6 points per 100 possessions. In order to figure out how it got this way, we need to take a look at who’s responsible.

Let’s start with Nikola Jokic. In this ever so strange subplot of weird, it may be the weirdest to rag on the Joker considering he’s coming off of two consecutive buzzer beaters over the Nuggets’ last two games, but the point still stands- Jokic has not started the year off well.

In nine games, Jokic has averaged 16.7 points on 44/24/73 splits to go with 9.3 rebounds and 6 assists. When you compare those numbers to the ones he put up last year, a.k.a. the ones that got him All-NBA First Team Honors, that’s a drastic decline. Jokic at the top of his game is the most offensively polished big in the league. The Nuggets have managed to win in spite of his struggles, but they can’t expect to keep doing so if he can’t recapture the player he was last season.

Then, there’s Jamal Murray. Murray hasn’t really regressed, but he hasn’t shown much improvement since last season. Jamal was just given a fairly wealthy extension over the summer, so this lack of progress is a little troubling to watch.

Averaging 18.8 points on 45/37/85 splits are good numbers for a fourth-year player, but next year, Murray’s not going to be on a rookie contract. He’ll be making just a tick less than $30 million next season. Those are numbers you pay for a guy who can put up 25-30 on any given night. Jamal’s done that at times, but as yet to show extensive consistency.

The Nuggets still going at it strong because their defense has improved by a fair margin. Allowing 100.6 points per 100 possessions has made them good for the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. As disappointing as the offense has been, Denver has to be feeling good about its chances since the team’s still been able to win in spite of struggles.

CJ McCollum’s Regression

The Portland Trail Blazers altogether are kind of a mess right now — although it isn’t entirely their fault. Zach Collins’ shoulder injury just three games into the season is a massive blow to a team that was already pretty thin in the frontcourt. Besides Hassan Whiteside, they are relying on Skal Labissiere to give them minutes at the five.

To compensate for the departures of Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless, they are relying on the likes of journeymen like Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja to fill in at the three and four positions. The all-around downgrade in their frontcourt has definitely played a part in the team starting out 4-6.

Their struggles have come from the offensive end, as their offensive rating has gone from 114.7 (fourth overall last season) to 108.9 (11th currently). The new guys probably have something to do with that, but the biggest culprit might just be CJ McCollum’s slump.

McCollum’s still putting up solid numbers, averaging almost 20 points per game, but that’s coming on some of the worst percentages he’s put up since playing a larger role in Portland, putting up 39/31/89 splits. McCollum has the third-highest net rating on the team, as the Blazers are plus-12.4 with him on the court, but one can’t help if those stats are skewed from playing a lot of minutes with Damian Lillard, who is off to the best start of his career.

The duo shares a net rating of plus-7, but when you compare CJ’s net rating with some of his other teammates to Dame’s, they don’t look as promising.

CJ McCollum and Hassan Whiteside: plus-1.7
Damian Lillard and Hassan Whiteside: plus-6.4

CJ McCollum and Rodney Hood: plus-0.8
Damian Lillard and Rodney Hood: plus-6.4

CJ McCollum and Kent Bazemore: minus-2.9
Damian Lillard and Kent Bazemore: plus-1.9

CJ McCollum and Mario Hezonja: plus-5.6
Damian Lillard and Mario Hezonja: plus-10.1

Knowing McCollum’s reputation as a scorer, this should get better as time goes on, but how much time is what Portland has to keep in mind. The Western Conference has been unforgiving since the dawn of time, so if CJ and the Blazers continue to struggle, that can come back to bite them when they try to get good seeding in the playoffs.

Portland’s goal this season was to exceed last year’s extended playoff run. For that to come to fruition, they can’t afford to have their other elite scorer struggle from the field for too long.

Utah’s Continued Offensive Stagnancy

Yes, the theme of this has centered around offensive struggles, and yes, you can call this cheating since this writer brought up the Jazz’ woes on that end two weeks ago, but it’s still worth talking about because nothing has changed for Utah.

Three weeks into the season, they have the 27th-best offensive rating, scoring, 102.1 points per 100 possessions. It’s even worse remembering that last season, they had the 15th best offensive rating, scoring 110.9 points per 100 possessions. Their offense certainly got in the way of their playoff chances then, but at least it was mediocre as opposed to bad.

This writer doesn’t want to say what he’s already said about Utah’s continued woes on offense. Instead, let’s take a look at one of the Jazz’s big wins over the weekend against Milwaukee. Everyone should remember Bojan Bogdanovic’s one shining moment.

Like any buzzer-beater, it’s always so thrilling to see plays like that happen. Not just because the Jazz beat a tough foe, but because it was such a beautifully drawn play to get arguably their best shooter wide open. So where do their offensive woes factor into this? Well, let’s take a look back at where the game was with 1:30 to go.

A Donovan Mitchell jumper put the Jazz up by eight with less than 90 seconds to go. Coming back from a three-possession game to win with that little time is near impossible. Yet, the Bucks were a Khris Middleton traveling call from pulling it off. They did this because Utah’s offense failed to put the game away.

In 88 seconds, missed free throws, costly turnovers and bad shots on Utah’s part got Milwaukee to close the gap. Not only had Utah lost the lead, but the team was also in jeopardy of losing the game. They may have won the game anyway, but they should not have been in danger of losing that game.

What’s more alarming is that the Jazz can’t afford to make those mental mistakes when facing opponents as tough as the Bucks. They won’t have to worry about facing Milwaukee in the playoffs unless they meet in the NBA Finals, but Utah’s going to have its hands full with other Western Conference competitors.

Like Denver, they’re still going strong regardless of their offensive woes, but they can’t have these problems if they want to go the distance.

Apologies if these disappointments all sounded the same, but honestly, there haven’t been that many disappointments in the Northwest Division. Utah and Denver are doing about as well as we thought they’d do. Minnesota is currently exceeding expectations. Oklahoma City is right where we thought they’d be. The only team that has somewhat disappointed is Portland, and that might not have been the case if Zach Collins wasn’t hurt — or Jusuf Nurkic for that matter.

And just because they’re disappointing now does not mean that will be the same by the time 2020 starts.

There’s still plenty of time for everyone’s outlook to change for the better. Just ask Andrew Wiggins.

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