Believe it or not, but we’re already over three weeks into this new NBA campaign. So far we’ve been treated to some shocking trends and surprising subplots. In particular, two teams expected to take a leap forward-- the Detroit Pistons and Portland Trail Blazers -- haven’t been quite as convincing as we expected (though the Pistons, obviously, are not at full strength). For each club, there is a singular statistic emerging as a dark cloud hovering over what was supposed to be seasons spent basking in the league’s limelight. We’ll take a look at each of these numbers and what it means for the Pistons and Blazers going forward.
This is Portland’s current offensive rating per our RealGM rankings -- nearly three full points behind the mark from last season that was good for sixth in the NBA. It hasn’t hindered the Blazers in terms of wins and losses (yet), as the team currently sits at 7-5, tied for the fourth best record in the Western Conference. And given Portland has returned virtually everyone of importance from last year’s squad, it seems like this is just an early season fluke.
Digging deeper, however, is where you start to see the cause for concern. To start with, this downturn can’t be chalked up to a Murderer’s Row of a schedule. Seven of the Blazers' 12 games have been against teams currently occupying the bottom half of defensive rankings -- including two against a Suns team tenths of a percentage out of last place (they’re 28th). While those matchups are balanced out by two games against a Clippers' squad currently topping the league, it’s hard to pin these early returns on a brutal schedule.
Even though the team’s cast has remained relatively unchanged, personnel seems to the key reasons for Portland’s middling offensive output in the early going. Al-Farouq Aminu surprised many across the league by shooting over league average (36.1 percent) from 3-point territory for the first time in his career. And at 4.3 attempts per game, it wasn’t exactly a low volume fluke. In roughly the same amount of attempts this season (4.5), Aminu converted only 25.0 percent of his shots from deep.
Though he’s now out with a calf injury for an extended stretch of time, it’s hard to say if Aminu is capable of replicating his performance from last year. After all, there’s more evidence of Aminu being a poor outside shooter than a good one. Regression to the mean is definite possibility given 2015-16’s production was a random spike upward.
The options for replacing Aminu aren’t very encouraging either. Rookie Jake Lyman has flashed some offensive potential in his brief runouts so far this season. Pat Connaughton has a reputation as a spot-up type, but is a complete unknown as an NBA player as of right now (with a career percentage of 23.8 percent from 3). It’s unclear whether either of these two can defend enough to gain consistent minutes. In Aminu’s immediate absence, Portland has once again devoted minutes to struggling youngster Noah Vonleh, who hasn’t looked like much of an NBA player in his first three seasons and certainly isn’t the stretch-y big that will make life easier on Portland’s heavy lifters CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard.
This problem feeds into another one the Blazers are currently experiencing -- life with Evan Turner. As of right now, Turner has essentially been a double agent destroying the team’s offense from the inside. In the 285 minutes Turner has played so far this season, Portland’s offense has cratered to a woeful 93.6 rating, per NBA.com data. That stands in stark contrast to the 112.6 offensive rating the team posts in the 306 minutes Turner has been off the floor. Talk about buyer’s remorse.
That divide is something that will likely come down as the season continues but a team generally being worse with Turner on the floor is not a new phenomenon. And given how damaging Turner has been in the early going, the Blazers, despite his enormous contract, would be wise drastically cut his minutes going forward. But with Aminu now out, the team will have no choice but to play their prized free agent more than is probably helpful.
Turner’s presence alone may be a reason that Portland’s early season offensive lull may not be a short-term blip, but rather a steady decline from the highs of last season. We know Lillard and McCollum will continue to do their thing, but if Turner, Aminu and the rest of the supporting crew can’t provide spacing and support, it’s going cause the Blazers to regress.
This number represents the Pistons' defensive rebounding percentage when their acclaimed big man Andre Drummond is on the bench. What makes that figure noteworthy is that it’s nearly five percentage points higher than when Drummond plays, per NBA.com data. If you need time to process that the team that employs the NBA’s leading rebounder is actually better at rebounding an opponent’s missed shots when he’s not playing I’ll give you a second….
What’s even more perplexing is that this trend isn’t new to this season as the Pistons also posted better defensive rebounding numbers when Drummond sat last year. In order to wrap your head around this development let’s step back and take a big picture look at rebounding in general. Like most raw data -- which rebounds per game/per X minutes qualifies as -- the context in which these numbers get produced is overlooked. Rebounds are no different. This can be explained by what we’ll call “The Nene Effect” (which is definitely a thing I just made up right now, not some real Sloan Conference backed study….I don’t think).
During the course of his 15-year career as a power forward/center, Nene has never once averaged even over eight rebounds a game. Not once! It’s something that actually was attached to the guy as a negative label. After all, if you’re a big man and can’t crack double digits like the glass-cleaners that get all the attention, you clearly can’t be a good rebounder. Right?
Well the funny thing with the Brazilian big man, is that a consistent theme emerges when you comb through the data throughout his career: Nene’s teams were much better rebounding opponent’s misses when he was on the floor, sometimes drastically so. That means even if he wasn’t getting the rebound himself, which Nene’s individual numbers back up, a teammate was. Nene is (or more was?) essentially the anti-Drummond.
Subjectively, it’s easy to picture how this works. Nene does the hard work of putting a body on the opponent’s most threatening offensive rebounder, leaving space and opportunity for a teammate to grab the ball. Or even doing little things like tapping away a rebound from an offensive player to someone else. Watch Drummond on the defensive end and you’ll see the opposite.
Instead of putting himself in a good position to snag a missed shot, Drummond often just turns and waits to see where the ball goes before lurching after it. Opponents can use this lack of commitment to sneak around him, win 50/50 balls over him or plant themselves in valuable real estate and corral their teammates misses while Drummond stands helplessly behind them.
These extra opportunities for opposing offenses then flows into damaging the Pistons defense as a whole. Because of the extreme gap in defensive rebounding percentage at the start of this season, Detroit is also drastically better defensively when Drummond sits (92.6) versus when he’s on the floor (106.2). This is on the area that doesn’t echo last season -- the Pistons were better defensively when Drummond played -- but there was also a much smaller gap between the defensive rebounding percentages.
With Reggie Jackson out, the Pistons are relying on their defense to hang around the Eastern Conference playoff spots. Right now, that defense is functioning better with the team’s star center off the floor, in part because Drummond’s gaudy rebounding numbers are starting to look more and more empty. If this doesn’t correct itself as the season goes forward and the Pistons stay stuck muddling through the middle of the Eastern Conference, they may be forced to take a hard look at how much value their star center actually holds.