What Went Wrong with the Portland Trail Blazers?

A season of highs and lows in Rip City is bottoming out against the San Antonio Spurs. What happened?

The Portland Trail Blazers surprised a lot of people this year when they went an impressive 31-9 over their first forty games after being a non-playoff team the season prior. They scuffled a little bit down the stretch, but still managed to finish with an impressive 54-28 record (a 21-game improvement in the win column over the year before) and the Western Conference’s fifth seed.

They had people sheepishly poking around the word “contender” early in the season, but their defense was always a point of contention. People respected their potent offensive attack (our numbers had them second in the league with an offensive efficiency rating of 111.5) but most thought the disparity on defense (seventeenth at 107.4) would keep them from making a deep playoff run if and when the shots stopped falling.

They went into the first round of the playoffs against the Rockets as the underdogs, but came out blazing (see what I did there?) and stole Games 1 and 2 on the road. LaMarcus Aldridge was a big part of the early success and he looked like an absolute beast at times, averaging 29.8 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per game in the series.

Aldridge’s inspired play was matched by his second-year point guard Damian Lillard as well, who took over and put up an equally impressive 25.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game and sealed the series with an all-time great buzzer beater to win the sixth and deciding game.

With the excitement of Lillard’s game winner providing momentum, many pundits thought the Blazers would give the Spurs a competitive series and some (like TNT’s Charles Barkley) even picked the Blazers to take down the defending Western Conference Champion Spurs.

Only a mere three games have passed since then and the Blazers have been absolutely dominated by San Antonio and find themselves in an 0-3 hole they’re not likely to climb out of (our algorithms currently have the Spurs at a 96.81% chance of winning the series). They’ve lost those three games by an average of 18.7 points and have quickly gone from being a team that looked like it was finding all the right answers to one with nothing but questions. Perhaps the most important one:

What went wrong?


The disparity in bench scoring and efficiency between these two teams has arguably been the biggest story in this series. The two sides haven’t even been close in what they’ve been getting out of their reserves.

Bench Players


San Antonio has gotten more quality minutes out of their bench, with their reserves almost doubling the time on the floor of Portland’s, while scoring more than triple the points. The Spurs’ reserves have also been far more efficient, posting a combined true shooting percentage (which accounts for two-pointers, three-pointers, and free throws) almost 20% better than that of the Blazers’ second unit.

Portland gets a lot of credit for having a fantastic starting lineup of Aldridge, Lillard, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez, but that group has struggled to varying degrees in this series and their bench has been essentially negligible on top of it. Depth was their biggest issue last season and it was believed that they had properly addressed it by adding guys like Mo Williams and Dorell Wright during this past offseason. In this series at least, their bench has looked the farthest thing from properly addressed.

Batum, Aldridge, and Lillard have all had to play over 40 minutes per game against the Spurs and only three Blazer reserves are even cracking double-digits. Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson, and Will Barton, the three reserves in question, had nERDs of -3.7, -0.5, and -0.4 this season if you want an idea of how that’s been going.

Not well, for the record.

The highest scorer off the bench has been Barton at 7.3 points per game. Other than Williams at 5.0, not a single other player is averaging more than 1.5 points per game. Rotations do tend to get tighter in the playoffs, but it’s hard to win games when no one at all is stepping up off the bench. This will be have to be a point of emphasis yet again for the Blazers this coming offseason, which seems like it will be coming sooner than later.


Defense, a concept that has dogged Portland all season long, has been practically non-existent for them in this series. They’ve had a defensive rating of 119.9 points per 100 possessions over three games, giving up totals of 116, 114, and 118 in the three losses.

The Spurs are shooting a sizzling 50.8% from the field and 45.6% from deep in this matchup, largely due to the fact that they’re getting so many open looks. A lot of credit goes to the Spurs and Pop for their fine execution, but the fact that 124 of their 266 shots in this series (46.6%) have been uncontested (according to SportVU’s player tracking data) does no favors for Portland’s reputation of having a porous defense. Tony Parker has practically had an open invitation to the lane, as evidenced by his season-high-tying 18 drives in Game 3.

The Spurs have shot 57.5% in the paint and 46.6% from mid-range within the arc and 60.0% from both corners and 41.5% above the break from beyond it. There’s basically no area of the floor that Portland is defending well and can hang their hat on. Furthermore, they’re only forcing San Antonio into 9.3 turnovers per game (down from their 14.4 season average), resulting in a mere 8.7 fast break points per contest.

Denied Stars

Portland not being able to get stops has not always been their demise, as they won a good many games this season by simply outshooting their opponents. What has made this series such an embarrassment for them is that their inability to stop the Spurs has been coupled with the fact that San Antonio has done a good job of containing the Blazers’ offensive weapons.

LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are averaging their standard 23.0 and 19.0 points per game, but they’ve been doing so very inefficiently. Aldridge has shot 38.0% from the field this series (down from a regular season mark of 45.8%), while Lillard has shot 37.5% from the field and an ice cold 7.7% from long range (down from 42.4% and 39.4% regular season marks, respectively).

The rim protection of San Antonio bigs Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter has been stellar throughout the playoffs, as they’ve allowed an average of only 5.5 field goal makes at the rim for the 15.5 attempts they’ve faced per game in the first two rounds combined (35.5% shooting). They’ve completely flustered Aldridge in this particular series, contesting 56 of his 71 field goal attempts (a staggering 78.9% contest rate).

Lillard has also been shadowed hard, with Kawhi Leonard doing the majority of the damage. Similar to Aldridge, Lillard has had 42 of his 56 shots contested in this series (resulting in an equally obnoxious 75.0% contest rate). With the two Blazer All-Stars taking the majority of their team’s shots and missing them at such a high rate, the fact that they’re facing elimination on Monday night should come as no surprise.

With no team in NBA history ever coming back to win a best-of-seven playoff series after being down 3-0 and only three teams even managing to force a Game 7, Portland’s season coming to a close in this round is practically inevitable. If they want to come back strong next season, they’ll need to address the depth and defensive issues that San Antonio has exposed in this series during this coming offseason.