Portland Trail Blazers: Are they the best “bad” team in NBA history?

The Portland Trail Blazers (31-23) have lost four of their last five games and only have a one-game advantage over the hot Dallas Mavericks for the six-seed — something that is noteworthy given the new NBA play-in tournament format. That said, the team remains eight games above .500 and has a top-three MVP candidate in Damian Lillard to rely upon. It’s uncertain how well the team will perform in the postseason — the team’s 29th-ranked defense is definitely concerning — but the squad’s sixth-ranked offense (led by Lillard) provides a reason for optimism.

Close Game Success

The franchise is starting to make a habit of faring well in close contests. After winning a second-best 70.0 percent of its “close games” in 2019-20 (per TeamRankings), Terry Stotts’ squad is at it again, taking a fifth-best 65.0 percent this season. A lot of the credit for this should go to Lillard, who continues to be an elite crunch-time performer.

Inpredictable defines “clutch squared” field goal attempts as “shots crucial to game outcome (e.g. buzzer-beaters and potential buzzer-beaters)”. Among 20 players that have attempted at least 10 such shots this season, Lillard has the second-best effective field goal percentage (eFG%) — a blistering 66.7 percent — trailing only Russell Westbrook’s 70.8 percent (yes, I was surprised as well).

Could this year’s Portland Trail Blazers best the best “bad” team in NBA history?

Portland’s performance in close games is a bit of a double-edged sword, however.

It’s great to have a player like Lillard who can help their team come out on top in these situations, and this likely breeds confidence across the entire roster. On the other hand, relying on success in what are typically 50-50 games feels a bit precarious, and good teams tend to avoid too many close games altogether by having more than their fair share of blowouts/comfortable wins.

A team’s net rating reflects the average number of points a team scores per 100 possessions minus the average number it allows. The more a team outscores its opponents over the course of a season, the larger its net rating will be. Historically, net rating has been a fairly strong predictor of future performance, and the Portland Trail Blazers don’t fair particularly well in this metric.

Portland’s net rating is WAY lower than its record would suggest. While many of the Trail Blazers’ wins have come in close games, a fair number of their losses have been by sizable margins. Therefore, despite the team’s 31-23 record (57.4 win percentage), the team actually has a negative net rating (-0.2), something that if the season ended today, would be unprecedented in the history of the NBA.

Since at least 1996-97, no team that finished the season with a win percentage as high as 57.4 AND had a negative net rating. 54.9 percent is the highest mark ever posted by a negative net rating squad, done so by each of the ’07-08 Cleveland Cavaliers (-0.3), ’04-05 Washington Wizards (-0.3) and the ’96-97 Orlando Magic (-0.5).

The Cavaliers and Wizards teams in particular had a similar dynamic to this year’s Trail Blazers. Both squads had success in close games (6th and 1st best “close game” records) and had star players who came up clutch late. In ’07-08, LeBron James attempted an NBA-high 34 “clutch squared” shots, recording a 54.4 percent eFG. In ’04-05, Gilbert Arenas and Allen Iverson each led the league with 22 such attempts, with the Wizards guard shooting an effective field goal percentage of 45.5.

What does all this mean for the Portland Trail Blazers moving forward? If/when a game is close in the postseason, the team will likely have a bit of an edge. In the long run, however, some of this close-game “magic” might run out. And even if it doesn’t, there’s no guarantee every game — even 4/7 games — will be close. If the Trail Blazers aren’t within striking distance, even a heroic 4th-quarter performance from Lillard won’t be enough.

With Jusuf Nurkic back from injury, there’s reason to believe Portland’s net rating can improve the remainder of the season. If it doesn’t, however, a first-round exit shouldn’t be overly surprising. A team can only rely so much on success in close games.