Denver Nuggets, Nylon Calculus, Portland Trail Blazers

Nylon Calculus: Nuggets-Trail Blazers win probabilities, assist maps, style charts and more

Previewing the second-round series between the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers with shot charts, assist maps, offensive style charts and expected win probabilities.

Shot charts

Following a bizarre conclusion to Game 7, the Denver Nuggets have advanced past the San Antonio Spurs into the second round. Over the course of the regular season, the Nuggets had an offensive rating of 112.1 and a defensive rating of 108.0 with a pace of 98.5. Against the Spurs, the Nuggets were slightly less effective on the defensive end with a rating of 110.7, and also played substantially slower with a pace of 93.1. As seen in the points per shot charts, the Denver defense was predominantly worse in the midrange, unsurprising against the Spurs, who led the league in the percent of points from midrange at 18.8 percent. Given the fact that Nikola Jokic is the Nuggets’ primary creator, it will be interesting to see how they deal with the Portland Trail Blazers relatively fast pace of 101 in the playoffs. Further, how Jokic can punish Enes Kanter, a career negative defensive player by BPM, will go a long way towards tilting the series to Denver.

The Portland Trail Blazers dispatched the Oklahoma City Thunder in an extremely entertaining five-game series, capped off with Damian Lillard’s incredible 37-foot bomb. While it might not have been a “good shot” based on shooting percentages, Lillard’s proficiency from extreme long range is a valuable component of the Blazer’s offense. The graph below shows points per shot by distance, where Lillard clearly stands out.

While Lillard’s success was not particularly surprising, Enes Kanter’s high level of play filling in for Jusuf Nurkic might have been. Kanter averaged 13.2 points, 3.6 offensive rebounds and 6.6 defensive rebounds per game, with a cumulative plus-minus of +32 in 147 minutes. Most importantly, lineups with Kanter had an entirely acceptable defensive rating of 104.8 and a downright good offensive rating of 116.1. His ability to replicate the production of Nurkic will be crucial in the second round, and based on reporting from Jared Crowley of KGW8, it sounds like he will be ready to play through his shoulder injury.

— Andrew Patton (@anpatt7)

Offensive style chart

These charts are not meant to evaluate whether an offense is good or bad. They are designed to help illustrate how teams go about the goal of trying to put the ball in the basket. Each team’s offense is evaluated on four stylistic spectrums.

Ball movement is measured with the average touch time for each team, from the NBA’s player tracking statistics. A lower average touch time means the ball is moving from player to player more quickly.

Player movement is measured with a combination of different NBA.com tracking statistics and works out to average distance traveled per 24 seconds of offensive possession.

Pace is measured with the average length of an offensive possession from Inpredictable, a more accurate representation for how quickly a team is working than traditional pace.

Shot selection is measured with MoreyBall percentage — in this case the percentage of a team’s true shooting opportunities that came at the rim, from the free throw line, or on a 3-pointer. It’s a generalized measure but captures something about how much each team hews to the shots that are, on average, the most efficient.

— Ian Levy (@HickoryHigh)

Assist maps: Damian Lillard

In 2015 the Portland Trail Blazers suffered a massive talent drain, losing LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Batum, Wes Matthews, Robin Lopez, and Arron Afflalo — five of the team’s top-six rotation players — all in a single summer. The only starter left standing when the dust settled was Damian Lillard and the team’s prospects for the 2015-16 season seemed grim. But Lillard and his young teammates scraped their way into the playoffs and even won their first-round series against the Clippers. Every year since then, prognosticators have expected Portland to regress. And every year since then, Lillard and the Blazers have found a way to prove them wrong, making the playoffs again and again. Heck, even as recently as the first round, our own predictions were expecting Oklahoma City to upset Portland; Lillard made fools of us too!

As Lillard’s teammates have improved over the years, he has shared the ball more often. His time of possession has decreased over the past four seasons from 8.7 minutes per game in 2015-16 to 8.1 the following season, then 7.9, and now 7.7 minutes per game. Likewise, the proportion of scoring chances which he finished in isolation decreased from 17.2 percent in 2015-16 to 15.8 percent for the next two years, and down to just 13.7 percent this season. In particular, Lillard was able to establish a productive rapport with Portland center Jusuf Nurkic this year, dishing the big Bosnian 168 assists (that’s 30 percent of all Lillard’s assists and more than he passed to any other Blazer). A huge number of Lillard’s assists to Nurkic (and his other teammates) came at the rim. Among the top 50 most-frequent ball handlers in the league (4.2 minutes of possession per game or more), Lillard’s at-rim assist frequency of 54 percent (296 of 551 assists converted at the rim) ranked as the sixth-highest.

Lillard’s assist chart shows how his long-range shooting threat pulls the defense away from the basket, allowing him to stand well behind the 3-point line and hit teammates with passes as they cut to the hoop. With a solid penetration rate of 13.3 drives per game and healthy 10.7 percent of those drives leading to assists, plenty of Lillard’s passes originated inside the lane as well.

However, with Nurkic out for the rest of the season and his surprisingly effective replacement Enes Kanter now hampered by an injury of his own, the Blazers are reverting to the old strategy of Dame against the world. During the first round, Portland was forced to reduce their number of touches in the post, at the elbow, and in the paint below their regular-season averages. Correspondingly, Lillard spent more time on the ball than any other player in the first round (9.9 minutes of possession per game, i.e., he held the ball for 2 minutes more than even Russell Westbrook or James Harden) and he increased his number of drives (19 per game) and his frequency of isolations (24 percent of his scoring chances). Consequently, he had only 11 assists at the rim during the 5-game series against the Thunder.

Because Lillard shot nearly 50 percent on almost 11 3-point attempts per game during the first round, Portland’s perimeter-heavy strategy was effective. But if the Blazers want to sustain their initial success, Lillard will need to keep finding his teammates for easy buckets around the rim. He will have a huge burden to bear in the second round; but, of course, that’s nothing new for him.

— Todd Whitehead (@CrumpledJumper)

Win probabilities

To project the series, I am using my in-season game projection model. The model is trained off historical game data and accounts for rest, travel, team strength, and matchup. Since I began using the model to predict outcomes, I have been able to correctly identify the winner in about 70 percent of games and has correctly identified the winner in 78 percent of games in these playoffs.

The Nuggets come into the series as slight favorites, winning in 61 percent of the 10,000 simulations. The average length of the series was 5.8 games, with the series going to 7 games in 31.4 percent of simulations. The Nuggets will have a very quick turnaround after finishing the Spurs off in seven games, but the home court advantage will give them a little leeway to game plan on the fly during Game 1 if they have to. This projects to be a back and forth series right until the end, with neither time given a great chance to sweep. The Blazers will give the Nuggets a new challenge given their explosive backcourt, but look for the Nuggets to move on to the Western Conference Finals after a long series.

Jacob Goldstein (@JacobEGoldstein)

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