January 16, 2019

The Portland Trail Blazers’ offseason was the subject of plenty of debate. Portland’s build-on-the-fly approach remains an interesting case-study, especially when juxtaposed against some of the more extreme routes currently traversed by rivals. Regardless, once the dust settled it seems that, on balance, the majority of savvy reviews saw the Trail Blazers as having recovered reasonably well.

As we near the end of the first month of action, the Trail Blazers appear to be playing in-line with most expectations. After a hot start, there has been regression on both ends, particularly defensively, where Portland overachieved during the season’s opening fortnight. As it stands currently, a top-10 offense is matched with a bottom-10 defense.

Terry Stotts’ conservative defensive scheme largely remains intact, but given the loss of general defensive aptitude and acumen in the offseason, a decline was to be expected.

Against most on-ball screens, Portland is dropping their big back and keeping the ball out of the middle. In what has become a common theme among Stotts’ Portland teams, the Trail Blazers struggle to create turnovers, generating the second fewest in the league. Given the consistency of the trend, it might suggest that number is as much schematically as personnel-driven. The only difference is, that unlike last year, the system is conceding a juicer shot profile for opposing teams; there’s a complex overlap between scheme and personnel based outcomes.

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Although the core defensive method remains, Stotts has been more adventurous in switching on-ball screens, particularly involving Meyers Leonard. Estimates have Leonard playing about 64 percent of his minutes at power-forward. But it remains unclear whether he has the lateral foot speed to survive defensively as a four.

On the perimeter, Leonard gives himself huge cushions to prevent against penetration, ultimately conceding relatively easy open jumpers. And offensively, you’d have to wonder whether Leonard sports the requisite post-game to prevent opponents from downsizing and placing a wing player on him in situations where he is deployed as a 4. Moreover, by virtue of his spending so much of his time on the perimeter, Leonard is certainly not the sort of beast on the offensive glass that would create hesitation in the mind of an opposing coach.

These issues aside, many of the concerns stem from the defensively challenged backcourt. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are small, screenable, and athletically limited, making it difficult for Stotts to play the matchup game that he was able to in previous years. There’s only so many players that you can hide, and without Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, the freedom to cross-match is gone.

Although the Lillard-McCollum pairing has been problematic defensively, that same pair has kept the Trail Blazers afloat on offense. When they share the court, Portland scores about 1.09 points per possession, per NBAwowy. The pair carries a huge load, with both Lillard and McCollum inside the top-20 in pick-and-rolls received per game.

Trail Blazers
Portland Trail Blazers 2015-16 Shot Chart, per BBALLBREAKDOWN’s Buckets App.


Generally, pick-and-roll ball-handlers are not particularly efficient as scorers themselves, but there is value in being able to bend a defense and create for others. While Lillard and McCollum don’t break that general rule, they are threatening enough as off-the-dribble shooters from almost any range that they have a strong distorting effect. They can alternate ball-handling duties to best exploit particular matchups and go deep into Stotts’ playbook. Off the ball, they are elite shooters who draw weak-side defenders a step closer, making life easier for their less adroit teammates.

Stotts is a sharp coach and does well to stagger their minutes so that at least one of the pair remains on the floor at all times. Lillard has played 195 minutes without McCollum this season. During that time, the Blazers have scored at a top-10 rate, per NBAwowy. Conversely, Portland scores just 0.97 points per possession when McCullom is operating without Lillard. That mark would leave Portland’s offense inside the bottom-10 league wide.

This highlights a few things; Lillard’s enormous value offensively, McCollum’s worth as a secondary ball handler, and Portland’s lack of a tertiary offensive threat.

Often maligned for a sub-optimal shot profile, LaMarcus Aldridge offered a hub around which Portland could soak up possessions in a reasonably efficient manner as bench players began to filter into the game.

The utility of that option is particularly evident now. Without an obvious source of offense beyond Lillard and McCollum, there is little choice but to empower the likes of Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee beyond what their skill sets probably demand. Perhaps there is some intangible benefit in empowering your players in this manner, but there’s certainly a ceiling.

Trail Blazers
Al-Farouq Aminu has improved, but remains right-hand dominant.

Aminu has improved, both as a ball-handler and a shooter, but remains right-hand dominant and raw as a shot creator. Every time he puts the ball on the deck it’s an adventure. Plumlee also seems to have the green light to take a defensive rebound and push, and the Blazers run action around him from the high-post to mixed results. Plumlee sees the floor well, but he’s turning the ball over at a career high rate on the back of attempting to thread the needle on some overly ambitious looks. More generally, against ball-hawking teams with more pressure based defensive systems, Portland has had issues with their turnover rate.

Interestingly, until Leonard’s shoulder injury, Aminu had been used predominantly as a wing. The Blazers clearly trust his improved stroke and are trying to juggle a frontcourt featuring players worthy of minutes for different reasons. Noah Vonleh is huge and offers a theoretically useful skill set, but is young and often looks lost. Mo Harkless is an intriguing athlete. Ed Davis is a demonstrably good player on a great contract. The Chris Kaman trial has ended. Expect Stotts to keep trying different lineups given the versatility of the roster.

For the most part, Portland’s problems are on the defensive end. With that in mind, the construction of their backcourt presents a bit of conundrum—so vastly powerful on one end, and so self-destructive on the other. 

All of these early season numbers are noisy and volatile, but the outcomes fit the eye test. At this stage in their development, the pieces to this jigsaw puzzle do not fit together. Expect the tinkering to continue as the Blazers search for the right combinations.

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Andrew Cutler

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