December 12, 2018

Death, taxes and Damian Lillard in the clutch.

Is there another player in the league you’d rather have take the final shot down the stretch than the Portland Trail Blazers point guard? Dame hit two in the same week, helping Portland topple the Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder with his heroics. It feels like he never misses with the game on the line.

Despite Damian Lillard’s heroics, the Trail Blazers currently sit at .500 with a roster largely the same from last season. Per the basketball-reference roster continuity metric, roughly 96 percent of minutes played by the Blazers this year have come from players on their roster a season ago. They’re one of three teams above the 90 percent mark and arrive here after 85 percent of their minutes went to returners a season ago. Say what you will of General Manager Neil Olshey’s personnel decisions with extensions over the last few seasons, he’s created a stable core.

That type of flow from season to season, in theory, benefits each team heading into the next campaign. There isn’t that familiarizing process with teammates, or coaches trying to figure out how to incorporate a new part. Terry Stotts and his staff have a year with this group to digest, see what worked and what didn’t, and press the right buttons for the group. Quite frankly, you’d expect a team with this much juice returning to be off to a better start.

Olshey did add one flashy piece to that group at last season’s trade deadline. Jusuf Nurkic, acquired from the Denver Nuggets in addition to a first-round pick, looks every bit worth a hefty pay raise this summer as a restricted free agent. The Trail Blazers’ stable culture has gotten Nurkic to want to buy into the group and will likely keep him around long-term. Still, the Trail Blazers are facing a roster teetering on becoming unaffordable, and that’s a scary prospect for a small-market team nearing its ceiling so far from contention.

Good organizations acquire talent, great organizations develop it. If Portland is to raise its ceiling and become one of the top dogs in the Western Conference, they’ve made it clear they’re banking on that individual development to take root. For better or for worse, there are still plenty of areas where that can occur.

We’ve seen the same old Damian Lillard in the final few minutes of games, hitting step-back threes or daring isolation treys that are borderline unguardable. But Lillard has turned up the jets in attacking the rim this season, averaging a career high 8.1 free throw attempts per game. His offensive rebounds are up as well, with 1.5 per game (his career high prior to the season was 0.6 per game).

A biproduct of being more aggressive has been how he gets teammates involved when he drives to the rim. Lillard has similar assist rates as past seasons but the degree of difficulty on those dimes is way up. He’s much better at reading defenses off a poor closeout instead of just a stand-still defense off a set pick-and-roll. Still he draws so much attention as a scorer it’s natural for him to look elsewhere when help defenders commit to him:

Lillard and McCollum have unbelievable chemistry in reading each other within the flow of Portland’s circular-themed offense. One will usually control the ball, ready to pounce off step-up pick-and-rolls the defense is always weary about, while the other pings over flare screens and off down screens to detract the ire of opponents. The flares are particularly effective; since both are elite shooters, defenders trail those flare screens and put a high burden on the man guarding the screener to sag off and prevent slips to the rim. That makes them particularly susceptible to those step-up ball screens.

Both backcourt mates seem content in doing their job while the other has the ball, helping each other get open by running off these flares with pace and intent to score. Since both McCollum and Lillard are guards who can shoot it and handle the ball in screening situations, they will each get their chance to run the show while the other rests. That’s when the scripted ball screens come into play. McCollum in particular has some great moves, including faking a snake-back move that leaves opposing big men frozen as he shuffles past them:

Portland’s backcourt tandem works so well together because of the way coach Terry Stotts has built his offense to augment their shot creation. Most teams with great guards design plays around the person who creates the shot (i.e. the penetrator, the passer, or the guard that attacks out of a ball screen). The Blazers offense is less concerned with who gets the assist or creates the desired attack, just with who finishes it. While together Lillard and McCollum are both happy off these screens away from the ball, and both are given the green light out of pick-and-rolls while the other sits. It’s a match that soaks the best talent out of each on a nightly basis.

The third cog in their wheel is Nurkic, a raw yet talented big man who balances the offense from being too perimeter-oriented with brutish post moves and patience on the blocks. No longer is the onus on Lillard and McCollum to create everything on the offensive end.

Jusuf loves his right-hand hook shot in the post, constantly coming back to his right to finish. Teams will find ways to overplay him and get him to come back to his left (especially when he’s not on the left offensive block) and he lacks the overall polish of his post moves to score anyway. Everything he does on the blocks is through bully, concussion-inducing backdowns where his shoulders are barreling through the opponent’s chest.

His predictability as a finisher and the rate the Blazers play through him in the high post has made him a little turnover prone. Early in the year, he already has three games with five-or-more throwaways. Last season, the Bosnian brute began being utilized as a passer within Portland’s scheme; he’s got huge hands and towers over the defense, where he can deliver missiles to his cutting teammates.

Stotts will live with a few miscues here or there, but there are plenty of games where he piles them up, missing open cutters or trying to thread the needle into windows that simply aren’t open. The most quizzical turnovers are those that come when he’s a short roller, struggling to find the open teammate when help defenders commit to him as he plods down the lane:

Nurk is going to get paid this summer, and the positives far outweigh the negatives for his impact on this Blazers squad. There’s still some necessary development if Nurkic wants to become an elite center in the NBA. Right now he’s getting by on brute strength and natural abilities, not polish or refinement. Those skills can be taught, and they’ll be the difference in getting his finishing ability above the 50 percent mark (he’s slid beneath 50 percent to start the year).

Evan Turner, however,  looks less and less like a good fit next to this core, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. He pounds the ball way too frequently for their Flow offense to take root and provides almost zero spacing to other drivers when lanes break down or to Nurkic on post-ups. Teams will stunt at or double-team Nurk when Turner is on the weak-side, almost daring the Blazers to throw him the ball and have him chuck it up from deep:

Turner falls for the bait every time. He’s got a bit of irrational confidence to him (it’s part of why we love E.T.) but taking the shots the defense wants won’t win many postseason series. He’s what’s known as a “ball stop” – a player who doesn’t keep the rock moving and instead kills its energy by squeezing it, over-dribbling or constantly looking for his. Whether it’s contested mid-range jumpers, post isolations against smaller guards where he doesn’t kick it out to the open guy or the constant array of step-backs, Turner has been an offense-killer.

Still, the Blazers manage to get to the rim and take high-quality looks; per Cleaning the Glass, above 38 percent of their shots take place right at the rim, a top-five rate in the league. Despite getting the right looks, Portland hasn’t converted, ranking 30th in field goal percentage on shots at the rim (astoundingly below 50 percent, while the league average team shoots around 62 percent).

The field goal percentage may rise a little, but the lineups the Blazers play seriously contribute to this incredibly low metric. Wings like Turner and Moe Harkless (both below 30 percent from three) don’t provide enough spacing for what the team runs offensively, especially when Al-Farouq Aminu is out of the game. Not coincidentally, Portland is dead last in the league in corner threes taken this year as well.

Stotts is somewhat trapped with his rotations as a result. There’s no room to start Evan Turner with McCollum and Lillard; it’s too many ball handlers and creators around Nurkic, and the spacing still is hopeless. Keep Turner’s minutes staggered with the star backcourt and the spacing isn’t there to open up the rim for anyone. Too frequently the answer has been Evan Turner post-ups and pick-and-rolls with Nurkic that lead to mid-range fadeaways:

Turner’s page on Cleaning the Glass illustrate these woes… Portland takes nearly three percent more shots at the rim when Turner is in, but shoots six percent worse at the rim in those minutes. There’s a role out there for E.T. in the NBA, but his fit within the flow offense and the tandem superstar backcourt of McCollum and Lillard will always be a questionable one.

Defensively, the Blazers have been treated to fool’s gold early in the year. The analytics metrics rate out pretty high, saying the Blazers are in the top-five in defensive rating through 12 games. But who has really tested them in that manner? Their two road wins are against Indiana and an opening-night obliteration of an embarrassing Phoenix Suns squad. Only three opponents – the Los Angeles Clippers, Toronto Raptors and aforementioned Pacers – have top half-of-the-league offensive units.

Trying to find a balance between what is good defense and what’s bad offense is difficult while teams sift through live competition on the early parts of the season. That’s why most teams and general managers tend to wait to shake up their roster during the first two months of the season; Evaluation is so critical and early returns can reveal as much about your opponents (and your schedule) as it does about you.

The going doesn’t get difficult for the Blazers until early December, either. Only two of their next nine opponents (Memphis and Washington) made the postseason in 2017, and they only have one back-to-back over the next month. We could be almost 25 games into the season before we know how good this Trail Blazers team is when stacked up against elite competition. A five-game road trip that starts at Oracle Arena is book-ended by home contests against Houston and San Antonio. Their defense, in particular, will be tested during that time.

The results thus far have been a mixed bad skewed by the small sample size. In their win over New Orleans, DeMarcus Cousins was 9-of-13 from two-point range and 12-of-17 from the free throw line, while also missing wide-open threes that the Blazers simply didn’t rotate to. Does anyone watch this possession and see the urgency of a top-notch defensive group?

The Blazers beat New Orleans by 10, after the game was 92-91 with four minutes to go. Cousins and the Pelicans missed their last eight shots, and possessions like this are as much about bad offense as they are about defensive pressure.

Then there are the plays where they seem to figure it out, where Nurkic in particular looks like someone who can anchor an above-average defense, something they haven’t been since 2014-15. Nurk didn’t shy away from a tough matchup against Russell Westbrook in the pick-and-roll and forced the reigning MVP into a few turnovers. He was great at beating Westbrook to the roller when he would leave his feet and be forced into passing the ball:

Notice how and when Nurkic starts his retreat towards the rolling Steven Adams: as soon as he realizes the angle at which Westbrook comes off the screen is too wide and he cannot effectively finish after picking up his dribble. He establishes great verticality on Adams and meets him before the rim, just a textbook stunt-and-recover from the agile big man.

For every solid defensive play Nurkic and the Blazers guards make out of the pick-and-roll, there’s a blunder that makes them look just as silly. McCollum and Lillard are terrible at reading these plays and keeping track of the multitude of players they need to, leaving bigs on an island. Sometimes when you watch their ball screen defense you can’t even decipher what type of coverage they’re running, and the back-side defense completely melts when guards are given straight-line drives to the rim:

Believe it or not, pick-and-roll defense may be their biggest source of improvement, especially for their starters. Last year, per Synergy sports, Portland was dead last in the NBA in pick-and-roll defense, allowing teams to score 43 percent of plays where the ball handler made a play with it. That’s a direct reflection of the defense of Lillard and McCollum – how much they pay attention to detail with coverages, fight to get through screens and recover to their men.

This year, Synergy player tracking data nets the Trail Blazers as just below average in these situations, a far cry from positive but a huge improvement nonetheless. While Portland’s schedule may even out over the next few months, we’ll really see if the defensive improvements of their backcourt dynamo can keep the Blazers’ defense afloat.

Neil Olshey has a lot of pieces on the roster that need improvement to get to the next level. Obviously, the defensive end is a work in progress, and Jusuf Nurkic too frequently vacillates between brilliant and bumbling. Of course, the team’s cap situation pretty much ties their hands when it comes to finding auxiliary pieces.

Money will be tight or Olshey moving forward. The organizational priority, with a Nurkic deal so clearly coming down the road, was to get beneath the tax apron for this season and avoid paying stiff repeater taxes in the future. With only eight contracts guaranteed for next year’s 2018-19 campaign, the Blazers are already at $112 million, giving them an estimated $13 million to spend before vaulting over that tax apron. And that’s before factoring in the Nurkic deal; if market indicators from this season are any indication, Nurk should be worth far north of that number. Mason Plumlee got around $13 million annually from Denver, Steven Adams is above $22 million a year and Nurkic’s raw numbers may exceed the production of them both.

What could carry over though is the chilling effect of the lower-than-expected cap numbers and a lack of demand elsewhere around the league to pay big money for Nurkic. Other franchises won’t have his Bird rights and would have to clear a decent amount of space to get the big man. There aren’t a ton of destinations in a position to throw a truck full of cash at the Bosnian, allowing the Blazers to control the market. If the season doesn’t produce clearly top-notch numbers from Nurkic, Olshey could turn the tables and try to drive Nurkic into accepting the qualifying offer of $4.14 million for next season. Nurk would then become an unrestricted free agent in July 2019 – a certain risk for the Blazers to take, but one that might allow them to stabilize other pieces of their roster in the short-term.

Nurkic isn’t the only player that faces the prospect of getting paid come July. Pat Connaughton has looked the part of a rotation NBA player and may be due a modest raise. Restricted free agent Noah Vonleh is a unique trade chip now; he is likely too expensive and intriguing for the Blazers to keep, pay and sit on for a while. The jury is still out on guys like Jake Layman and Shabazz Napier as bench pieces.

The long-term replacements (and hopefully upgrades) for Vonleh and Ed Davis are the two 2017 first-round picks in Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan. With their frontcourt roster seemingly built into their future plans, the focus must shift on improving their backup guards. Whether it’s tinkering with things this year through minor trades or shipping away a future second-rounder, Portland is still a little thin on shooting in their backcourt moving forward. As the team tries to duck the tax this season, it’s unlikely they use their $12 million trade exception from Allen Crabbe until this summer, when it will count on next year’s cap figures. The front office has to be creative with how they split the difference between adding talent this year and keeping costs low.

This is the bed Olshey made for himself, keeping the young players together to let them mature as a group. The considerable downside to that track is the lack of maneuverability they have down the line if things don’t fully work out. Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic are a great trio to start with. The rest is pretty clear: improve what can be improved from within, find creative ways to trim everything else.


Adam Spinella

Adam is a college basketball coach at the Division III level. He is a contributor for other NBA and coaching sites such as NBA Math, FastModel Sports and Basketball Intelligence.

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