The Portland Trail Blazers are a perfect example of success-starved fans getting carried away. Three seasons ago, the Blazers were the NBA’s jewel, with greatness predicted thanks to the youth and talent of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and first overall draft pick Greg Oden. Fast forward to the present and you’ll find Oden perpetually injured, Aldridge still too soft, and Roy’s knees and patience with Andre Miller shot.
Indeed, on the basis of Portland’s 103-98 loss in Dallas, the Blazers play hard, but have difficulty generating easy baskets and are shy on elite defenders.
By my unofficial count, excluding transition, extreme early offense, and broken plays, the Blazers ended only 26 of 87 possessions with plays at the rim. This does not even take into account successful possessions, it’s simply plays at the rim.
This is a result of many factors.
For starters, the Blazers lack an authentic low post scorer. Marcus Camby, Joel Pryzbilla, and Dante Cunningham generated zero possessions at the basket on their own accord. LaMarcus Aldridge wound up with 15 post up possessions—and countless others where he posted, failed to gain an advantage and harmlessly kicked the ball out—but he rarely carves space in the post.
He mostly looked to turn and shoot hooks over his left shoulder, and was largely unsuccessful against Tyson Chandler’s sturdy defense. When Chandler did go to his right shoulder, it was largely against smaller checks, usually Shawn Marion. Either way, Aldridge’s 15 post possessions only led to 14 Blazers points, an unsuccessful number.
There were several muscle-moves to Aldridge’s game, namely a tough catch, spin, and finish in heavy traffic with just a few minutes to go to keep the score tied, but Aldridge is too finesse-oriented to generate reliable post offense against most good defenses. Also, Aldridge pauses in the post to survey the defense instead of anticipating where the defense has left an opening and attacking it. As a result, Aldridge allows defenders to get too comfortable in their post defense instead of punishing them before they get set.
Normally, Aldridge’s post shortcomings would be overlooked, but they become more pronounced with Brandon Roy’s zapped athleticism. Indeed, Roy looked like a shell of his self against the Mavs—2-5 FG, 0-2 FT, 5 AST, 0 TO, 4 PTS.
Roy’s never been super quick, and has always relied more on long strides, shiftiness, and smart decision making to craft his success. This is why in screen/roll situations, he still produced a modicum of success with the Blazers scoring seven points in five possessions.
However, with his knees drained of juice, Roy simply can’t get any explosion out of his lower body, which makes him painfully average in one-on-one situations. The Blazers were 0-3 in three Roy post opportunities, where he posted 20 feet away and couldn’t get inside the free throw line extended. Roy also was only able to isolate twice, leading to two points.
However, despite Roy’s smarts, he’s always preferred to dominate the ball. On multiple perfunctory cuts and curls, Roy simply jogged through the motions, completely removing himself from the play. Instead, aside from one well-timed flash and dish on an Andre Miller corner screen/roll, Roy would lounge around the perimeter spectating rather than participating. Also, Roy has never been a player who pushes the ball in early offense, which hurts a team starving for easy points.
His insecurities towards not playing a brand of basketball he’s most comfortable with have been evident since Andre Miller’s arrival, and his constant subtle jabs at Miller breed a disharmony that chokes fluid, team basketball.
For sure, the duo is totally ill-suited for each other. Miller is at his best in transition and probing in early offense while Roy is totally a half court player. Both players need the ball to be most effective. When Roy has the ball, Miller doesn’t space the floor because he‘s a poor shooter, and when Miller has the ball, Roy becomes disinterested.
In fact, Roy has always been at his best with shooters surrounding him, something Miller is not. And Miller has always been at his best in a freelancing, up-tempo system where his open court play and court IQ generate opportunities for athletes needing direction, a description that hardly fit’s the Blazers.
But for a player like Roy who has been described essentially as a golden child, his habit of quickly coming up with excuses to explain his shortcomings with Miller in tow, wreaks of pettiness.
And if his lack of a meniscus has sapped Roy’s explosion for good, he’ll have to adapt to a completely different brand of basketball, because it’s doubtful the Blazers can succeed against elite defenses with this version of Roy playing isolation basketball.
In fact, Miller himself played terrifically as the point man in screen/roll situations, with the Blazers shooting 5-7 for 10 points in seven screen/rolls for Miller.
The Blazers only called Miller screen/rolls three times until late in the fourth. But when the Blazers needed to cut into a late deficit, four late Miller/Aldridge screen/rolls led to:
- A made Aldridge jumper
- A tough righty layup for Miller
- Aldridge laying in an uncontested lob
- A bullet pass to Aldridge beat Dallas’ rotation, leading to a tough finish in traffic for Aldridge.
Of course Miller followed up those successes by jumping in the air to pass throwing the ball away, plus driving into a well-positioned Tyson Chandler, where Chandler jumped straight up and forced a Miller miss.
Plus, of the aforementioned trio, Brandon Roy played poor defense, Andre Miller played poor defense, and while LaMarcus Aldridge is a decent man defender, especially against quicker opponents, his help defense left much to be desired.
Wesley Matthews likewise displayed poor team defense, turning his head several times and losing track of his man. Plus, he’s a touch undersized to be defending bigger wings like Caron Butler.
However, Matthews is an excellent open court player and adds a degree of athleticism that Portland lacks. Aside from late screen/rolls with Miller and Aldridge, Portland’s most successful offense was to get a stop or a turnover and let Matthews make a play in transition.
Matthews was also effective on screen/rolls, generating six points on five possessions, and was exceptionally efficient on isolations, with three iso’s generating three baskets. Counting another iso that led to a defensive-three second penalty and made Andre Miller technical free throw, that’s a total of seven points on only three possessions.
Matthews also has a terrific understanding of the game, forcing very little of his game. That’s why his overall numbers were as solid as they were—7-13 FG, 2 AST, 0 TO—and he was the only Blazer who effectively got into the lane.
Marcus Camby was active on the boards and finished most of his layups, but he made several awful passing decisions, and was generally late on his rotations.
Off the bench, Nicolas Batum is a player. With the Blazers playing a steady diet of zone, Batum was sometimes forced to defend J.J. Barea, where he was naturally outquicked. However, against most other comers, Batum displayed the length and the quickness to keep the Mavs in front of him. In crunch time, he also successfully defended a Nowitzki missed jumper, and poked a Nowitzki dribble away for a turnover.
On offense, Batum has good vision as a passer, can finish on the run, and even splashed a big three late in the game. However, since Batum doesn’t space the floor, his presence in the starting lineup would somewhat compromise Portland’s offense, and he’s not a terrific playmaker.
Even off the bench, he’s playing with players who don’t shoot particularly well from three-point range. Patty Mills was quick with the ball, always looking to push, but not making any careless mistakes. However, he was 0-3 from long range. Meanwhile, Rudy Fernandez’ disastrous 2009-2010 season is continuing to spill over. He bricked all four of his threes, made several horrible passes that shouldn’t have made, and held the ball on several passes that should.
At this stage of his career, Fernandez is barely an NBA-caliber player.
Dante Cunningham can shoot from the mid range—4-8 FG, 8 PTS—but provides little else. Still, he’s another screen/fade target for two-man games, which the Blazers need for offense.
Joel Pryzbilla converted a nifty layup, but he was asked to defend the back of Portland’s zone, and didn’t move well enough to be effective.
Indeed, to hide most of Portland’s bench’s defensive deficiencies, and to theoretically take advantage of Batum’s length at the top of the defense, Portland played much more zone than it did man—41 possessions for zone compared to 34 possessions man. All things considered, the strategy was moderately successful as the Mavs scored 46 points against the zone, and 37 against man defenses for respectable ratios, mostly because Dallas took an inordinate number of threes trying to bust the zone from the outside-in.
The zone was exposed late however, when the Mavs simply iso’d Nowitzki on the right baseline against Roy, Batum, and Aldridge where it was difficult for the Blazers to provide immediate double teams. He hit a jumper over Roy, a jumper over Batum, and a layup when he blew by Roy and Aldridge was weak with a rotation. These plays by Dirk essentially iced the game.
As constructed, the Blazers are a smart enough team to work their way to a playoff berth, though they’re strictly fodder for the elite teams in the West over a seven-game series. For the Blazers to truly reach their potential, they’ll need an offensive and defensive threat near the basket. Greg Oden was supposed to be that player, but it’s doubtful that he’ll ever be healthy enough to provide a reliable post threat, or ascent into an elite post defender. Aldridge has been talked about possibly being that player, but while he’s skilled, he’s too soft to dominate from the post and consistently protect the rim.
It’s also possible that the Blazers have lost their perimeter explosion too, as Roy may never be the superb player he was earlier in his career. Plus, looking at the rest of the roster, Matthews is the only youngster consistently able to create his own shot.
Portland is now forced to make a tough decision. To keep on plugging away with Roy and Aldridge, hoping that a better fitting third option can perhaps take them to the second round, at best. Or, to renege on all the hope and promise of the recent past and realize that, like Roy and Oden, the team no longer has the base to support that explosive leap into elite status.