ow I have heard a lot of people make the observation that Nate McMillan’s offensive system has a lot of standing around. And at a cursory glance, it appears true. The point guard stands with the ball at the top of the key for ten seconds before throwing down low it Aldridge for an isolation play. The same thing happened when Brandon Roy played. You would think that he would either have the other guys doing something, or at least get the ball to Roy or Aldridge earlier in the shot clock. We play at the slowest pace in the league. Surely things would be more exciting if we picked up the pace.
And last week, I finally caught on to why this happens. Instead of being terrible plays from an inept coach, it’s rather a brilliant move. But that’s a rather bold statement to make in this environment. So it is up to me to describe what I am seeing in more detail.
The standard setup when starting a play seems to be a point guard at the top of the key, the two big men on the blocks and the wings in the corners. And to watch it, we wonder why the ball stays around the perimeter. Because a wing may come up and take the ball for a second. A big guy may come up and take the ball for a second. But the ball doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Just kind of out around the top And fans get frustrated, because they know that to get easy shots, the ball has to go inside.
So why doesn’t the ball go inside? Because if a player just drives the ball, defenses are lying in wait for that exact play. To just take the ball into the teeth of the defense is something that only elite level players can do barring a defensive breakdown. Brandon Roy in ’08-’09 was this kind of player. Jerryd Bayless tried to be that kind of player, but often got his shot blocked, or fell out of bounds, or came up empty. When the defense failed to collapse correctly, Bayless did very well. But his consistency was entirely dependent on the defensive effort of our opponents.
But surely that is better than the ball hanging out on the perimeter for the whole shot clock! Perhaps. NBA defenses are very good. But even at an NBA level, it is tough to play a perfect defense for 24 seconds. One turned head. One wrong decision. One slipt second and it ends up an easy bucket for the offense. This is why when Travis Outlaw was here, his man would generally get easy shots. I love Outlaw, but he did wander off on defense too much.
What passing the ball around the perimeter does is probe the defense for weaknesses. And each play, the weakness is going to come from a different spot. If Aldridge’s player is fronting him, instead of putting a body on him, the alley-oop dunk is a very high percentage shot. If Matthews comes around a Cunningham pick under the basket, and the defender is a half step behind, an open shot is available. If Batum’s man is sagging towards Aldridge, the open corner thee is available. These are the things I can spot. Oftentimes passes are made to open shots that I didn’t see coming.
But that’s what swinging the ball around the perimeter is doing. It is looking for easy shots. And while those opportunities may or may not present themselves, it is well worth the time it takes to check. Easy buckets are better than set plays. And the slowest pace in the league still makes for an fun and exciting game to watch.
And if the easy buckets aren’t there this trip, then run the set play. Dump it to Aldridge in the post. It’s a higher percentage look than any other Blazer can muster. Like it used to be with Roy. He would create a higher percentage shot on his own than the team could muster without him. And these plays come late in the shot clock. Because they don’t really take that long to set up. Ten seconds is plenty of time to bail out to a catch and shoot if the initiating player comes up against a wall. The Roy or Aldridge Isolation play is actually a play with a lot of options in ten seconds. But that’s another fanshot for another time. Still, easier shots are better than set plays.
Because how many times have we seen the Blazers exploit these easy shots this season? How many alley-oops has there been? How many highlight film plays have we seen? Marcus Camby has been a boon. Andre Miller does not get enough credit in this regard. Rudy Fernandez has been dazzling at times. And it comes from defensive miscues. I don’t know if there is a better team at doing that than Portland right now. And it is super fun to watch. I have heard it said that the Blazers without Roy are more fun to watch. This is the reason why.
And it has been against really solid defensive teams (or at least solid defensive outings) that Portland has faltered. Because how often has Portland looked brilliant one night and abysmal the next? How often has it looked like we couldn’t miss, then later we can’t hit the side of the barn with a shotgun while standing inside it? How often have we struggled at the end of games when every second of defense counts? How often have we struggled at the beginning of games when all the scouting material is still fresh in the defender’s mind?
Because Portland is facing so many injuries to talented players, our offense relies even more heavily of defensive miscues. And those are a lot of fun to see. But when they’re not there, Portland stalls hardcore. Pounding it in to Aldridge only works so many times before his man knows to stay awake every possession, and his defensive neighbor knows where to stand to best help out. It’s also why I’m expecting Boston to blow us out Thursday night. I’d love a win, but a solid defense will expose our lack of talent.
But lets take a step back and look at the bigger picture again. That slow, plodding, non-exciting non-ball-movement is the very thing that’s responsible for some of the most exciting plays of the season. (Other exciting plays coming off of opponent turnovers, which we’ve been getting better at!) McMillan has already been doing what we fans are begging for: More easy shots. It just happens to look real ugly when they’re not there to be had.
The more I watch this game, the more tiny variables, the more split-second decisions, the more order I see in this chaos that is called basketball. I know there are some of you who see this better than I. And maybe some see it differently. Cool. Share what you see. I want to know more.
But the more I watch, the more I’m convinced that these guys who coach in the NBA know far more an I ever will as a fan. Because it’s easy to sit back and say this or that. It’s our right as fans after all. But it’s a whole’nother thing to impose one’s own order on a chaotic sea of variables. And the best coaches in the NBA are doing just that, McMillan included. Consider me impressed.