We've heard it over and over again from Blazer Broadcasting: the Portland Trail Blazers lead the league in alley-oop connections. LaMarcus Aldridge sits atop the universe in alley-oop slams, Andre Miller is the premier alley-oop assist-maker. At a casual glance it seems a superficial stat. Throw every "oop" of the season together and the scoring's not a drop in Portland's bucket. Sure it's pretty for the fans but two points register as two points on the scoreboard no matter how they come. For most teams the alley-oop is frosting on the game cake, decorative and sweet but hardly foundational. It's a little different for the Blazers though. These spectacular buckets are at once the source of and indicative of good things happening for the team...things we've waited for over the past few seasons now come to life.
The greatest direct effect of the alley-oop play has been cementing Aldridge's confidence and scoring average. LMA has been many things over the years but a rim scorer has not been among his best qualities. Until this season he was a nice, albeit perimeter-oriented, 18 ppg scorer. This year he's approaching 22 per game. He's over 2 points per game in alley-oop buckets alone, half of his increase. The "oop" has helped turn Aldridge into a star. Points alone don't tell the story either. Does anyone remember how Rasheed Wallace became the 'Sheed that struck fear into the hearts of opponents offensively? His offensive moves were always decent but when he came to Portland he wasn't nearly aggressive enough nor dominant enough to fulfill his potential. How did the Blazers get him off in his formative years? They threw the ball to the rim repeatedly and let him hammer them down. Those early easy buckets opened up his offense for years to come, paying dividends even after they ceased and his attack became more standardized. We may be watching a similar progression with Aldridge. Having tasted 20 per game and knowing what it's like to dunk, he's not going to be eager to go back to 18 and never touching the rim.
The alley-oop has also served to integrate Andre Miller into the team. Last year, even on the occasions he was dominant, the fit was awkward. A few soaring tosses into willing and devastating hands has taken care of that nicely, eh? He doesn't just look like a point guard this year, he looks like this team's point guard. The alley-oop connections aren't the entire reason but they've helped.
Alley-oops are also evidence of two things Blazer fans have been longing to see out of Portland's offense: motion and easy buckets. The absence of Greg Oden and the injuries of Brandon Roy opened up a new field of opportunities into which Miller and the High Flyers have charged. For a team that looked to have no credible low attack at the beginning of the year these dunks have been a godsend. Instead of posting deep and centering the ball where the defense can find it the Blazers have kept the rock high, drawn defenders outside, then streaked through and attacked on the run, creating fast buckets out of halfcourt sets. More people touch the ball. The points go up easier. Defenders have to look for multiple possibilities instead of focusing on one. Suddenly they're just as frightened defending off the ball as they are on it. If you can't have the dead certainty of a Jordan or Durant or LBJ scoring creating uncertainty is the next best option and the Blazers have sowed it through this play. You can also see the effect on Portland's own players. Cuts are crisper, off-ball players are more alert, eyes are open to opportunity instead of glazed as the players run through the motions. The "oops" have also masked the relatively weak dribbling ability of Portland's 2-3-4 guys. It's far easier for them to finish when they haven't packed the ball and drawn defenders all the way to the hoop. Weakness has become strength through a simple flip pass.
Alley-oops don't solve everything. They're probably not even a sustainable way of doing business. If Portland's eventual playoff opponent doesn't have the move scouted and shut off they're either lazy or fools. But the alley-oop is an early glimpse of what this team is supposed to be on offense: multi-faceted, talented, aggressive, athletic, unselfish, and overpowering. Whether or not they continue through the coming years or even through the next few weeks they've been the key that has opened up the potential and dreams of Portland's young guys. It's been fun to watch both the plays and the players develop.