An astute comment from reader ORDucktape in the comment section of Saturday's game recap reminded me of something I've wanted to talk about for a while but haven't found the right space for. His comment was essentially this:
These guards lack discipline. How often are their feet set, shoulders square, in rhythm and within their range?
The assessment is accurate. Portland's issues aren't all schematic, talent-based, or planted at the feet of intimidating opponents. The Blazers are falling apart in three fundamental areas which may look insignificant on any given play but which, when aggregated, are costing the Blazers points they dearly need in some of these narrow losses.
We'll start with the area most-mentioned so far and, sadly, least correctable. The Blazers have dribbling issues up and down the roster.
Wesley Matthews doesn't function well off the dribble at all. It's straight ahead or bust for him...sometimes straight ahead and bust.
Other players fare better technically but become single-minded when they put the ball on the floor. They can dribble, they can pass, they can shoot, but they can't keep all three options open at one time. It's akin to texting while driving your car. You can text, you can drive, but when you do both together your focus shifts to one, leaving only the most rudimentary options available for the other. You can send that brilliant message but you better be driving on straight, flat road and nobody better stop in front of you while you're typing. Conversely you can pay attention to the road first but your spell checker better be immaculate.
The players affected by this phenomenon include LaMarcus Aldridge, Gerald Wallace, Craig Smith, and for the most part Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford. As soon as they put the ball on the floor one of three things is going to happen: they put up a shot, they pick up their dribble and bail out of the play, or disaster ensues. Felton and Crawford earn a "for the most part" because each is capable of making a pass off the dribble but their natural mode is scoring. They look far more at ease and in tune with the game when they're headed towards their own shot than when they're trying to make a play. It's ironic because this is the inverse of the problem the Blazers had with Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez. Both had astonishing ability to pass off the dribble but neither was a good decision-maker or scorer. The grass is always greener.
The only main rotation guy not covered so far is Nicolas Batum. He's shown the ability to pass or score on the move. His problems are aggressiveness and timing but he's the best hope on the current roster for a multi-threat player off the bounce.
Portland's second fundamental-level issue is related to the first. They are lousy passers when trying to set up their teammates anywhere outside of dunking range. Portland's outside shooters are inconsistent but some of that isn't their fault. They're not getting the ball where they need in order to fire cleanly. Sometimes they're not seen and the ball comes too late. But even when delivered on time it's seldom right on target.
As a shooter you're taught to be ready for the ball, hands out and soft to receive the pass and flow seamlessly into your shooting motion. The other side of the equation is the passer hitting you in your hands, or at least somewhere near your upper torso so you don't have to reach, recover, then line up to shoot. Portland's shooters are all but required to play Inspector Gadget to catch the ball. Passes go low. Passes sail high. A disturbing number go wide, maybe the worst option of all because then you're off-balance and have to fire without getting centered again. These aren't turnovers but they're costing the Blazers clean looks at the hoop. The shooter has to focus on making the catch, not targeting the rim. By the time he's secured the rock a defender is closing out. He then has to rush the shot to get it up. From 20 feet and beyond that might as well be marked a turnover for anyone but the most amazing snipers in the league. If this happened once or twice you'd chalk it up to human error. But the clean catch and shoot is a rare occurrence nowadays. Portland's passers are not their shooters' friends.
That doesn't excuse ORDuck's point, the third fundamental weakness. Even when they've got time the Trail Blazer gunners don't shoot the same way twice in a row. Feet and body position are awful. Blazers fire with one foot ahead of the other. They fire with their body pointed towards the stands. Their arm angle varies nightly. Pushing the ball instead of shooting is a common sight.
The players feel it's a mental thing, I'm sure...confidence and groove and all that. Coach McMillan and Mike Rice claim the guys are "just missing good shots". Wipe away the mumbo-jumbo and physiology is behind the failure...or at least it's not divorced from it. A quick run-through of the tape, focusing on the misses, should show them.
Players do have good nights. Batum's form has been solid the last few games. But inevitably the Blazers start missing jumpers and inevitably their form is disintegrating as they do so. That's no accident.
People often ask for areas in which they can critique the coaching. This is one of the most valid. No doubt these basics are part of every player's personal preparation...a given. You assume that a guy who takes a job as an engineer won't all of a sudden have trouble with addition and subtraction. It's embarrassing. It shouldn't need to be brought up. This is something you remind rookies and drill into the offensively-challenged. A player is supposed to notice form breaking the same way he notices his fly is unzipped and just fix it.
On the other hand, sometimes you don't notice your fly is unzipped. A tap on the shoulder is warranted in those situations. More to the point, when everybody starts walking around with open zippers and their underoos (or worse) showing it's time to say something. Outside perspective makes the problem clear, especially when you're in denial. ("This can't happen to me. I'm a pro!") This is precisely what a coach is for.
As we said, the dribbling thing can't be corrected. You either have the ability and instinct to multi-task like that or you don't. No amount of coaching will turn Gerald Wallace into Rudy Fernandez. Trying would only result in hesitation and turnovers...precisely the behavior we see from Crawford when he gets in his own head about being a true point guard instead of playing his game.
Passing on target and shooting with reasonable form, on the other hand, can be worked upon. We've seen these guys make their passes on target. We've seen them go up with true form and bury jumpers. They are capable, they're just not doing it. You won't get 100% perfection no matter how you address it but 75% is better than 40%. The difference between wins and losses often boils down to 3-5 points. Getting back to good fundamentals, earning that 30-40% improvement on these little things, will earn the Blazers a shot at those points.
Being talented isn't enough. Playing harder isn't the only answer. In order to succeed you also have to get the details right.