Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard's Pace, Defense vs. Offense, Three-Pointers

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Spo

Is Damian Lillard pacing himself for the playoffs? Should LaMarcus Aldridge be shooting threes? Which wins, defense or offense? All this and more in the latest edition of the Blazer's Edge Mailbag!

A Mammoth Monday Mailbag straight ahead!

Dave,

Seems like Damian Lillard is pacing himself this year, often times struggling with points in the first half. Second half and 4th quarters, he blossoms into an all-star. I believe it is smart strategy to make sure he has enough in the tank for post season runs, but could we not win more of those close games if he gave it more effort earlier?

Salem Fan

Lillard is walking a tightrope but I doubt it has much to do with a post-season run.  Total minutes played may have an effect on fatigue long-term but it's hard to believe that Lillard or his coaches are thinking, "I might need to score in April so I better not take this shot now."

Instead Lillard is negotiating how to fit in on a team with LaMarcus Aldridge as the offensive focal point and three-point shooters all around waiting for passes.  Last year whenever a game broke down (which happened often) the Blazers would revert to Lillard Time with Damian dribbling the ball until he made a dent in the hardwood then taking his own shot.  This year the offense runs more through Aldridge and Nicolas Batum, plus Mo Williams when he's on the floor.  Lillard is playing more off-ball.  His attempts are more targeted that way.  Even when he's responsible for setting the play he's usually letting others do their work and staying within his comfort zone beyond the arc.

As you've noted, he breaks this pattern at the end of quarters, doubly so at the end of games, and generally whenever his team needs a boost.  That's not a bad strategy.  He's using about the same number of plays as last season but he's getting more effect out of each.  Plus his teammates get a chance to shine while still relying on him for critical buckets.

I'm absolutely, 100% in favor of Lillard controlling the ball when the Blazers need a single shot to win or tie a game.  I rank him ahead of Aldridge or anybody else on the team in that regard.

I'm not sure Portland's offense would improve if Lillard shot more often overall.  It's going pretty well as-is.  If he's going to increase effort (early, late, or otherwise) the defensive end needs more help.  Better defense from the point guard position in general would give the Blazers' offense more of a cushion to work with.

Dave,

Some people say defense wins championships but you win by outscoring your opponent, right?  Solve the debate.  Which should a team lean on more, offense or D?

Braden

A team should rely on whichever end it's best at.  For the Blazers that's offense for sure.  But both arguments are different sides of the same coin.  You can outscore your opponent by flooding points at them or you can do so by keeping their points lower than yours.  Either way you win.

Offense is the engine driving victories.  You could put 8 defensive specialists on a roster together.  If they can't shoot or score they'll not succeed.  But offense won't always go right.  Defense--including rebounding, which keeps possessions away from the opponent--provides the margin of error for nights when you're not hitting.  If you average 108 a night but allow the opponent 106 you need every shot.  Cut that second number down to 98 and you have plenty of room to play with and will look like an elite team even on nights when you're not playing your best.  Since the toughest games in the NBA (including playoff contests) aren't as much about doing everything right as they are about how you fare when the opponent takes away everything you wanted to do, that margin of error can be critical.  The flip side: you can take away one or two things from an NBA team but you can't take away everything.  If your defense is good enough you can succeed even when the opponent robs you of your A and B options.  Providing you had offense to begin with, of course.

Dave

The NBA is full of stretch 4s these days, and it seems like more and more of them are shooting threes. This is no longer reserved for the 3 point specialists like frye or bonner, or the confused tweeners like Beasley or the Morris twins, or even big 3s that work themselves that role like Carmelo, Lebron, or Durant. These days, every type of four seems to be shooting threes. Bosh, Pau and Ibaka have been shooting them for a while now. Anderson and Love buoy their teams offensively from deep. Millsap and Randolph have changed the momentum of playoff games by hitting multiple threes. Even Blake Griffin, whose major knock has been outside shooting, has hit threes recently!

So the oft repeated question is, should LaMarcus Aldridge jump on the bandwagon and start shooting threes? He's already shown the ability, even in clutch situations. I don't think anyone is saying Aldridge should follow Rasheed's footsteps and float on the three point line. Still, why not set a pick a couple feet higher and pop out to the three instead of the leagues most inefficient shot? This gives an added dimension in allowing Lillard to step into a great shot for three as well as giving him more room on the drive or pull up. Aldridge would also be a dangerous weapon in the secondary transition. It might even open up his dribble drive and pull up game. What are your thoughts on this?

- Yet another Michael

We've answered this question before in a couple ways.  First, how many guys can you put at the three-point arc?  The Blazers already have that skill covered in spades.  They're #1 in 3PT%, #3 in 3PT attempts per game, #5 in three-point rate.  Also I hear what you're saying about the pick and pop but the turn-around has been just as devastating of a weapon for Aldridge this year and, more importantly, it pulls the double-teams that allow other Blazers to get open for those coveted threes.  Plus I don't know if you've noticed, but Aldridge's shot looks smooth as butter-covered silk undies when he's in his comfort zone but as soon as he gets pushed outside it hesitation and bad form creep in.  I wouldn't mess with something that's working well for him and the team in the name of chasing a few more points of efficiency.

This is a great example of how numbers provide a useful lens for viewing the game but not an airtight guide for pursuing the game.  These guys, and the system they run, depend on human factors as well...plus physics and a couple other things.  You could probably run a couple pick and pops for Aldridge at the arc without messing things up much but I don't think he'd be a better option than Lillard, Wesley Matthews, or Nicolas Batum if you want a three on the secondary break or otherwise. I don't think adding distance between him and the bucket will make him better at scoring off the dribble (which he gets long on anyway) or pulling up off of a dribble attack (which isn't one of his moves).  It'd be chasing a wrinkle that probably wouldn't add much overall, trying to improve a stat that's decent enough for LMA already in a system where nearly everybody is prospering around him as it is even with lower efficiency levels from the superstar.

Maybe it would work but right now I wouldn't mess with it.  Just give me a steady diet of those 15-18 foot catches with some face-up jumpers off the screen salted in.

Dave,

Assuming we are going to make the playoffs, we own no first or second round pick. Is this a cause for concern for our teams development?

Colby

Of course, but since it took those picks to get to the current state and that current state is pretty darn good right now, this goes into the "Worry about things that you can control" category.  I'd rather have the Blazers playing like they are right now than thinking about making the lottery to avoid giving this year's pick to Charlotte.

Far more concerning right now is the development of the less-experienced players already on the team: Meyers Leonard, Thomas Robinson, C.J. McCollum, Will Barton, Allen Crabbe, Joel Freeland, Victor Claver.  If some of them develop the Blazers wouldn't need more youth in order to succeed.  Ditto if some can be moved for veterans who can help immediately.

Dave,

There have been rumors about a "wheel" draft order in the future in which each team rotates draft position regardless of performance. I wanted to get your thoughts on the effectiveness of this strategy and likelihood of this being implemented.

Daniel

Argh.  No to both.

As far as effectiveness, you have to ask what the draft is for.  One of the problems with the recent spate of solutions is that their main purpose is to eliminate tanking.  This ends up circular.

Q:  What is the purpose of the system?

A:  To keep the system from being gamed.

I can easily create a house that's impossible to break into.  All I have to do is eliminate all walls, the ceiling, and the floor.  But that kind of defeats the whole purpose of having a house in the first place.

The main purpose of the draft is to get help to teams that need it.  We've been over that before.  The part I maybe haven't emphasized enough (because I keep getting questions about this) is that the draft also serves as a check and balance against inequities that plague the league.

Tell me with a straight face that the Milwaukee Bucks had a chance--any chance--to land LeBron James when he was a free agent.

Tell me with a straight face that star calls haven't favored marquee teams over the years or that Milwaukee can become one.

Tell me with a straight face that the Bucks can match the Lakers either in attractiveness or endorsement dollars.

Tell me with a straight face that the Bucks can spend as cavalierly as the Lakers or Knicks with their huge TV deals.

So...the Bucks have zero chance to land LeBron.  They have zero chance of becoming a marquee team.  They have zero chance of generating the same level of endorsement dollars for free agents or heading into luxury tax territory with their roster the way New York and L.A. can.  And none of this is in their control.  They cannot change it.

So now you want to tell me that no matter what else happens, no matter how bad they get, we should turn to the Bucks and say, "You will not receive the #1 overall pick for the next 15 years.  And by the way, when you do it might be more of a Michael Olowokandi year than a LeBron year.  Or it might be a Greg Oden situation where your #1 pick gets injured.  Or he might decide he just doesn't like Milwaukee and leave in 5 years.  But even if all that happens you get to wait three decades to try again because the draft must be wholly independent of outside factors even though nothing else in the league is."

And then you're going to try and tell me that if the Bucks don't succeed under those circumstances it's because of bad GM'ing???  After all they had the same chance on the wheel as everybody else.

If you were a smart, in demand GM is there any way in hell you'd sign up to manage the Bucks under those circumstances?  Ever?  You'd have to be a fool.  So how would they ever get a good General Manager in the first place?

My solution, oft-stated, is simple.  Non-playoff teams make the lottery drawing but seeding for lottery odds among those teams is decided by their cumulative record the last three years, not just on the current year.  Really bad teams get a lot of help and then move up out of the lottery system.  Momentarily-bad teams get not as much, at least not immediately.  If a team wants to tank they have to make it a multi-year project and the GM involved has to risk being fired before his efforts bear fruit.  If a team "succeeds" in being really bad and his team continues to stink despite getting multiple high picks over the course of a few years then you know it's bad GM'ing and can act accordingly.  Over the long run the league is less vulnerable to tanking, individual teams are less subject to the single-year "boom or bust" ping-pong ball bounces, and bad managers get hung out for all to see.  Plus you don't throw out the baby with the bath water and teams like Milwaukee have a chance to compete even without LeBron, marquee favoritism, and millions of extra dollars to play with.

Dave,

I heard you mention Thaddeus Young, Gasol and others in your podcast as options for our backup bigman. I also like Amir Johnson and Nazr Mohammed as realistic options. I was wondering if you could expand on who you think would be realistically attainable options for the Blazer's much needed backup big?

Daniel

See, now you're trying to be like the Michaels with this multiple-Daniel stuff.  Except this is all the same Daniel so it's not quite the same.

Technically speaking I never mentioned either Gasol brother as a realistic option for Portland.  Marc would cost too much in terms of talent sent out and Pau costs way too much in trade salary.  I used Pau and Young as examples of the range of players the Blazers could get to help them, illustrating that the field is wide open in terms of what Portland could use.  I still think Philly is a good, maybe the best, option as a trade partner.  Before the season I wouldn't have wanted their frontcourt players but with the Blazers doing so well right now any of them could help.

Nazr Mohammed's time has come and gone so I wouldn't be thrilled getting him considering the Blazers would be offering young players as trade bait (not having any others to spare).  If you think Portland can get him for Victor Claver, sure.  But I'm not sure why Chicago does that.  I like Amir Johnson better but he'd cost more, carries more salary, and plays power forward.  I can see moving Aldridge to center for stretches to accommodate the right backup four but I wonder if Johnson qualifies.  He's closer than Mohammed though.

The gold standard would be another center to platoon with Robin Lopez.  Spencer Hawes is one of the only realistic candidates I can think of and at this point I'd take him.  I wouldn't mind taking a flyer on Bismack Biyombo but I don't think Charlotte would trade him reasonably.  Anderson Varejao has been injured and is having an off year but how much fun would he be on this team?  Who knows what's on Cleveland's mind right now though.  Timofey Mozgov was a pre-season candidate and would be a nice reserve.  Zaza Pachulia has been mentioned by some but between his long contract and offensive struggles I wouldn't touch him.

I'm sure we can think of more big men.  No doubt people will as the trade deadline approaches.  Keep those suggestions and questions coming to the address below.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com )

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