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Season In Review: The Offense

Sorry about the technical difficulties over the weekend.  I could read the site but I got totally gummed up when I tried to do anything else, including post.  I think they've got it figured out now, which is nice because it felt like having one of my arms behind my back.

Anyway, resuming the season review here's a detailed look at the ins and outs of the offense and what we learned this year.


POST PLAY: Portland is in the upper third of the league in post offense for two reasons:  Zach Randolph and Jamaal Magloire.  Zach is one of the best post scorers in the universe.  This is how he makes his living.  He developed his right hand (off-hand) moves in the off-season which made him virtually unstoppable and transitioned him from star to superstar (in this category anyway).  His .467 shooting percentage is a lower than you'd like to see from a power scorer but he took a lot of shots from range as well.  Besides he rebounds plenty of the shots he misses.  When Zach was out Magloire proved that he still had plenty of moves in the post himself, given sufficient room.  Jamaal's offensive game is underrated somewhat because when he makes mistakes they're usually obvious (like dropping the ball, traveling, or hitting the bottom of the rim with his dunk attempts).  But his size and strength allow him to get up shots in the teeth of opposing defenses.  He shot .504 for the year which led the Blazers and was his highest percentage since 2001-02.  He did better than any other Blazer at staying within his offensive boundaries, which extend to about four feet from the bucket.

Grade: A

Prognosis:  Though this was clearly a strength for the Blazers this season is may not remain so.  For one thing there's no guarantee that either of these players will be with the team come September.  For another post offense is going the way of the dodo in today's NBA.  Or rather it's being shuffled off to quicker, leaner players instead of the lumbering behemoths.  To this end you'll probably see more of the up-and-under moves from Brandon Roy and the silky-smooth turn-around of Lamarcus Aldridge on the horizon.  This will be more aesthetically pleasing but it will lessen the strength and importance of this aspect of the offense.

SLASHING:  This is another area where Portland's offense improved this season.  Brandon Roy is the most obvious example.  He can move any of four directions with the ball and get his shot off on a dime.  This is also the strength of Jarrett Jack's offensive game.  When he's aggressive it usually means he's scoring at the hoop.  Sergio Rodriguez obviously has the capability of getting to the rim but he seems confused about when to shoot it and often blows what should be easy buckets when he does.  Also, even though the Blazers have the capability of driving they don't always show the gumption.  Part of this may be fatigue or mental breakdown.  Another part may be the presence of the post players gumming up the paint.  The big dichotomy in the offense this year wasn't really between running and slowing down, it was between posting and slashing.  Seldom do they have a game where both are working at once.  At best they'll spend one quarter posting and another driving.  They don't seem to have the knack or personnel for both.  It will be interesting to see which prevails.

Grade:  B

Prognosis:  One of the more exciting potential developments was the late-season advent of Travis Outlaw as a slasher.  It only came in the last couple games so it's way too early to make judgments, but if Travis develops the rim-threatening, foul-drawing aspect of his offensive game then the players at all three smaller positions would be threats from anywhere inside the three-point line, making the offense exponentially more dangerous and productive.  More experience for Roy and Jack will only help them, so indications are this aspect of our game will be looking up.

MID-RANGE:  The Blazers have players who, in theory, can hit mid-range shots.  Travis can, Zach can, Brandon can, Jarrett can.  But in practice much of Portland's jump shooting this year can be described in two words:  "settling" and "missing".  One real weakness is the inability of anyone besides Brandon Roy to hit a jumper off the dribble.  Especially egregious are the dribble moves of our two best distance shooters, Ime Udoka and Martell Webster.  Simply put, the guys who can get their own shot can't shoot and the guys who can shoot can't get their own shot.   The general inability of anyone besides our centers to set adequate picks contributes to this problem.  We can't free people up enough to make them comfortable.  Even with our improved posting and slashing games this year our overall 44.96 field goal percentage ranked us 24th in the NBA.  This is because we spent large tracts of time firing away to no avail.  Over two-thirds of our shots were jumpers and this was by far our lowest percentage shot.

Grade:  D+

Prognosis:  Again much of our hope for improvement seems pinned to Travis Outlaw.  He's the only guy outside of Roy who's shown the ability to shake free and still get a decent shot up.  But even he hasn't shown it consistently.  This is part of why drafting or trading for a multi-faceted offensive small forward is such a huge priority.  Until this part of our game improves teams are going to continue to sag off and pack the middle on us, taking away our drives and posts and daring us to shoot ourselves into oblivion.

LONG-RANGE:  We have a lot more distance shooters on the team today than we've had in years past.  Ime Udoka's .406 percentage led the team by far.  He's deadly on the corner jumper off the pass.  Brandon Roy was second with a more-than-respectable .377.  If he can keep shooting at that clip through his career he'll be virtually unstoppable.  Martell Webster came in at .364 and Jarrett Jack at .350, neither of which is anything to complain about.  Again the problem is that Ime and Martell can only shoot from three and you don't necessarily want Jack and Roy making a living out there.  That's why despite the nice percentages it's not a bankable team strength yet.  Our overall .346 three point percentage ranks us 24th in the league, which is nothing to write home about.  Either way we're not going to turn into the Seattle offense, nor should we.

Grade:  C

Prognosis:  It's possibly to predict incremental improvement with experience.  But then again you've got to ask how much Ime can play in the coming years and whether he or Martell will be with us.  Without them we're back to square one.  And I doubt that pure shooting will be a priority for us in draft or trade.  We have too many other needs.

TRANSITION:  Ugh.  In all my years watching basketball I don't think I've ever seen a team as poor in fast-break offense as the Blazers were this year.  And that includes high school teams, small college teams, church league teams...yuck.  They blew finishes, they dropped balls, they made the incorrect pass time after time.  It got to the point that when you saw them start to run you figured there was a 50% chance that it was going to end up in disaster.  The Blazers were easily the worst fast breaking team in the league, coming in at just over 6 fast break points a game.  The Warriors were, what...around 20?  That's a major hole to dig out of.  Of the point guards only Sergio looked comfortable leading the break.  He was the only one with the dribbling, speed, vision, and common sense to make it work.  Of the wing players only Fred Jones looked like he knew how to fill a lane.  Everyone else on the team was downright incompetent.

Grade:  F-

Prognosis:  Sergio getting more playing time will help a bunch.  That depends on Sergio developing the rest of his game enough to warrant being out on the court though.  It may take another half-to-whole season for that to happen, especially if he doesn't get much summer league work in.  It's a sure bet that the steady, veteran point guards they're looking at acquiring won't list this first on their résumé.  However Lamarcus Aldridge assuming a bigger role in the offense may allow us to push more, as he's faster down the floor than almost any big man in the league.  Still, barring a major overhaul, those looking for a true up-tempo game may have to wait awhile.

FREE THROWS:  The Blazers shot a very respectable 76.9% from the free throw line this year.  Seven of our players shot 79% or above.  This is a major improvement from recent years and part of the reason our offensive production seemed steadier most nights.  However we're still only 21st in the league overall at drawing fouls.  We need to take much better advantage of the shooting skills of our players by driving the ball consistently.  This would fall on the shoulders of Jarrett Jack, Brandon Roy, and Travis Outlaw primarily.  Zach Randolph generally does a good job drawing fouls and if he remains with the team and the ball stays in his hands there's no reason to think that won't continue.

Grade: B-  (A for shooting them, C- for drawing them.)

Prognosis:  The guys we've got aren't going to forget how to shoot them.  If we trade Jarrett Jack that's going to hurt the percentage but then again we'll probably lose Jamaal Magloire as well and that will help.  We're looking at acquiring offensive players which will probably include good shooting and decent drawing power.  This will probably remain a strength.

BALL MOVEMENT:  Our 18.5 assists per game this year ranked us dead last in the NBA.  But assists don't always tell the tale by themselves.  When our offense was clicking we actually did a reasonably good job of moving the ball.  We were more unselfish this year than in any year in recent memory.  Even Zach Randolph got into the passing act now and again.  Our point guards looked to set people up and got better at it as the year went by.  They're young so they have problems, but staple plays like Ime in the coffin corner and Zach starting the around-the-horn pass became a regular part of our repertoire this year.  Our movement without the ball--the unnoticed and underrated aspect of ball movement--is still pretty poor though, bordering on atrocious.  We have a lot of young guys who, if the ball's not coming to them directly, don't know how to do much but stand.  You can thank the prior decade of two-on-two isolation plays for that.  Again the ability to set better screens away from the ball would help.

Grade:  C-  (props for effort and coming light years from last year, but still needs work)

Prognosis:  If we get a couple veterans who know how to move without the ball I really see this aspect of our game improving.  The major hurdle for most teams is getting them to be unselfish and trust each other and almost all these guys seem to do that already.  Now we just need some practice and a little taste of success.  Our point guards are only going to get better.  If Martell Webster stays then this would be a huge leap in his game...if he learned how to get open without having to be the focal point of the play.  

BALL HANDLING:  When we started the year this was a major area of concern for our point guards.  They passed the test mostly.  Jarrett Jack turned out to be adequate in most situations.  Brandon Roy was excellent for a two guard and good as a point man.  Sergio Rodriguez was out of this world.  We aren't going to be on any street ball highlight films but we're good enough for now.  Outside of the main guards we have some weakness here.  If you look at our main scoring threats Zach is up and down, Travis is learning slowly, Martell is a wreck, and Lamarcus looks adequate but he's unproven.  It'll really hinge on the small forwards.  This might also be an argument for keeping Brandon as a two guard as he provides an important outlet for our point men as a second ball handler.

Grade:  C

Prognosis:  Another veteran point guard should steady things.  After that it depends on how you think Jarrett, the small forwards, and Lamarcus develop.

EXECUTION:  Again we saw more cohesive, team-oriented play this year than we have in a long, long time.  That was encouraging.  How you think we did besides that depends on your perspective.  As the season wore on our offense relied increasingly on the pick and roll.  At some points that's all we did.  However we did it fairly well.  We ended up about the middle of the pack with 14.3 turnovers a game.  However our guards had a tendency to give the ball up way too many times and that will need to be fixed.  We seemed to manage the shot clock better this year than in years past.  We took fewer ill-advised early shots and, with a few exceptions, spent a lot less time hoisting desperation shots at the horn.  Our late-game execution was generally very good, as was our execution out of timeouts.  That means we're capable of playing good ball, we just need to remember to do it more often.

Grade:  C+

Prognosis:  It remains to be seen if we can execute for a full season without Zach if that's the way we decide to go.  He drew a lot of attention which allowed guys like Brandon Roy and Lamarcus Aldridge to work relatively unopposed.  Each has only had a taste of what real NBA defenses can do and it wouldn't be surprising to see the offense bog down at first if he's gone.  If he does stay then learning to mesh the burgeoning talents of Roy, Jarrett, Lamarcus, and Travis with Zach's ball-control style will be a challenge.  Right now it's hard to envision them all prospering together, especially with the relative lack of give-and-go plays, backdoor cuts, or anything else resembling advanced basketball.

OVERALL OFFENSE:  We only scored 94.1 points per game this year, leaving us 29th in the league and barely ahead of the Hawks.  However some of that was intentional as we slowed the ball down to compete.  And it does represent more than a five point gain over our average last year, which was less intentional than tragic.  Our 45% field goal percentage put us 23rd in the league, not fantastic but not a disaster.  Overall we played smarter, more unselfish, and more pleasing offensive basketball this year but we're still unquestionably more ugly duckling than beautiful swan.  We desperately need to become more multi-faceted, more cohesive, and more efficient in our execution.

Overall Offensive Grade:  C- bordering on D+

Prognosis:  This will be THE area of concern in the off-season.  Whatever personnel we start the season with I expect a semi-fresh offensive approach that's centered around the gifts of Brandon Roy and whoever our other main scorer is.  It's going to take time to mesh but I expect by this time next year we'll have several areas identified as strengths and a much clearer idea of what the future philosophy will be.

Next:  The other side of the ball.

--Dave (