Anatomy of Portland Trail Blazers' offense in 2008-2009 season.

This fanpost has been bumped to the front page because this is a must-read. Many thanks to iverigma2 for the hours spent on this post. -- Ben

Click through for a great breakdown of various aspects of the Blazers offense last season, including video clips, analysis and more.

Blazers' offense was once a semi-hot topic around various Blazers forums including here. I've been intrigued by the arguments from both sides since the beginning and thus determined to do a film study as thoroughly as possible to help me answer these questions: What are the reasons behind Blazers' highest offensive efficiency last season? What plays did we really run except for obvious ones like Roy/Aldridge/Outlaw's 1-on-1 isolation?

I digged into about 15 Blazers game films from 2008-2009 season (including playoff) and documented, categorized & analyzed all the sets Blazers were running. After a couple months of on-and-off work I finally gathered 162 plays classified in 6 categories and put together 21 youtube video clips. Thanks to the advanced feature on the youtube, I also put in lots of annotation on the clips which would help you understand my points.

Some notes:

  1. Opponents & games: I focused my efforts on the late-season and especially the playoff games because the team tend to be more familiar with coach's offensive sets and have better chemistry toward the end of the season. Also the opponent would study the plays that caught them off guard during the early part of the season and prepare the counter-move, therefore the plays that still work in late season are more reliable and effective ones. I also tried to avoid blown-out portions of the games as much as possible because obviously the defensive intensity was much weaker during those stretches and that would usually make our offense look unfairly good. Based on the same reason I avoided the clips against weaker defensive teams as well. However that doesn't mean every single play in my clips was against a quality opponent under a quality situation, but I made sure those plays are the majority.
  2. Terminology: I started gaining more interest in X's and O's of the basketball only after I became a hard core Blazers fan so please don't mistake me as a basketball coach or some kinds of guru. What it means is you wouldn't see me using any broad terminology to "generalize" our offense system - ex. motion offense, flex offense, triangle offense...,etc. Those are too hard for me to understand and I don't like to say things that I don't fully grasp. That's why the most difficult term I use is probably "Pick and Roll" and you are welcomed to identify and point out the grand offensive schemes that some of the plays belong to.
  3. End result of the play: Good plays and good execution don't necessarily end up with a made basket. After all the shooter/finisher needs to put the ball in. On the other hand a missed shot doesn't always mean this play is a failure or executed poorly. Therefore lots of well-designed and well-executed plays that ended up with a missed shot were still included in my clips.

One more thing before we get to the first set - except for one clip about Roy you wouldn't find any simple, straight-up 1-on-1 isolation play in my clips because there's really nothing to show from those plays. I am more than happy to admit that a lot of Blazers' sets are actually straight-up 1-on-1 for Roy, Aldridge and Outlaw. But I'd also argue that 1-on-1 has always been (and will always be) one of the essential plays in basketball of all levels and the Blazers didn't actually call too much 1-on-1 plays compared to other teams, especially those with a superstar wing player plus a borderline all-start big man. I never believed the notion that "Blazers' only offense is 1-4 Roy isolation" and the studies below only solidified my belief.

So without further ado, let's go thru the video clips & analysis after the jump...

1. Pick and roll

One of our primary plays this season is the pick and roll (P&R), or more generally speaking, the play starting with a high screen at the top. When executed perfectly (unfortunately it happened few and far between) it led to an easy basket opportunity:

However most of the times these play didn't work quite so perfectly, either because the big man didn't roll or the guard didn't dare to pass or both. While this is definitely an area for improvement for next season, it'd be a huge mistake to write off this play just because it doesn't always result in an easy basket under the rim.

Why? Because of the 3 most important elements in the Blazers offense - spacing, spacing and spacing. Even when the P&R doesn't fully work it would usually still break the balance of the opponent's defensive scheme and make them have to scramble to recover all over the court. Good spacing and quality outside shooters would benefit from this kind of situations. Look at the Orlando Magic, Turkoglu and Howard are only half of the reason why their P&R are such a lethal weapon - the other half are their outside shooters plus spacing. Here is the first example with detailed annotations:

Another case with more complex routes:

(I uploaded another uninterrupted version here, see how it was executed smoothly.)

Now here is a big compilation of 27 similar plays. Notice how our shooters benefit from even the slightest imbalance created out of the initial P&R and shoot wide open jumper again and again. The beauty of this play is that it doesn't require any amazing 1-on-1 moves to accomplish this. When Roy was the ball handler he didn't even seem to break a sweat to open up teammates. Just solid spacing, solid passes, solid executions. This is how efficient this play and good spacing can make our offense.

A variation of P&R is "pick and pop" which I think most of the Blazers fan are very familiar with because tons of Aldridge & Outlaw's shots were generated from this play.

Let's add one more flavor to the P&R, how about fake the pick and slide inside? If the defense is caught off guard, this would essentially look like a P&R play:

2. Roy's mid-range sets

As we all know Roy is a fantastic 1-on-1 offensive weapon and to utilize that, as I mentioned earlier, we ran a lot of iso for him. But does it always mean letting Roy bring the ball across the half court to top of the arc, clear out everybody else and start a series of moves consisting of jab steps, fakes, crossovers, change-of-pace dribbles, change-of-direction dribbles... to blow past his defender? Absolutely no! If coaches let him play like that from the beginning of the game, he'd have been exhausted by the 4th quarter when we really need him.

How can Roy play at his best to help the team without burning out too quickly? Well how about letting him catch the ball as close to the rim as possible? That's where these mid-range sets come in featuring Roy coming off the screens by the big man, catching the pass and starting his offense in the low-post to elbow area (red circle below). He'd be put in an excellent mid-range position where he could shoot, drive or pass (the so called "triple threat")


As opposed to starting his offense at this position which takes much more effort to get to the rim. (Of course when Roy truly takes over a game it'd be better to do this because he can totally control the tempo and decide when to attack from this point.)


Not coincidentally, in a recent interview with Ben, Roy was quoted:

"A big thing I'm focusing on is trying to continue to improve my mid-range game. I've watched a lot of tape on Kobe, I listened to a lot of things they say about LeBron, I think that mid-range game is really, really where championships are won."

Also this is what Jason Quick said in another recent interview with Slam online:

"I know one of Brandon’s big off-season goals was to work on his game away from the ball. Coming off screens. Catch-and-shoot. Last year, one of his targets of improvement was three-point shooting and he came back much improved. I expect him to be better, therefore, at playing off the ball this season."

These, along with the addition of Andre Miller, make me believe we are gonna see more plays like this in the next season. Here is the clip:

As you can see, when defender was lagging behind chasing him around screens, Roy would catch the pass easily and did his damage. Like the following diagram shows: (numbers are position, not jersey numbers. ex. 1=PG, 2=SG, 4=PF. Circle is offense, triangle is defense, solid arrows are player movement, dash arrows are the ball movement and that little brown dot is the ball)

So what if the defense anticipates the play and tries to block Roy's route? Well then we have a very nice counter attack - lob pass to the rim.


Here is the clip for this counter move:

"But this play is very little different from just letting Roy play 1-on-1!" Some of you may be arguing now, and to a certain degree I agree. The outcome of this play does depend a lot on Roy's ability to make good decisions. But first of all, not every basketball plays are as complex as running in 3 routes, setting 5 screens and making 7 passes in order to get someone wide open under the basket. A lot of basketball plays are simply designed to put your star player in a good 1-on-1 situation so that he can exploit the match-up more easily. Those plays are usually simple but not necessarily easy to execute well and it still relies on the star player's 1-on-1 ability to score or create. Secondly, without this play Roy's touches would've come from either high pick-and-roll (or isolation without a screen), which is not something you want to run for him all night, or spot-up outside shots, which is grossly inefficient compared to other aspects of Roy's game. I believe this off-the-ball mid-range set is an excellent balance between fully utilizing his talent to help the team win and not exhausting him too early.

One more note about Roy's isolation plays: Even for those straight up 1-on-1 without off-the-ball movement, NOT all of them were as exhausting as you'd think. In fact many times when he only half-started his move he would already find the open teammates. This could be attributed to his ability to draw double-team, his vision, unselfishness and, again, great spacing of our outside shooters. Do those plays have anything to do with coach's X's and O's? No, they are rather instinctive read-and-reaction by Roy. But don't you agree those neat, efficient and not very energy-consuming iso plays are the ones we all love to see more?

3. 1-2-2 sets

[UPDATE] from kpelton's comments:

The 1-2-2 set is probably best termed a "horns" set. That’s the general name for when you see two big men up high, both of them in position to set a screen for the ballhandler. You might call this particular version a "horns flat" because both wing players are "flat" along the baseline.

[UPDATE] Tince's comments:

The 1-2-2 offense you didn’t know the name of is simply a modified version of the FLEX offense. You can tell because there is a weakside screen set on the opposite block with the hope to get a backdoor layup or a clean look at the elbow.

Ok the name is made up by me but I really had a hard time matching this one to any particular plays in the common basketball playbooks. I called it 1-2-2 because it usually starts with one player at the top, two players at the high post and two players at the corner.

This play would generate multiple options from the screens set between O1, O2 and O4 in the low-post area and O5 would be the passer at the high post. It starts with O1 passing to O4 then to O5. O1 cut inside the paint and prepare to set a pick.


First option is O2 to cut across the key off O1's screen.


Second option is O1 to come off O4's screen and catch & shoot. 3862757467_74fb09b1a1_o_medium

If the first two options don't pan out, O4 would turn around and post up.


Here is the video clip. You can find some minor variation of this play with different personnel & routes.

4. Screen plays

I apologize for the poor name again but I really don't know what these plays are supposed to be called. Basically it features a wing player curling around a series of screens, coming out to catch the pass and deciding to either shoot, drive or pass. We see this play ran mostly for Rudy but it'd been ran for Outlaw and Roy as well. Here are the clips with a bunch of annotations:

  • Rudy off screens:

  • Outlaw off screens. I think we ran this play a little more often than people remember.

If both of them are good at this, why not run them off the screens at the same time? You got it:

(note that at the end I put 2 examples of good continuity offense - meaning they knew what to do next when the initial play didn't pan out and calmly executed it.)

  • Roy's screen plays. Admittedly some of them look similar to the "mid-range sets" I talked about earlier.

5. Post plays

The ability to score inside remains as one of the most important quality of a modern NBA team. Even though we're essentially a jump shooting team (but this has been improved) we still have several plays focusing on getting easy baskets inside the paint in addition to just posting Aldridge/Oden up and throwing them the ball.

  • Cross screens in the post. Cross screens by big men inside to free up one of them - usually Oden. It's pretty straightforward so I'd just let the video (plus some notes) speak for itself:

  • Hi-Lo post plays. This is another play designed for post players to work together, usually involves a player at high-post passing to the player at low-post. It could be combined with the aforementioned cross-screen play (as the 1st segment of the following clip would show). It could be used when the post player is fronted (as the 2nd segment would show). But IMO the most powerful and effective usage is to run P&R with this Hi-Lo play, as the final three segments would show. Think about how Dwight Howard usually scores off Magic's P&R offense. As a matter of fact it doesn't happen very often that Howard would just roll into the paint, find no defenders around, get the pass and dunk. His opportunity usually comes when he rolls inside and uses his agility and strength to seal the defender who just hurries back to cover him. Meanwhile the Magic player who uses his pick (usually at the wing) may not have the angle to pass, but he can just pass to his teammate who has a better angle (usually at the high post) - to deliver the ball to Howard. Hi-Lo play is particularly effective for Blazers because Aldridge & Oden are already legitimate threats at high-post & low-post respectively. We have an efficient P&R offense thanks to our great outside shooting and spacing, but if Aldridge and Oden can master this play, they can add even more options to our P&R attack and make it a much more dangerous offense. Aside from the P&R play in which Oden rolls inside and actually get the ball, this P&R + Hi-Lo play is the one I want to see added to the Blazers' playbook the most in the next season.
    (more on Hi-Lo sets can be found at The Coach's clipboard - an excellent basketball playbook website. Some of the plays are similar to what I mentioned above)
  • Inside-out. Post player draws double-team and passes out to the open shooter. A simple and classic post play. But again some flavors were added by the Blazers coaching staff. First one is used when O4 has the ball in low-post, O1 at top of the arc. D1 cheats off O1 and semi-double-team O4 in the hope of forcing O4 to pass out and recovering back to O1 in time. O5 recognizes this, comes up to screen D1 and meanwhile O4 passes to O1 to have a wide open jumper.


This variation and other basic inside-out plays are shown in the following clip:

Second variation is even simpler. O1 made the entry pass and cut to the corner but somehow D1 expects him to cut to the weak-side along the baseline - either due to misread or defensive lapse (sometimes a little fake cut by O1 is needed to fool him). So now O1 sits in the corner alone and get the ball back from O4 to shoot a wide open three.



BONUS PLAY: this is IMO Aldridge's BEST post move all season. It's not a set play but it's so awesome I have to put it here. I really hope he can do something like that much more often next season.

6. Other simple plays

The last two kinds of plays - "cut without the ball" and "drive & kick" - are again simple but effective. However it's hard to categorize them and it would be interesting to know if these plays entirely depend on players' senses of read-and-reaction, or belong to a larger offensive schemes. But anyhow both of them tend to generate easy baskets.

  • Cut without the ball: Note that this is different from the aforementioned "screen plays" even though they both emphasize off-the-ball movement. The latter are designed set plays, the former look more like players reading the defense and sneaking behind his man to the basket. The master of this play on our team is no doubt Rudy Fernandez. He and Sergio have done perhaps 30 times of "Spanish Armada" throughout the season and hopefully it can continue without Sergio. Other than Rudy, Batum is pretty good at cutting as well, which is rather impressive given his young age and inexperience. Here is the clip:

  • Drive & Kick: Like I said many times earlier, our shooters are accurate and know how to space the floor. If occasionally one of them can drive instead of jacking it up from outside, that would make our offense more dynamic and effective. That's the so-called "drive and kick". Note that Roy's isolation play also often ends up looking like drive & kick but that's obviously not what I want to talk about here. So the following clip doesn't include any "Roy doing it all" plays, he might initiate a few of them but definitely not dominate in any. Again it's debatable if this play belongs to the "player's basketball instinct" category or a grand offensive scheme like "Dribble-Drive Motion offense". However I am fairly certain the answer lies somewhere in between, that is, it depends on the coach's offensive system to create opportunities to drive & kick (same for cut) but on the other hand it's up to players to read the situation and make good decisions instantaneously on the basketball court.

What we've seen from time to time last season is our offense becoming stagnant with hardly any movement and relying too much on 1-on-1. Therefore hopefully we can see more plays like those to generate easy baskets in the next season. I expect to see improvements in this area given the personnel addition (Andre Miller), young guys' "organic growth" and coaching staff's intelligence.

So how did these analysis help me answer the questions I asked in the beginning of this post? In short, Roy's awesomeness and entire team's incredible offensive rebounding rate are no doubt two major reasons for the offensive efficiency number. But the offensive system that McMillan and assistant coaches have installed for the team is an equally, if not more, important factor. It features spacing, simplicity and discipline. It puts players in positions where they know how to operate. It looks easy but I'm sure hard to be executed well. It's far from a perfect offensive system but I doubt anyone could argue against its effectiveness and efficiency.

I do see some areas for improvement, though. First of all I'd like to see more plays resulting in inside shots rather than outside jumpers. Like Oden's roll to the hoop in the P&R, Batum and LMA's cut to the basket, Rudy's drive when he is wide open...etc. Secondly I'd like to see our guards - especially Blake and Roy - making more risky passes to the paint, especially to Oden. I am optimistic about the improvement in the next season because of the reasons stated above (Andre Miller & organic growth)

What do you think about my study? Do I miss or understate anything? Do I over-emphasize a certain points? I hope this post can be a starting point, followed by more in-depth analysis and comments from all of you BEdgers.