In basketball, the objective is pretty straightforward. Score as many points as possible and prevent your opponent from doing the same. That leads to the obvious question of which shots give you the best chance to score as many points as possible. Much of the so-called analytics revolution has focused on this question. Corner threes, shots at the rim, and free throws became en vogue overnight as the gospel of Daryl Morey made its way around the league.
Unfortunately, "threes, rim, or free throws" isn’t an offensive system (unless of course you’re content to let Harden or Howard go one-on-one 63 times a game in a parade to the free throw line more unwatchable than that thing Macy’s does on Thanksgiving). That leaves coaches with the difficult task of designing plays that result in good shots for their best players.
Even "get good shots" isn’t specific enough to really begin designing an offense. A better question coaches ask is "who are my best players and what are they good at?" This lets a coach select certain actions that maximize each player’s potential. These actions could be anything from a high pick and roll to a down screen to a post-up. You’ll often hear Stotts talk about "putting guys in a position to succeed" and he’s talking about matching guys with the actions that best fit their skill sets. Damian Lillard in high pick and rolls. LaMarcus Aldridge in the post. Wesley Matthews coming off down screens. Each guy has specific situations in which they are most dangerous.
For that reason, one of the best ways to evaluate an offensive system is simply in terms of quantity and quality. What offensive system crams the most actions into 24 seconds? The more seamlessly an offense moves from one action to the other the more opportunities the offense has to score and the defense has to make a mistake.
Quick aside: If you ever watch the Spurs play, notice how quickly they get into their offense. Typically, Tony Parker will run down the court, pass to the wing and cut to the rim all without breaking stride. By the time the shot clock has hit 18 seconds the Spurs have already executed their first cut and are moving into a side pick and roll. With 18 seconds left, the Blazers are just crossing half court waiting for a wing to cut up the court and receive the ball.
Quality has to do with the actions themselves. How difficult is it to defend each individual action? To maximize this, coaches put their best players in situations where they are most dangerous and then structure the rest of the offense to make it even more difficult for the defenders. Stotts will often have guys cut or screen on the opposite side of the court to distract help defenders. He will also stagger actions in a specific order so that defenders are out of position as a result of defending the previous action. Here’s a perfect example.
Stotts knows a Batum-Lopez pick and roll is a high quality action. But he makes it even more difficult to guard by running Batum off a dribble hand-off with Aldridge first. This forces Batum’s defender to take a trailing position. As a result, it’s much harder for him to fight through Lopez’s screen and Batum gets to the rim easily. That action was really difficult to defend because it matched up with the players’ skills and was set up by the movement before it.
Looking at an offense from this perspective not only helps us understand the logic behind specific plays, but also helps us evaluate players. Beyond appraising individual skills like shooting or ball handling, this perspective shows us why players need to be self aware. No play is ever going to be a perfect match for the players on the court. At some points you’re going to have a big man with the ball along the perimeter or a wing with no dribble drive game in a pick and roll. It’s impossible to avoid these things for obvious reasons. Imagine having different plays for each combination of players. There’s no way anyone could remember them all.
As a result, it’s critical that players understand when they’re dangerous and when they’re not. If a player is dangerous in the pick and roll, then he needs to be aggressive in that situation. If he’s not, then the player needs to run the pick and roll but look to pass so the offense can get to the next action as quickly as possible.
Sometimes players will be aggressive at the wrong times, mucking up the entire offense. We might call these "Thomas Robinson Tendencies". His spins to the rim and unproductive jab steps are painfully obvious, but Dorrell Wright is also a consistent, more subtle offender.
The Trail Blazers and Mavericks have very similar offenses that often put wings in pick and rolls or dribble hand-offs. This is one reason the Mavericks gave Chandler Parsons such a lucrative contract. Parsons has flaws, but he is exceptional in the pick and roll for a SF. The Mavericks knew that having someone like that in their offense would put more pressure on the defense and help them keep their offense flowing. So far they’ve been right, positing the best offensive rating in the history of the NBA even though Parsons’ shooting percentages are way below his career averages.
Nicolas Batum is another SF that thrives in pick and rolls and his game has taken a predictable leap after Stotts took over. Wesley’s dribble drive has been a pleasant surprise and both these players have proven they’re dangerous in these situations. Dorell Wright thinks he is too, but often when he attacks off a pick and roll he doesn’t even make it below the foul line. And even if he does, Wright hasn’t shown the ability to read the help defense and pass to open shooters or the rolling big man.
What usually happens is Dorell takes a dribble or two towards the hoop, gets cut off at the foul line and picks up his dribble. This lets the defense reset and it takes a beat for Dorell Wright to pass out of trouble. This reset is key because it makes the next action much easier to defend.
Imagine if instead of attacking and picking up his dribble he did a dribble hand off with Steve Blake. Don’t you think Blake would have had a little more space on his pull up jumper if he had a running start and E'Twaun Moore had to chase him around Dorell?
Wright would be better off to forego the two dribbles toward the hoop and just look to swing the ball straight away. This would keep the defense moving and give other players more time to do something productive. Not surprisingly, Mr. Cool Breeze Allen Crabbe takes this approach, going with the flow and not forcing anything on the offensive end.
If the pass isn’t there, Crabbe has an easy dribble hand off to Lillard coming out of the corner and towards Aldridge for another high pick and roll. Either way, the Blazers are going to run a dangerous, difficult to defend action. This is only possible because Crabbe keeps his dribble around the perimeter rather than being cut off on an ill-advised trip to the hoop.
Crabbe might be a little less talented on offense than Wright, but he understands his role better. As a result, he has a more positive effect on the offense as a whole. The offense has scored 21 fewer points every 100 possessions with Wright on the floor, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Wright has only played 41 minutes with weird lineups so it’s unclear what these numbers really mean. Still, that’s pretty shocking. To put that in perspective, that’s equal to the difference between the Blazer’s third best offense and the laughing stock 76ers. Crabbe on the other hand, has had a net positive effect on the overall offense, if only slightly (+0.4 ORTG).
Ideally, we’d have all of last year’s data to compare as well. This is tricky because Crabbe hardly played and Wright spent so much time at the PF, totally changing his role. For completeness, the Blazers were just slightly worse on offense (-2.1 ORTG) and a little bit better on defense (-1.5 DTRG) with Wright on the floor last year. However, Wright was the PF in his two most used lineups and these lineups were also the most successful. I think his success in the PF position masked his struggles as a SF and would argue this year’s trends aren’t all that new.
If Wright were to keep the offense moving and avoid stagnancy then he would be useful to space the floor on offense. Unfortunately, Wright has been decidedly average in catch and shoot situations these past two years. He’s shot about 35% on catch and shoot threes in both seasons according to stats.nba.com. Crabbe on the other hand is stroking a cold 40% in those same opportunities. No matter which way you look, Crabbe is the better option on the offensive side of the ball.
But basketball is a two-way game, so what about defense? Dorell’s reputation as a good defender has always baffled me. Yes, he is very long and gets his fair share of deflections as a result. But that doesn’t make up for his mistakes guarding cutters and terrible close outs.
Any time your back is turned to the man you're guarding you know something has gone terribly wrong. This isn’t an isolated example. Don’t believe me? I encourage you to check out this highlight video. Note how Wright makes four pretty inexcusable mistakes in about five minutes of game time while guarding Omri freakin’ Casspi. That's turrible.
The Blazers are 11.1 points worse per 100 possessions on defense with Wright on the floor compared to 2.1 points better with Crabbe. Crabbe is by no means a stopper but at least he keeps his man in front of him and has received well-deserved praise from both coaches and players for always being in the right spot at the right time. For instance, compare Wright’s close out to this thing of beauty.
Mm mm! I do love some good footwork.
Wright still has some value to this team as a stretch 4 and against bigger small forwards. He battles hard down low, can stay in front of burlier players, and does much better when setting the screen rather than dribbling around it. However, with Meyers Leonard developing nicely this niche is shrinking as well. We knew that the young guns needed to play better if the Blazers were going to take the next step. That seems to have happened, but it has come with a few casualties. With 240 total minutes of game time, that’s just the nature of the beast. One player getting more minutes necessarily means taking them from someone else. There are still a few matchups when Wright can be useful, and there’s always injuries, but don’t hold your breath. Dorell Wright will likely spend most of this year on the bench and for good reason.
Now begins the reign of King Crabbe.