After the Portland Trail Blazers' contest with the San Antonio Spurs we offered reflections on why the Blazers were having a hard time succeeding. The piece was team-based, systemic. Since then folks have been asking how individuals factor in. Where are the players falling apart and what can be done about it?
In this piece I've made a conscious choice not to hammer the inevitable. The Blazers have faults that won't be fixed this side of the off-season. Covering defense or picking apart the bench would take us all day. Instead we're going to look at Portland's five starters and cite 1 or 2 factors which may be contributing to Portland's difficulties. These factors are adjustable. Most have been better at some point this year. Finding a way to restore them would either lead to or be evidence of improvement..
LaMarcus Aldridge looks hurt, pure and simple. The mobility with which he punctuated his moves in November and December is a distant memory.
Aldridge has an affinity for the left block. He's developed a cornucopia of scoring options from that side of the floor, all of which were on display earlier this year. He'd post deep and turn over either shoulder for the short shot or up-and-under. He'd post farther out and go for the turn-around or spin-drive. Outside of the post he'd set screens and slip them quickly, finding face-up jumpers from 18 feet. Variety made Aldridge dangerous. Even when anticipating the turn-around defenders had to respect everything. It was impossible for a single man to prevent all those modes of attack. Guard him straight up and Aldridge would score against your weak point. Send an extra man and you'd be open to Portland's shooters. Few defenses solved that problem, at least not for 48 minutes. Aldridge became the hammer, breaking down the opposing scheme and watching his teammates dance in the rubble.
Slower, more ground-bound, Aldridge has been limited to two options lately. The turn-around from the post is still his favorite. The face-up drive comes second. But when he drives he no longer gets past anybody, instead having to clear out a defender with his forearm in order to get a jumper off. Not only are these moves predictable, they don't require a double-team. The turn-around can't be bothered by an extra defender (and doesn't need to be, as it's the least efficient option). The spin-drive-forearm combination is slow enough that a single defender can keep Aldridge away from the lane.
That lack of double-teams is a real killer. Playing off Aldridge, the Blazers used to feast on open threes. If they missed a couple, you knew more would come. Sooner or later, somebody was getting open. Open Blazers seldom missed. Now nobody's open except Wesley Matthews upon occasion. Shots from Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum come farther beyond the arc and usually over traffic instead of in between it. With every shot and pass covered, Portland's fluidity disappears, tempo slows, points come harder, percentages drop across the board. Suddenly the "best offense in the league" can't keep its owners afloat.
One of the big challenges for Damian Lillard coming into this season was assimilating into the offense. Last year, particularly late in the season when things fell apart for the team, Lillard was one of the only bright spots. Pretty much whatever he did would merit a Rookie of the Year cheer. Expectations were higher this season. Being great individually was not enough. Lillard needed to be great in a team context, in an offense that involved him deeply but was not always centered around him.
Lillard's efficiency has been, and remains, high. He's one of the Blazers' best options. But as the season has progressed an option has turned into the option. Early in the year Lillard was playing off-ball, getting his shots in the flow, picking his spots. He'd wait until his team needed him to dominate, then control the action. Otherwise he seemed content with others handling the ball.
Several factors have conspired to change that. As we just mentioned, nobody gets free looks anymore. This lessens Lillard's ability to play away from the action. Now when he's watching, he's watching teammates struggle. This puts more demand on him to step up, change the game, create scoring possessions. Lillard remains one of the only Blazer players able to convert off his dribble. With everybody else guarded and immobile, that option gets pushed harder. Who else can escape for the good look?
Mo Williams, the other guy who can create for himself, used to be Lillard's wingman. Finding Damian for open looks was a priority when the season began. Williams still gets assists but, perhaps feeling the same offensive pressure as Lillard, Mo has gone into business for himself. If Damian wants a chance at the bucket, he has to create it out of whole cloth.
Under these conditions, Lillard's offense has started to revert. Dribble attacks are up. Three-point shots are coming earlier in the clock and with fewer preceding passes. Turnovers are increasing, particularly when he tries to pass the ball. (Further encouragement to keep it.)
Whenever the Blazers fall behind, every quarter starts to look like the fourth quarter for Damian. The spiral becomes pronounced. Somebody has to generate offense. The more Lillard does himself the less his teammates are producing. The less his teammates are producing the more Lillard has to do himself. Welcome to your absolutely necessary 8-22 night.
One further note on Lillard and Aldridge. Correlation is not causation, but Portland's offense became more isolation-bound, more star-oriented at roughly the same time the ramp up to All-Star weekend hit full swing. For weeks the question became less, "Is Portland winning?" and more, "Are Damian and LaMarcus going to make the All-Star Game?" It's not like they started dominating the ball instantly, but you saw more and more possessions start and end with one person. Their teammates seemed to defer as well. It was almost like the heretofore revolutionary Blazers slid into traditional NBA habits chasing the traditional NBA reward.
Motives are hard to define, impossible to prove. But I wonder if the team didn't get distracted during that stretch, stuck in a negative feedback loop hallmarked by diffused focus and mixed results.
In years past we've compared Nicolas Batum's production to an EKG chart. You'd get spikes of amazement followed by dips and a significant flat space. He's gotten past that mostly, finding a way to contribute every night. Nowadays he's the Graphic Equalizer, each stat represented by a bar, going up and down as games progress. Points, rebounds, assists, defense...something's going up and something else is coming down. What you get depends on the night, the opponent, and Batum's mood.
A couple solid trends have emerged as the season has progressed:
1. Batum's assists rose steadily through January but have fallen precipitously since.
2. Batum's three-point percentage has varied directly with his number of attempts, low when he takes fewer triples, high when he takes more.
These trends are a good barometer of Portland's offense. Fewer people are getting open for weak-side threes. Iso sets from Aldridge, Lillard, and Williams are more common, everything else less.
Remember the beginning of the season when it seemed the ball passed through Batum's hands with regularity, when those possessions finished in a nifty assist or a dagger three? Now Batum runs the occasional pick and roll with Robin Lopez or fires a really deep three, if he plays any important role at all.
Is Nicolas Batum following the offensive difficulties or contributing to them? Probably both. Batum playing freely, easily, and at a focal location in the offense would be one of the first signs things have gotten better. Short of demanding the ball and making everyone else move around him he can't make that happen on his own. But he doesn't help by shying away from such opportunities, nor by letting the game go by him.
We've asked for more aggression and less vanishing from Batum since his second year in the league. Chances are that wish won't be granted. But if Batum could focus enough to eliminate the glaringly bad performances his team would benefit. His great games are great. He's learned enough to be able to contribute even on his mediocre nights. All well and good. But we still get outings where he's turning his head, giving up on plays, refusing shots, abandoning fundamentals with the shots he does take, and shying away from the moment. The last thing the Blazers need right now is fewer options.
The Blazers don't need Batum to be fantastic. They don't need him to be a star. (Though I can't shake the feeling that he's waiting for an opportunity to be fed the ball as the hub of an offense, not stepping up fully in any situation short of that.) They just need him to eliminate momentum-robbing possessions. Batum provides so many things for this team that him taking a quarter off is like leaning against a wall that, unbeknownst to you, is no longer there. No matter who you are, you're going to lose your balance that way. When the team was running well that was annoying. At this point it's a significant detriment.
Wesley Matthews can do a lot of things. He only needs to do one in order for Portland to succeed: hitting the catch-and-shoot, weak-side three with regularity. If he's doing that, everything else is gravy. If he's not, 20 points might not be enough to rescue the game.
Matthews shot 52% from distance in November, an amazing and unsustainable clip. In the intervening months he's come to rest at 37%, 38%, and 37% again...adequate but not amazing. March has been a disaster. So far he's shooting 31% from beyond the arc. That will not get it done.
When Matthews misses an open three an echo reverberates from strong side to weak and back again. The stars get pressured. Matthews can't relieve it. The stars feel less confident getting the ball to Wes, keep it themselves, and feel even more pressure. Meanwhile Matthews gets less confident firing, gets fewer attempts, and starts looking for different shots that don't help the team as much. Instead of sharing the ball and making each other look good, everybody's nervous with the ball and making each other look bad.
Somebody has to break this. Since opponents are unlikely to stop interfering with the shots of Lillard and Aldridge, Matthews needs to stroke every open shot he gets with confidence, if not duplicating his 50% rate at least approaching 40% again. Until that happens the Blazers will be bound to isolation-based kludge. Say what you want about Aldridge's prowess on the left side, Lillard driving from the top, or Matthews posting on the right side, none of it will be as successful as the kick-out threes Portland's offense is designed to get.
Robin Lopez doesn't need to do much differently. He's the one starter playing at near-peak efficiency, giving near-maximum effort.
Lopez's also has limitations...inherent, non-negotiable, and at this point much-discussed. Summarizing: as soon as you see Robin more that 3 feet outside the lane on the defensive end the Blazers are in trouble. Teams with jump-shooting centers take a huge hunk out of his game and, by extension, out of Portland's.
Increasingly the Blazers need to be concerned with centers who can match up with Lopez physically as well. Word is starting to get around. You don't have to get the rebound in order to beat the Blazers, you just have to keep Lopez from getting it. Control the glass and you control the Blazers. They can't live without their own offensive rebounds and second-chance points, nor can they live allowing the opponent to match their numbers in those areas.
Lopez fares well on the offensive end if the floor is spread and the lane is clear. The paragraphs above make clear that this is not happening on a regular basis nowadays. No space to cut or sweep a hook means no offense from Robin.
The Blazers need to rally around Lopez, making sure they're honoring his effort by covering for him on rotations, channeling their men into him, and hitting the boards when he's otherwise occupied. His offense is less critical but they should understand that Lopez dunking is a sign that their spacing has gone right. If he's never free, the lane and the arc probably aren't either. Lopez doesn't look good because he's a star. He looks good because things are going exactly the way the Blazers want them to. The same holds true in reverse when he doesn't look good. Absent execution and 5-man cohesion, the Blazers end up leaving their blue-collar guy hanging in the breeze.
The million-dollar question, of course, is how these issues can be fixed. Some, like Aldridge's health, may improve naturally. But in most cases fixing an individual problem won't have the desired effect if the environment doesn't improve. Lillard can opt out of the isolation mindset all he wants. If Aldridge is hobbled, Matthews isn't hitting his threes, and Batum has checked out it won't matter a bit. Collectively and individually the Blazers have to look in the mirror, assess what's going askew, resolve to work on the part of the issue they can control, and trust that every other player is doing the same.
More than anything, demonstrating that they recognize and are working on their issues may be a key. Batum diving on the floor, Lillard looking Matthews in the eye and saying, "I'm going to you", Aldridge continuing to attack the paint...overt acts like this build trust and eventually work wonders. The opposite also holds. The more we see the starters operating in their own little bubbles--walking to timeout huddles without glancing up or speaking to each other, pointing fingers and shrugging shoulders instead of slapping fives and picking each other up off the court--the less overall improvement we're likely to see. Even if we can't follow the intricacies of each play during a game we should be able to gauge Portland's approach by their emotion and actions. Detached and silent means more of the same. Animated, energetic, and sacrificing for each other heralds an uptick.
Whether communication and emotion follow in the wake of improvement or provide the catalyst for it is impossible to answer. But the Blazers need the whole bundle right now: communication, emotion and positive energy, and improved results. Their system has flaws. Each individual does as well. That hasn't stopped them from winning 42 games thus far...less by eliminating those flaws than by overcoming them. They have to remember how they did that, accentuate the best parts of their game instead of falling prey to their worst instincts, expend energy making each other look good, and encourage every individual to do the same.