The 2015-16 regular season opens tonight for the Portland Trail Blazers. No team in the league underwent more changes this summer than Portland did. Therefore we bring you this primer to catch you up as you prepare for the new year.
If you're just saying hello to this year's Trail Blazers, here's what to expect:
1. Say hello to a much more dynamic offense.
You're familiar with the Trail Blazers playing unselfishly and efficiently, but predictably. Last year's offense centered around LaMarcus Aldridge with three-point shooters scattered around him to take advantage of defenses collapsing on the star. The Blazers found free space around the perimeter and camped in it, waiting for an opening to develop.
This year's Blazers will create their own free space through motion. Plays will originate with the guards, not the power forward. Everybody else will be blitzing through seams, not standing in them, making the defense move in response. Watch for forwards of all stripes diving towards the bucket without the ball. Watch for more effective off-ball screens as well.
2. All Offense Leads to the Rim
You don't have to be a genius to diagram Portland's offensive attack this year. You don't even need X's and O's. Just make like Patton planning a five-column attack on an enemy encampment. Draw five arrows, point every single one of them at the rim. You're done.
The off-ball movement we just talked about will produce alley-oops. Guards will drive and dish. Bigs will set picks and roll to the hoop in traditional fashion instead of fading out for the pick and pop. Everything goes towards the center of the lane, which will become the hot zone for Portland's offense.
3. They'll still shoot threes, but...
Here's something you need to understand about Portland's new acquisitions. Collectively they have the range of John Wayne wearing a tutu. You know exactly what you're going to get from them offensively. If they stray outside of their comfort zone--dancing ballet instead of leading a wagon train--it's going to get ugly.
The three-pointer will remain an integral part of Portland's offense. Opponents are going to collapse into the lane, daring the Blazers to beat them from outside.
Last year the Blazers shot just over 36% from deep, good for 8th in the league. During the pre-season they managed a respectable 34.5% but that would have ranked them 17th in the league last year. There's a better chance of those numbers sinking than rising against committed NBA defenses. If the Blazers can't hit the three, attacking the rim becomes more difficult.
Side Note: Portland attempted more threes per game in the pre-season (29) than they did per game last year (27). The latter mark put them fourth in the league. Could sagging defenses encourage the Blazers to shoot even more threes this year? If so they'll need to hope volume makes up for accuracy.
4. Forget the bail out to the post.
For at least 6 of the last 9 years the Blazers have had an airtight option when they got in trouble: throw the ball to LaMarcus Aldridge. Whether in the deep post under Nate McMillan or the extended post under Terry Stotts, Aldridge was the first, last, and best option when Portland's offense struggled.
Not only is Aldridge gone now, Portland hasn't gotten anyone to replace him in the post. Ed Davis, Mason Plumlee, and Noah Vonleh can play with their back to the basket, but none of them are accomplished yet. Seeing the ball dumped inside for a post-up play will merit more of a gasp of horror than a sigh of relief this year. It'll be a sign that the Blazers have run out of other things to try.
5. Damian Lillard is now The Man.
In case you missed Damian Lillard's off-season progress, it ran roughly like this:
1. Sign a monster extension with no opt-out, keeping him with the team for the next half-dozen years.
2. Appear at a press conference during which every other member of the organization hailed him as the focus of all things Trail Blazer-related.
3. Shill for Adidas as they released 62 variations of his signature shoe.
4. Call together the entire team for pre-training-camp practices.
5. Walk like the Big Man on Campus through the entire pre-season, turning in huge scoring performances and having the camera cut to him a dozen times over every time he sat on the bench.
Damian Lillard isn't just a Trail Blazer, he's the Trail Blazer. You're going to see him handling the ball, diving to the hoop, taking whatever shots he wishes. You're going to see Lillard bobbleheads, commemorative cups, twisty straws, odor eaters, and anything else you can imagine sticking his face on. If you don't like Damian Lillard, this will not be a fun year for you.
Defenses will also focus in on Lillard more than ever before. In past years the mantra was, "Stop Aldridge and let Lillard attempt all the step-back threes he wants." This year Damian's going to be playing Macaulay Culkin against defenses full of Joe Pescis and Daniel Sterns out to get him from the opening tip. Buckle up.
6. Meyers Leonard and CJ McCollum will be huge.
If nobody takes the pressure off of Lillard in the offense--even for a few possessions--he's going to fatigue, shots will come tough, and efficiency will plummet. For 80% of his teammates, "taking pressure off of Lillard" will be limited to setting screens and diving to the hoop as we just described. Two notable exceptions will rise to the top.
Meyers Leonard is the only Blazer above 6'4" who has proven that he can hit a three-pointer regularly. If pre-season is any indication, Portland is committed to using his floor-stretching potential to the max. Leonard hanging near the three-point arc will draw one of the opposing big men out of the lane, clearing more space for Lillard to drive and his teammates to cut. Leonard will also be a primary outlet for passes out of the lane. His distance shooting will matter.
CJ McCollum is one of the few Blazers who can create his own offense at a level approaching Lillard's. Most of Portland's guards are capable of handling the ball but aren't great at scoring. McCollum will be an important pressure release valve in the offense, giving opponents a second target to concentrate on.
This team was built to feature the Lillard-McCollum-Leonard trio. You're going to see huge doses of these guys this year.
7. Offensive rebounds will be an important part of Portland's attack.
Every player the Blazers picked up this off-season features offensive rebounding as part of their portfolio. Some of the bigs have offense so limited that put-backs are their only sure method of scoring. Portland's worst-case scenario--guards chucking up circus shots against dedicated defenses--leaves plenty of misses available for these rebounding sharks to grab and convert. Rebounds will be the secret sauce in Portland's offensive burger.
8. The Blazers will run more than ever before and they'll look good doing so.
Terry Stotts' offenses have always supported early shots, but the veteran, halfcourt-based Aldridge teams didn't depend on pure fast breaking. That's going to change. If offensive rebounding is the first hallmark of Portland's newest players, athleticism and ability to finish on the run comes a close second. The Blazers are going to try and jam easy points down the throats of opponents, pressing their physical advantage and making up for any shortcomings in the halfcourt offense. They won't always succeed, but when they do get out they'll be devastating.
9. You'll see much more of an emphasis on forcing turnovers this year.
This was another area that the Aldridge-led Blazers conceded, favoring a percentage-based defense that catered to their length and relative lack of lateral quickness. That's changed now. You're going to see Portland play the passing lanes, swipe at dribblers, do anything the can to try and poke away the rock and streak to the other end. Aggression and athleticism will leech away some of the conservative approach we're used to seeing. Whether it'll end up more effective remains to be seen, but it should be more exciting.
10. The Blazers will commit turnovers too.
This may be one of the factors preventing Portland from turning their new-found athletic ability into a bankable advantage. It won't be enough for the Blazers to force turnovers. They'll have to force more and convert more points off of them than the opponent does. With a team this young, this inexperienced together, and this dependent on moving the ball, that may not happen. Get used to turnovers becoming a price of Portland's offensive approach.
11. Portland's defense will extend out on the floor, especially on screens.
Anyone who watched the team for the past two years will be familiar with their standard defensive philosophy. The big man "ices" screens, sagging back into the lane to guard the rim while the smaller defender tries to get around the pick and keep the dribbler/shooter in check. Portland's defensive system was designed to keep Robin Lopez in his defensive wheelhouse, which was essentially the lane.
Portland's bigs have about half the width and twice the lateral speed of Lopez now. They're not going to be walls of stone in the paint. Instead you're going to see switches, hedges, defensive techniques that take advantage of mobility instead of size. You're going to see big men roaming in uncharted territory, disrupting as much as protecting, turning Portland's defense into a de facto second arm of attack.
As an added bonus, you'll get the opportunity to see rangy center Mason Plumlee leading the break off turnovers from time to time. Set your DVR's to record now.
12. You're going to be way happier with the small forwards than you'd think.
Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless are not the polished, veteran, all-around tacticians that Nicolas Batum was. They run, they rebound, and they get after it defensively. They're neither smooth nor reserved; they're in your face. Neither one of them is afraid of the game or this league in the slightest. Both believe they should have gotten more of a shot to make it than they have prior to this point. You can see that aggression play out on the court.
Portland's small-forward duo will not be perfect. Some nights they're not even going to be good...either because it's not clicking for them or because there are too many similar players in the frontcourt for them to shine. But this will be as close to a return to the Jerome Kersey style of small forwarding as we've seen since #25 roamed the court in red and black. Effective or not, these young guys are going to sizzle.
13. When things go good the Blazers will look spectacular but when things go bad, they'll go awfully bad.
Last year's team operated on the tortoise principle: slow and steady wins the race. You could beat them for a quarter or a half, but eventually their small edges would catch them up and, on average, leave them ahead. They played beautifully, but it amounted to beautiful grinding.
This year's team is populated with hares. They're going to be fast, exciting, maybe even random. If an opponent isn't prepared, the Blazers might well steamroll them. But when the Blazers trip up, it'll be an Evel Knievel-level spectacle. They're capable of scoring 100+ and they're capable of scoring 80. They'll look like a playoff team one night, a lottery team the next. Better buy the case of antacid now. You'll need it.
The start of the regular season is only a few hours away now! Join us for our Gameday Thread discussions while the action is ongoing and for the best recaps and analysis anywhere after the game is done.
Welcome to the 2015-16 season, and Go, Blazers!