When the Trail Blazers embarked this summer on the massive rebuilding project that eventually produced the roster you're watching this preseason, the most glaringly obvious thing they were giving up was pure offensive talent. LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum averaged a combined 48.7 points per game for the Blazers last season, nearly half the team's total. Without those three guys, it was clear that the Blazers would need to rebuild their offense.
Aldridge was the team's primary post-up threat as well as a much-improved mid-range shooter; Matthews and Batum were two of Portland's best weapons from outside, with Matthews artfully running around screens to create open shots and Batum seamlessly finding ways to spot up from downtown himself. With those three guys, the Blazers' offense had an identity. Everything else fell into place around them.
That does not mean, however, that the Blazers lost all hope the moment their three headliners left.
I know - I was a bit nervous at first too. Back in July, as I processed the fact that Neil Olshey had replaced Aldridge, Matthews and Batum with Ed Davis, Gerald Henderson and Al-Farouq Aminu, I began to panic about the demise of the team's offense. They'd subbed out three stars for a limited post player, a fringe starter 3-and-D guy and an athletic wing with basically no jump shot. The worry set in - what if the Blazers had transformed overnight from one of the best shooting teams in the NBA to one of the worst?
Then I actually looked at the numbers and realized all my worries were silly.
|2015-16 Blazer||2014-15 FGA||2014-15 eFG%|
(League average eFG%: .486)
Forget what your gut tells you and look at the facts - the 2015-16 Trail Blazers are actually a team made up of very efficient shooters. I know. It surprised me too. The above chart lists every non-rookie on the Blazers' roster, sorted by their effective field goal percentages from last season. (In case you're wondering, eFG% is a modified version of FG% that counts each 3-pointer as 1.5 times the value of a 2-point shot, which makes sense because they're worth 1.5 times the points. It's a more level playing field to compare shooters who play different positions.) You'll note that seven guys on the roster were above league-average shooters last season, and not just any seven. With the possible exception of Crabbe, these are all guys who figure to be key cogs in Terry Stotts' rotation.
Studies have shown that a team's eFG% is the greatest predictor of its offensive success in a given season. It's better than raw field goal percentage, better than turnover rate, free throw rate, offensive rebound rate, you name it. If you shoot well, especially with a healthy dose of 3-pointers in the mix, you're going to put up points. Last year's Portland team put up a solid .508 eFG%, finishing No. 8 in the NBA; the Blazers also finished No. 8 in offense, averaging 108.2 points per 100 possessions. This was no coincidence; the correlation is real.
Well, get this. If you actually go through and do the math, the Blazers are actually a better shooting team on paper than they were a year ago. If you average out all of the above percentages, weighting each one by the player's number of attempts, you get a projected eFG% for this year's Blazers of .512. And that's just using last year's numbers. It's not at all unreasonable to predict this year's team should outperform the sum of its parts from last year - consider that Lillard had a down year as a shooter and may bounce back, that Leonard and McCollum will be weighted more heavily once they get more minutes and so on. Could the Blazers legitimately be better than the eighth-best shooting team in the league? Could they finish sixth? Fourth?
The Blazers lost a lot of talent in free agency this summer, including one of the game's best all-around power forwards and an army of capable wing scorers. Having said that, the new guys in Portland bring a wide variety of skills that should give Stotts a lot of room for creativity this season. In Davis and Plumlee, he's got two low-post guys who can add another element to the offense; in Henderson and the sure-to-be-promoted McCollum, he's got two spot-up shooters who create a lot of much-needed spacing with their shooting ability. And of course, you've got the returning Lillard and Leonard, who may well be the team's two leading scorers in 2015-16.
Though it's still early in the preseason slate, we're already seeing evidence that the Blazers will have the weapons to be offensively feisty all year long. No one cares about the individual stats or the game results that come out of early-October basketball, but what you can observe is the way teams function on both ends of the floor. Offensively, it looks like Stotts has already figured out a lot about the diverse set of skills his new group brings to the table.
Let's roll the tape from the Blazers' exhibition game earlier this week against Sacramento:
This might be the most interesting new development for the Blazers this season offensively - for the first time in a while, they have a 7-footer who's legitimately interested in finishing pick-and-rolls at the rim. Robin Lopez was never much of a finisher, and while Aldridge set a lot of picks in his time, he was always more comfortable popping out for mid-range jumpers, and he'd only venture into the low post selectively in certain matchups. With Mason Plumlee, however, it's his bread and butter.
Watch this play. After first Tim Frazier and then Moe Harkless try and fail to make something happen off of drive-and-kick actions, the Blazers' next move is a pick-and-roll between McCollum and Plumlee, with the Blazer big man screening Sacramento's Marco Belinelli before quickly diving to the rim. Belinelli and Plumlee's man, Willie Cauley-Stein, both zoom in on McCollum as he ventures into the paint, as they're both keenly aware that McCollum's a threat to nail a floater in the lane. As they're doubling McCollum, they're caught off guard as Plumlee sneaks behind them to get to the rim. Cauley-Stein is too far out of position to double back and contest Plumlee at the rim, and Plumlee scores easily against an overmatched helper in Quincy Acy.
The play works because the Blazers space the floor so well with multiple threats. McCollum can score from the elbow if he wants; he can also dump to Plumlee or fire a pass out to Harkless at the top of the key for a spot-up jumper. The Kings are paralyzed trying to stop all three possible actions at once, and Plumlee capitalizes nicely.
Of course, if the Blazers' bigs were rim finishers and rim finishers only, it wouldn't be too much trouble to contain them. But this group is scary because they're also just as comfortable beating you from outside:
Meyers Leonard is for real, you guys. It's looking more and more like Meyers is the one thing that even the modern NBA, with all its athleticism and length and defensive acumen, can't figure out how to stop - a true stretch five. According to data compiled at the NBA's predraft combine in 2012, Leonard is 7-foot-1 in shoes, with a wingspan of 7-foot-3 and a standing reach of 9 freakin' feet. With a dude that huge, you basically have to guard him with a center - but what center is comfortable chasing Leonard every possession out to the 3-point line, where he's always a threat to light you up?
On this possession, Leonard makes Sacramento's Kosta Koufos look absolutely silly. First McCollum breaks away in transition and has a 1-on-1 opportunity against Rudy Gay, who he could probably beat off the dribble; next, Allen Crabbe has the chance to do the same against Ben McLemore. But both Blazers pass up the scoring opportunity to look for a better one, and it turns out they're absolutely right to do so - Leonard is spotting up for a 3-point look at the top of the key, and Koufos is so far away he's practically inside the paint. By the time he realizes, "Oh, snap, that's Meyers Leonard who shot 42 percent from 3 last year," it's far too late for him to do anything about it. Leonard torches him.
So the Blazers can beat you by rolling to the rim, and they can light you up from outside as well. To round things out, let's look at how they use the mid-range attack to their benefit as well:
This is Lillard at his best. I've repeated this so many times I've lost count, but I'll say it again - my favorite thing about Damian Lillard is the artful way he finds tiny little spaces on the floor where he can squeeze off open jumpers, then attacks those spaces with ease.
Lillard starts this play with McLemore guarding him before an Ed Davis screen opens up the center of the floor for him to penetrate. The Kings defend the pick-and-roll by doubling down against a potential Lillard drive to the basket - Davis' man, Koufos, drops back to protect the rim, and McLemore hustles over the screen to chase Lillard from behind. Except Lillard refuses to be chased into the paint - instead, he pulls back, uses McLemore's momentum against him and lofts a fadeaway jump shot that McLemore's just a bit too far out of position to contest.
Relying on shot attempts like this one, which SportVU tracked as a 20-footer, is an iffy strategy. The average NBA player shot 39.4 percent last year on jumpers between 16 feet and the 3-point line, meaning teams average less than 80 points per 100 possessions on such attempts. But consider two things - one, Lillard is an above-average mid-range shooter, putting up a respectable 42.1 percent clip for his career, and two, the mid-range shot is a healthy part of a balanced diet. I wrote about this topic last year with respect to Aldridge, and it still holds true now for Lillard - taking the occasional mid-range shot is like betting with a bad hand in poker. Your odds may not be the best, but sometimes you need to bluff in order to keep your play unpredictable. Lillard, to his credit, is one of the best in the NBA at finding mid-range shot opportunities in unpredictable ways.
To summarize all of the above rambling: The Blazers' shooting repertoire is better than you think - and more diverse, too. Their collection of offensive talent has a lot of different ways to beat you, and already after just a week of training camp, they've figured out some creative ways for their various skills to interplay with one another.
This isn't to say that the Blazers' departed guys won't be missed. Putting together a great offense isn't just about adding up a bunch of shooting percentages on paper - there are a lot of other skills that matter a great deal. Portland will be weaker this season without Aldridge's ability to pound smaller defenders in the post, or Matthews' dogged effort running around screens and creating open shots. Setting aside the percentages, there's no doubt that those two were skilled at generating opportunities offensively. Losing those abilities will be troubling, for sure.
Still, I think the Blazers have enough proven offensive talent - both on paper and in the little flashes they've shown so far this preseason - to be a pleasant surprise this season. Bovada has them pegged for 26.5 wins this season, tied with division rival Minnesota for the second-worst mark in the NBA, but if they actually click offensively the way they should, that number seems hard to believe. It's pretty tough to be one of the best shooting teams in the league but finish tied for No. 28 in wins.
As NBA fans, we have an obsession with name recognition and star power, and that often paints the way we think about a team's prospects. The guys the Blazers lost in free agency this summer are rich and famous, and the incoming replacements are decidedly less so. To our biased fan minds, that equates to a weaker team. To an extent that might be true, but we need to be careful. Putting together a list of big names isn't everything. A team identity, a cohesive style of play and efficient production, ultimately, are more important than a payroll packed with star players. It might be early, and a lot may still be unknown, but for now, the Blazers appear to have the ingredients in place for a respectable season.