A decade ago, the Blazers were one of the worst teams in the Western Conference, losing 55 games in the 2004-05 season and then 61 in '05-06. They've since turned it around and become one of the best franchises in the West, as they're now locking in their second consecutive season with a win total in the low 50s. What's the biggest reason for the Blazers' resurgence?
If you were to respond that they have two of the game's best 15 players in LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, I'd have trouble disagreeing with you. If, alternatively, you cited the team's reformed culture under a highly effective head coach in Terry Stotts, I'd respect that answer as well. But I've got another reason that's just as valid, in my opinion - it's not just about the personnel. It's also the way they play.
I want to take a moment to talk about 3-pointers. If you look at the way the game has evolved in the last decade, a dramatic increase in teams shooting the 3 has been one of the biggest changes - the average NBA team in '05 attempted just 1,292 shots from deep the entire season, whereas that's a laughable number in 2015. Even the Lakers, whose coach Byron Scott is petrified of long-range shooting, have 1,444 such attempts this year. There's also a definite correlation (this is a topic I've written about before) between percentage of 3-point shots and offensive efficiency that's increased over the years. Put simply, it's become important to shoot from deep if you want to be good. That's the reality in today's league.
Which brings us to the Blazers. Here's an interesting tidbit of news from Wednesday's win over Minnesota:
And the Blazers have set a new franchise record for three-pointers in a season— Casey Holdahl (@CHold) April 9, 2015
A new record for 3-pointers in a season! That's pretty cool. And what makes it even cooler is that the Blazers just keep breaking new ground, year in and year out. In fact, this is the third consecutive season that Portland has broken its own franchise record for 3s:
The Blazers' 10 most prolific 3-point shooting seasons:
Impressive. Of the Blazers' top 10 3-point shooting seasons ever, eight of them have come in the last decade, and the top three are their last three seasons, in order. Not coincidentally, those are the same three seasons they've had Lillard running the point and Stotts on the sidelines.
This year, the Blazers' reliance on the 3-point shot has been particularly noticeable. Not only are they taking shots from distance right up there with the most prolific teams in the league, but they're making them, too:
The NBA's most frequent 3-point shooting teams:
|Team||% of Shots From 3|
|Los Angeles Clippers||32.2%|
|Portland Trail Blazers||31.8%|
|Golden State Warriors||31.0%|
The NBA's best 3-point shooting teams:
|Golden State Warriors
|Los Angeles Clippers
New Orleans Pelicans
San Antonio Spurs
Portland Trail Blazers
When I say that the Blazers' success is largely attributable to the way they play, this is what I'm talking about. You can talk about the star power of Portland's leading men all you want, but Lillard and Aldridge only account for about 44.5 of the team's 103 points per game this season. In other words, 57 percent of the team's offense is coming from other sources. Predominantly, what the Blazers do offensively is play unselfishly, move the ball, and create open shots. This is a tendency that can benefit everyone on the roster, even the unheralded bench guys.
What I love about the Blazers' offense is their ability to use the 3-point shot effectively in a variety of situations. You know they're going to shoot a lot from long range, but they keep doing it in different ways with different guys. It's impossible for even an elite defense to take away every option. For example, they can be terrifying when they play an "inside out" style of offense that thrives by surrounding one post player with perimeter shooters:
This is just a classic example of Portland's dual-threat offense giving an opposing D more than it can handle. Watch Arron Afflalo here after he makes the post entry pass to set up LaMarcus Aldridge - he knows that the opposing Pelicans will have to devote their attention to collapsing into the paint and making it difficult for LMA, so he deftly cuts across the floor, at which point Tyreke Evans loses him and decides to double LMA instead.
This leaves the Pelicans with two defenders, Eric Gordon and Quincy Pondexter, guarding three excellent perimeter shooters - Afflalo, Lillard and Nicolas Batum. They're all spaced so well that it's impossible to close out on all three. Both defenders basically freeze up, and by the time Aldridge chooses to kick out to Afflalo for the 3, it's way too late for Evans to leap back to the 3-point arc and close out. Easy bucket for Afflalo.
The play works because Portland has too many weapons in too many different spots on the floor. Between Aldridge's post game and the army of shooters around LMA, you've just got to pick your poison.
Here's another example of the Blazers generating a clean 3-point look with effective ball movement, albeit a little differently this time:
Damian Lillard has become one of the absolute best players in the NBA at "driving with a plan." He's able to attack the paint knowing exactly what spot on the floor he can use to get off an open shot. He has crafty little moves he can use to create those six tiny inches of separation that he needs. Then again - even when he sometimes attacks aimlessly, as he does on this possession, the Blazers' offense executes so well that it still works. Watch what happens here. Lillard attacks, and even though there's no way he's getting to the rim, basically all five Clippers collapse on him and leave the 3-point line wide open. Lillard senses this, and he's able to fire the perfect pass into the corner for Afflalo - who waits for Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick to overcommit to him before making the extra pass for (an even more open) C.J. McCollum. Bang.
Both of the above plays work because of the singular greatness of one of Portland's stars. Either Aldridge or Lillard is so scary that opposing defenses obsess about stopping him, and that leaves someone else open. But it doesn't have to be that way with these Blazers - they also have a collaborative style of play that's less reliant on the superstar guy.
This play reminds me of watching the Atlanta Hawks, who are the ultimate "collaborate, move the ball and shoot" team. If you watch Atlanta play, they basically use a "five-out" system where all five guys stand on the perimeter and move the ball incessantly until they can find an open shot. That's basically what the Blazers do here, in a possession where Aldridge is out of the game and Lillard is mostly standing off to the side. Instead, the Blazers score with effective screening and passing.
Rather than use their bigs as legit post players, like Aldridge back in that first clip, the Blazers use Robin Lopez and Meyers Leonard here as screeners to create open shots for their perimeter guys. So you have this play starting with a pick-and-roll between Lillard and Lopez on the right side - and while that doesn't work, they also have Leonard on the left side screening Joe Johnson to create an open shot for Afflalo. Leonard's man, Thaddeus Young, stays back to protect against a potential roll to the rim, and Johnson tries to get through the pick and close out, but he's not there in time. Afflalo drills a 3 in his face.
There's been a lot of "gloom and doom" talk about the Blazers these last few weeks - about how the injuries to Wesley Matthews and others have sapped them of their firepower and left them basically as dead men walking as the playoffs await next week. I think, based on the solid offensive play we've seen from the Blazers in their recent games, all of that might be a little bit overblown.
All of the shots you watched above are recent (all since April 1, in fact, so the last 10 days). All came without Wesley Matthews (or Dorell Wright, for that matter) on the floor. All are proof that the Blazers have a complex, multidimensional offense that thrives for other reasons beyond their obviously productive star players. The stars are a huge part of it, yes, but the Blazers have a depth of guys who all contribute in significant ways:
The Blazers' massive horde of above-average 3-point shooters:
|(2014-15 NBA average)||35.0%|
The irony here is that while the Blazers are known for their top-heavy construction, with the stars carrying the vast majority of the workload, the Blazers' three lead guys are the three names not seen on this list. Lillard, Aldridge and Batum have all averaged worse than 35 percent shooting this season.
To me, this is heartening. It's evidence that maybe, just maybe, the Blazers have reason to be optimistic as the playoffs approach.
Have they suffered some injuries and whatnot? Sure. Is their personnel somewhat depleted? Yeah, you could say that. But regardless, the Blazers have depth, and what's more, their style of play lives on - and I suspect that come later this month and beyond, they'll go as far as that style can take them.