The Trail Blazers scored fewer fast break points per game last season -- 10.1, to be exact -- than all but five other teams in the NBA. In the playoffs, that total dipped to just 9.6 fast break points per game for Portland. Should Blazers coach Terry Stotts consider pushing the ball more next year?
According to NBA.com statistics, five of the top 10 teams in fast break points per game last year made the playoffs. The same is true for percentage of points from fast breaks, indicating that scoring more on the run does not ensure overall team success. But looking at the bottom of those categories below the Blazers, you'll see the Knicks, Hornets, Pacers, Nets and Heat -- five teams with a combined winning percentage of .398 for the 2014-15 regular season.
So even though Portland doesn't need to set its sights on becoming one of the league leaders in fast break points next season, sitting at or near the bottom of the NBA in fast break point production is hardly desirable, either.
The Blazers have the framework set up for pushing the ball more. With a pace of 96.46 -- the amount of possessions the team registers per 48 minutes -- Portland sits at No. 13 in the league. According to NBA.com SportVU statistics, the Blazers travel at an average speed of 4.2 miles per hour and cover 16.8 miles of ground per game. The disparity between the fastest and slowest teams in the NBA isn't huge, but nevertheless, Portland is among the league leaders in average speed and miles covered per game. This team has the physical tools to increase the pace a bit.
The best fast breaking teams in the league generally force more turnovers. The Blazers, on the other hand, forced fewer turnovers than any other team in the NBA last season, partially explaining why they're not scoring on the run as much as they could.
Portland plays a conservative brand of defense, minimizing gambles and valuing rebounds on that end of the floor. To that extent, the Blazers had a better defensive rebounding percentage (76.2) than all but five teams in the league last year.
That's fine, but could the Blazers unshackle themselves enough to become just an average fast breaking team without giving up too many of their defensive principles? The Wizards pushed the pace enough to score 15.5 fast break points per game last year (No. 6 in the league) and maintained a defensive rebounding percentage of 77.3 percent (No. 4), without gambling too hard on steals (13.3 opponent turnovers per game, No. 19 in the NBA).
No one would argue that Washington coach Randy Wittman employs one of the best offenses in the league, but his team is proof that it's possible to maintain defensive rebounding, not overextend on turnover opportunities and still score on the run. But Wittman has John Wall at his disposal, a quick point guard who likes to lead the break. Though Wall is a great defender, his points on the run are generally a result of his athleticism and ballhandling skills and not necessarily turnovers he creates.
Damian Lillard seems like the perfect candidate to lead the fast break for Portland, combining speed, a solid handle and an ability to finish in the lane.
But Lillard, going up against the league's best point guards on a nightly basis, probably has too much on his plate right now on the defensive end to worry about leaking out in transition and getting out in the open court. His focus should be on keeping his man in front of him, not allowing easy penetration and learning to deal with screens from big men that have heretofore all but eliminated him from entire plays.
Lillard's defense should improve over time. And along with that defensive improvement should come a more sharpened, potent fast break attack that can be comfortably utilized by Stotts. But Portland's coach should already be able to turn to his bench for tempo-pushing more often.
If GM Neil Olshey keeps Wesley Matthews in town this summer and either re-signs Robin Lopez or acquires aother starting-caliber center, Stotts will have at least two outstanding weapons on his bench next year: CJ McCollum and Meyers Leonard.
Blazers fans have been salivating over the offensive potential of McCollum and Leonard since both began to break into the rotation post-All-Star break last season, and each player earned his way into extended minutes in the first round of the playoffs against the Grizzlies. McCollum has a smooth handle, can create off the dribble, score from outside or attack the basket. Leonard is one of the most agile 7-footers in the game and brings floor-spacing to the center position like few others.
While Lillard has to face the Walls, Chris Pauls and Kyle Lowrys of the world on a nightly basis -- significantly increasing his load on both ends -- McCollum and Leonard will likely be seeing more action against reserves again next season. With a lighter defensive load, these two should ostensibly be able to pick up some of the slack on the fast break and push the tempo a little more without sacrificing too much of the scheme and general philosophies on that end.
Should Olshey choose to bring Tim Frazier and Alonzo Gee back -- two little-used players with lots of open-court potential -- Stotts would have even more weapons to turn to off the bench when he decides to push the ball a little harder.
The Blazers don't need to change their defensive style overnight in order to accommodate a quicker tempo by sacrificing defensive rebounds and gambling for steals more often, but Stotts has the horses on his bench to at least get out on the run and score earlier in the shot clock. Many a Blazer fan has felt McCollum's ballhandling ability and offensive skillset should allow him to assume some point guard duties off the bench. Why can't he lead the fast break? Leonard may not be the spearhead of a quicker attack at all times, but can't you envision him securing a defensive rebound, dribbling out and finding the outlet man in the open court more effectively than his starting frontcourt brethren?
McCollum and Leonard could potentially form a more well-rounded and powerful 1-2 punch off the bench if Stotts is willing to hand them the keys from time to time and give them the green light to run the ball. As Portland's offense has seen new wrinkles added and different individual players flourish in each of Stotts' first three years with the team, adding in a more robust fast break attack -- at least from the bench -- would seem like a natural progression.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter