clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Portland Can Get Ahead of the Curve

Small ball and switching are two of the most recent trends in the NBA. How can the Blazers exploit these strategies and get ahead of the curve?

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Zach Lowe made a name for himself with a high level of detail and an ability to highlight broad trends within the league. Drawing on his strengths, Lowe's recent piece, We Interrupt This Eulogy for the NBA Post Game to Bring You Its Re-birth, details the league's stylistic evolution and how it's affected the value of the post up. Many have written about the popularity of stretch fours and the new focus on ball movement. What's somewhat new is the greater willingness of teams to switch screens in response. Lowe argues this development makes post play relevant once again and it has some interesting implications for the Blazers frontcourt.

Lowe covers a lot of ground in this article but here's a quick rundown. The league changed the hand checking and zone defense rules to open up the game and make it more entertaining. This made pick and rolls more effective and post ups more difficult. Teams responded by adopting Thibodeau's defense, overloading one side of the floor with help defenders. This forced offenses to space the floor and stretch fours became a critical part of every team. Now teams are going small more frequently, guarding those stretch fours with a smaller wing player. With that many playmakers on the floor, teams become almost unguardable and defenses have resorted to switching. This neuters the pick and roll attack but opens up opportunities elsewhere.

Most of those opportunities appear on the block. One of the easiest ways to burn teams when they switch is to isolate a mismatch in the post. This takes us full circle and raises the value of the post up once again. As a result, power forwards can no longer just shoot or play inside. They have to be able to do both. If they can't, their opponent will just change their scheme and render them ineffective.

LaMarcus Aldridge is an intriguing trump card in these types of situations. He's an elite post player who can also defend wings along the perimeter. This allows him to exploit small ball lineups on one end and hold his own on the other. His drive and kick game is pretty non-existent so it's not surprising that most teams play Portland straight up, electing not to switch. In fact, scoring against trapping or Thibodeau-style defenses may be the bigger challenge. That's where Meyers Leonard comes in.

It's dangerous to read too much into one series but Leonard's effect against Memphis was drastic. According to Basketball Reference, the Blazers had an offensive rating of 110.1 with Meyers on the floor and an offensive rating of 94.1 with him off. That's about the difference between the Dallas Mavericks and the Philadelphia 76ers this past year. It's a small sample size but we know how important shooting is and the offense just looked different when Leonard played. If Meyers can continue improving, it will be harder and harder to defend the Blazers with two traditional bigs.

Things become even more intriguing if Leonard can develop his post game and Aldridge can perfect his three point shot. Most small ball lineups feature at least one power forward or center. Meyers should be able to defend those types of players leaving Aldridge to defend the "extra" wing. If that combination can result in even an average defense it could create major opportunities on the offensive end.

Imagine Aldridge posting up a small forward with four shooters around him. That's terrifying! Opponents would likely stick a smaller player on Meyers forcing him to beat them in the post. Leonard will probably never be the post up player Aldridge is, but he's bigger and he's got incredible touch. Those two things should be enough for him to exploit mismatches down low. We've seen glimpses of a right handed hook and he could simply turn and shoot over most small forwards given his size. Leonard actually shot the ball extremely well out of the post (54.5% to be exact) but he turned it over on 35% of his possessions. That's terrible but those kinds of mistakes should be correctable. Aldridge could help by returning the favor and stepping out to the three point line. This would give Meyers more space and less arms swiping at the ball when he makes his move.

The result would be a lose-lose for the defense. Stay big and Leonard pulls a rim protector away from the paint giving Lillard and Aldridge extra space. Go small and Leonard or Aldridge can exploit mismatches in the post. Try to double and they can whip the ball around the perimeter. It's the deadly combination of shooting and post-ups that Lowe highlighted in his article.

The NBA game is constantly evolving. For most of the league's history, big men were expected to score inside. Then the rules changed and power forwards had to learn to shoot. Now that's no longer enough. As teams go small and switch, those shooters need to post up as well. There are very few players who can do both but Portland has a chance to develop two of them. If they can pull that off, opponents won't have anywhere to hide a perimeter player when they go small and will find it difficult to switch screens. These two strategies are becoming more and more popular and it will be interesting to see how teams react. Going to the post is one option and the combination of Aldridge and Leonard could help the Blazers get out ahead of the curve.