What's the key to competing in basketball games? Talent is the obvious answer, but in the NBA, every team has talent. From the mighty Golden State Warriors to the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, every lineup fields a team of the top 1% of players in the world.
An equally important, and often overlooked, factor is style of play. No team is perfect in every facet of the game, and it is up to the coaching staff to not only motivate players to play their best, but to design offensive and defensive systems that will put their players in a position to succeed, by playing to their strengths. Imagine 2005-era Steve Nash playing in a possession-limiting, grind it out offense; still a great player, but not maximizing his strengths out in the open court, and therefore the strength of the team.
Coach Terry Stotts has done an admirable job tweaking his offensive system to maximize his talent with the Portland Trail Blazers thus far. This is essentially the same offense he designed as an assistant coach in Dallas, utilizing an elite, floor spacing power forward as the focal point, and generating controlled perimeter motion, designed to free up 3 point shooters for high percentage looks.
With much of the team's offensive firepower having departed this offseason, including 4/5 of the starting lineup, Stotts is going to have to look at his new roster and make some stylistic adjustments. While it's difficult to predict what will happen in terms of set offense in the half court, one key to the Blazers' success this year will be easy to predict; utilizing the fast break.
The Blazers roster, as currently constructed, is built to run. New additions Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, and Moe Harkless all have games predicated on athleticism. Being a good transition team requires more than being able to beat your man to the other end of the court, however. It also demands commitment, an ability to force turnovers, and defensive rebounding.
Let's talk rebounding first, since this will be the easiest way for the Blazers to get out on the fast break. This roster is big, athletic, and there is every reason to expect that they will keep their opponents off of the offensive glass. Defensive Rebound Percentage (DRB%) is an estimate of the percentage of available defensive rebounds a player grabbed while he was on the floor. Outgoing big men Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge had a DRB% of 13.1% and 22.9%, respectively. Incoming bigs Mason Plumlee (21.6%), Ed Davis (23.1%), and Noah Vonleh (25.3%) have proven to be monsters on the defensive glass. Returning F/C Meyers Leonard also gathered up 25.3% of available defensive rebounds last year. Replacing Batum (15.6%) with Aminu (18.4%) is yet ANOTHER upgrade on the defensive glass. Do you see a pattern here?
Of course to take advantage of these rebounds, the team needs to be committed to running. Transition basketball is a state of mind. The Blazers will need to work their drills until running becomes second nature and everyone automatically fills their lane. This can be taught, but much of it is instinctual. This is where players like Aminu and Harkless are so valuable; they have long, fast strides and always look to get to the rim. Look for a lot of fast break layups from these two guys. Having Davis, Leonard, Plumlee, or Vonleh as the trailer for lob/put back opportunities is going to create a lot of excitement in the Moda Center this year.
Well, it can't all be roses, right? The biggest challenge the Blazers face in the transition game is on the defensive end. It's pretty simple; if the opponent makes their shot, you've got to inbound the ball instead of streaking up court and finding a seam in a backpedaling defense. It's pretty well accepted that the Blazers will struggle on defense this season. I tend to agree with that forecast. This team is going to struggle with man to man coverage on the perimeter, and will need to rely on quick rotations and hedging on screens in order to survive.
The Blazers can still generate transition opportunities through their defense by learning to play the passing lanes. Opportunities abound in lazy passes. Though an undersized one on one defender, CJ MCCollum already excels at jumping the passing lane off the ball. Should the Blazers commit to playing the passing lanes a bit more, they could get out and run.
However, this is a high risk/high reward scheme. If a wing jumps out in the lane and guesses wrong, he's automatically beaten. This is where inside awareness from the big men is so critical. Rotation needs to be automatic, from one big picking up the now open and driving opponent, and the weak side big man covering the first's defensive assignment. When this doesn't happen quickly enough, bad things go down. How many times over his first two years did we see Meyers Leonard get dunked on while literally looking in a different direction? An extreme example, but this is what happens when internal rotation doesn't happen quickly enough. Should the Blazers scheme to take more gambles on the perimeter, their interior defense will need to have their own game plan to execute.
Young teams that are expected to struggle typically want to limit possessions and play half-court basketball. This not only teaches fundamentals through the repetition of running a set offense, but limits the amount of possessions per game that the opponent can exploit its weaknesses. Fewer shots = fewer opportunities to look bad. However, this year's Blazer team has advantages in size, athleticism, and rebounding. The best way to utilize these strengths is by creating opportunities to run.