As the NBA offseason slowly creeps along -- training camp opens in late-September and preseason games begin the first week of October, about two months from now -- many fans and pundits have moved on from processing the Trail Blazers' recent transition from contender into rebuilding project to raising legitimate questions about the on-court product next season.
How will Damian Lillard shoulder even more of the offensive load while drawing the focus of opposing defenses? Where will the three-point shooting come, and will coach Terry Stotts tweak his defense or opt to get out in transition next season?
These are all valid inquiries and, like many questions raised at this point in the summer, prognosticators will have to wait until the team takes the court this fall and the games start counting to be able to draw any sort of reasonable conclusions. Still, Blazers GM Neil Olshey has acquired a host of young talent over the last several weeks, including players who've earned enough minutes on the court with their previous teams and produced enough statistical evidence to pore through and deliberate over how their individual talents will mesh with the rest of Portland's core.
Fortunately for hardcore Blazer fans (it's early August, you're reading a Blazers blog and you're four paragraphs into another piece about the upcoming season; you're probably a pretty hardcore fan) and the people who write about them deep into the summer, NBA.com provides an abundance of various statistical odds-and-ends into which one can dig as deeply as desired.
Chief among this treasure-trove of data held in the vault over at the NBA's website for many basketbloggers and their readers are the fancy, sorta-new SportVU team and player-tracking statistics.
Here's how the league describes the advanced tracking technology it's employed each of the last two seasons:
Using six cameras installed in the catwalks of every NBA arena, SportVU software tracks the movements of every player on the court and the basketball 25 times per second. The data collected provides a plethora of innovative statistics based around speed, distance, player separation and ball possession. Some examples include: how fast a player moves, how far he traveled during a game, how many touches of the ball he had, how many passes he threw, how many rebounding chances he had and much more.
Included among the SportVU stats are scoring and shooting numbers for both the screener and ballhandler in pick-and-roll situations. And because the pick-and-roll -- or some variation of it -- is the bread-and-butter play for the majority of offenses in the modern NBA, let's see how Lillard might be able to work his ballhandling magic next season with the reconstructed frontcourt.
It's fairly common knowledge among Blazers faithful that power forward Ed Davis and center Mason Plumlee, both newly acquired this offseason, are limited with their shooting range. Each has, to some degree, a reputation for finishing well at the hoop, though, which would make either player a likely candidate for operating in the pick-and-roll with Lillard. Big man Meyers Leonard has the physical tools to finish at the rim, but can also combine his outside shooting ability to create a devastating pick-and-pop tandem with Lillard.
Though Stotts is likely to run some variation of side pick-and-roll action like he's done in years past with small forward Nicolas Batum and center Robin Lopez, we'll focus mainly on Lillard and the big men. Noah Vonleh would be included here, but he didn't warrant enough minutes last year in Charlotte to register any meaningful SportVU stats. We'll throw 33-year-old veteran center Chris Kaman in along with Leonard, Davis and Plumlee, however, to help provide a more clear picture.
The first thing that jumps off the page when looking at these statistics is that Lillard participated in 767 pick-and-roll situations as the ballhandler last year -- No. 1 in the league. His 0.9 points per possession (PPP) rank him near the upper-tier for all players, but he's slightly less productive in the pick-and-roll than elite points guards like Chris Paul and Steph Curry, who both averaged .96 PPP last season. Still, Lillard is not only comfortable in the pick-and-roll, he is an above-average scorer in those situations. A 46.3 percent effective field goal percentage could use some work, but again, it's not a terrible shooting percentage in the pick-and-roll, particularly considering that he came off more on-ball screens than any other player in the league last season; Opposing teams knew it was coming, and could thus game plan defensively.
As far as the screen-setter is concerned -- the "roll man" -- Portland lost Lopez and his 1.17 PPP average, which made him the Blazers' best scorer when rolling to the hoop in pick-and-rolls and among the best big men in the league. Literally and figuratively, Davis, Plumlee and Leonard have big shoes to fill next year when it comes to setting screens and rolling to the hoop.
But LaMarcus Aldridge was not a great roll man, averaging an underwhelming .83 PPP in pick-and-rolls and shooting a mediocre-at-best effective field goal percentage of 41.2 percent. On top of that, he amassed those stats in 263 pick-and-roll possessions as the screener -- No. 7 in the league! The player setting the most screens for Lillard and his backcourt brethren had six players on his own team who finished better than he did last year in pick-and-rolls.
Obviously Aldridge was an effective player -- Portland got to 51 wins last season, all things considered, with a system built around the All-Star Texan -- but his departure leaves an abundance of opportunity for Portland's bigs to establish a pick-and-roll rapport with Lillard this season and beyond.
Leonard, who projects to play significantly more minutes this year than in any of his previous three, led the Blazers in 2014-15 with a 1.32 PPP average on 59 pick-and-roll possessions, also topping the club with a 64.3 percent effective field goal percentage as the roll man. Because Leonard can space the floor so well as a big, he has the potential to change the way opposing defenses handle screens -- his three-point ability needs to be honored, or he'll drain them all day if left open.
Davis had a solid 1.09 PPP last season off the screen-and-roll and led the Lakers with an effective field goal percentage of 61.4 percent. Nick Young was the only Laker to average at least .88 PPP as a ballhandler, however, and none of his teammates had a particularly impressive effective field goal percentage coming off on-ball screens last season. This could be partially indicative of the quality of Davis' screens -- he was involved in 112 pick-and-rolls last year, No. 3 for L.A. -- but also demonstrative of the overall lack of talent in Los Angeles, too. At the very least, we know he's a great finisher.
Plumlee played last season for the Nets, a team that ran at least 261 pick-and-rolls each for Jarrett Jack, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams. Unfortunately, no member of this trio scored higher than Jack's .81 PPP (about average) or shot at an impressive clip coming off on-ball screens. Again, this could speak more to the quality of shooters and scorers for whom Plumlee was setting screens in Brooklyn, but nevertheless, the Nets didn't seem to benefit from any sort of overwhelmingly impressive picks. Plumlee, himself, produced a solid 1.06 PPP in pick-and-rolls, and led his team with an effective field goal percentage of 61.1 percent.
Kaman, who set 138 on-ball screens last year according to SportVU data, registered a slightly above-average 56.6 percent effective field goal percentage and a middle-of-the-road .96 PPP as a screener.
So what might these stats tell us? Well, we can probably reasonably conclude first that Stotts will again look to the pick-and-roll for a lot of his offense -- after all, Lillard was the recipient of more on-ball screens last year than any other player in the league. We know that much.
The Blazers may have lost a very efficient screener and roll man in Lopez, but they also won't have to cater to Aldridge's whims from the midrange, either, or his shortcomings in the pick-and-roll. This opens up a giant window of opportunity for Leonard, Davis, Plumlee and Kaman -- all of whom shot and scored much better than Aldridge last year in pick-and-rolls -- to set screens for Lillard and either roll to the hoop or pop out to the perimeter after the pick.
Do Davis and Plumlee set good enough screens to improve Lillard's chances of scoring in pick-and-rolls? There are too many variables to know for sure, but judging by the output of Los Angeles and Brooklyn last year, respectively, one might assume that each player was a more effective scorer than screener. Either way, each player scores well at the rim after setting screens and should be a reliable option for Stotts, along with Kaman.
The real wildcard will be Leonard. As mentioned before, unlike most of the other bigs on the Blazers' roster (besides Vonleh), he is a legitimate deep threat as a 7-footer. Expect Leonard to run plenty of pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop plays with Lillard -- both can head either straight to the hoop or out to the perimeter and remain equally effective. And considering the lack of three-point shooting on the wings, Stotts might have to get creative in getting his decent three-point shooters open looks from outside if opposing teams can sag off Gerald Henderson, Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless, etc.
With Aldridge gone, we can certainly expect fewer midrange jumpers and more traditional pick-and-roll action. And with players like Davis and Plumlee who can finish reliably inside after setting screens up top, along with the multi-faceted scoring ability of Leonard, Blazers fans can rest assured that Lillard will have some bankable help on the offensive end next year.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter