Let's start with a fact that, at least in my book, is pretty much undeniable - whenever you begin an NBA season without four of the five members of last year's starting lineup, plus a host of other significant pieces, you're bound to change your team's style of play at least a little bit. Crazy, I know.
Consider the 2015-16 Trail Blazers. They will begin this upcoming season without LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez. They'll also be without a handful of key bench players. All in all, 65.3 percent of last year's minutes were played by guys who are gone now. That's a pretty staggering number.
When you lose that much of your infrastructure, change is inevitable. That's even the case when your head coach is Terry Stotts, who's established himself as a tad rigid and system-oriented. Even for Stotts, there's only so much continuity to be salvaged when two-thirds of the rotation is being scrapped.
Stotts is already on record saying he doesn't anticipate a dramatically different style on defense for next year's team. He told The Oregonian last month despite the recent injection of youth and athleticism, "I don't see us getting out and pressuring." This is unsurprising. It's a prime example of Stotts' rigidity - his philosophy has always favored a balanced, conservative defensive approach over aggressive ploys like doubling and trapping. He'd rather guard each man straight-up than gamble for turnovers. This is a fact about Stotts, regardless of the roster at his disposal.
Offensively, on the other hand, it's time to make some changes. Here's The Oregonian's Mike Richman, with an assist from Stotts:
The Blazers defense should be nearly identical scheme-wise as the last two seasons, but offensively Stotts anticipates a few adjustments.
"I think offensively, obviously, we're going to change some things up." he said. "Damian (Lillard) and C.J. (McCollum) are going to have their opportunities, but everybody else, it's going to be a work in progress just to see what works well with the different combinations and the different skill sets."
The team will try to play more uptempo in 2015-16 and Stotts will have a chance to see what works in his flow offense and then tailor sets and actions to fit the new parts. His hope is that offense will evolve as the young players on the roster expand their game.
That's more like it.
Defense is about general principles more than specific possession-by-possession game plans. Your job is to respond to whatever the offense throws at you; without the ball in your hands, there's only so much you can control. It's understandable, therefore, that Stotts isn't the kind of coach who tries to reinvent the wheel on the defensive end. On offense, however, a new roster pretty much necessitates a new style of play.
Lillard, the one starter returning from last year's team, agrees. Here's a snippet from the point guard's interview earlier this week with Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy:
I think playing faster is going to be the best thing for our team. We have a lot of really athletic guys that can really run. It’s not like we can play the same way [as last year] because we don't have the same personnel. So I really like that idea of playing a faster game because of where we’re at. It’s something we can really take advantage of, and it’s something that we can do well. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
I like the sound of this. Of course, the big caveat is that we're still a long, long way off from figuring all this stuff out for certain. We're still about six weeks off from the start of training camp, seven weeks from the first preseason game and almost 11 weeks from Oct. 28, when the Blazers tip off the regular season at home against Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans. At the moment, the Blazers have 17 guys on their roster, including fringe guys like Cliff Alexander and Luis Montero who may not make the team and youngsters like Allen Crabbe and Moe Harkless who will definitely make it, but may have to scrounge for minutes. Long story, short, we still don't know who the Blazers are yet. It'll be a while before they even begin to shape an identity.
Still, though, playing faster makes a lot of sense. Each young Blazer you look at reveals a new reason for next year's team to emphasize the transition game. For example: Meyers Leonard is a great shooter, but his jumper has proven far better when open than when guarded closely. Al-Farouq Aminu doesn't have much of a jumper, but he's dangerous when he gets out in the open court. Noah Vonleh lives to attack the rim, but he's struggled so far to do so against a set NBA defense. And so on, and so forth. For a multitude of reasons, it looks like a fast-paced style of play will be a must for the Blazers next season.
Fortunately, it looks like the Blazers have a roster loaded with guys who know how to make that work. Here's the proof: The NBA has begun classifying every shot taken in every game by the number of seconds on the shot clock when it's taken. This gives us concrete evidence of when teams are playing fast, slow or somewhere in between. According to the SportVU data, a "very early" shot is anything attempted within the first quarter of the possession, meaning between 18 and 24 seconds still on the clock. Here's a comparison of last year's Blazers starting five with (my educated guess at) next year's group, based on their percentage of shots taken "very early":
|2014-15 Blazers||"Very Early" Shot Rate||2015-16 Blazers
||"Very Early" Shot Rate|
|Damian Lillard||18.2%||Damian Lillard||18.2%|
|Wesley Matthews||17.3%||Gerald Henderson||12.9%|
|Nicolas Batum||19.5%||Al-Farouq Aminu||28.1%|
|LaMarcus Aldridge||12.1%||Ed Davis||22.9%|
|Robin Lopez||22.1%||Mason Plumlee||25.7%|
For a very crude approximation of the Blazers' "fastest gun in the West" potential, you can simply add up the percentages - last year's team posted a total "very early" rating of 89.2, while this year's team clocks in at a comparatively quite speedy 107.8. In the cases of Plumlee and Davis, a lot of those early shots are coming from putbacks of offensive rebounds; with the three perimeter guys, we're almost exclusively talking transition. Hot take: It would behoove the Blazers to repeat their fast-breaking ways again next year.
Fortunately, both the new and returning Blazers have shown a knack for scoring in transition in a variety of creative ways. Let's roll the tape:
The Blazers get a fast break opportunity here when a wild pass from Dallas' Rajon Rondo ends up in Crabbe's hands. At first, it doesn't look like a very promising breakaway, as two Mavericks defenders, Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki, do a great job leaking out in transition and preventing Crabbe from finding a clear path to the rim. Since Monta is able to D up on Crabbe, Dirk is free to focus on slowing down LaMarcus Aldridge, who comes down the left side of the floor after Crabbe. Everyone's covered. It looks like Crabbe's best bet is to slow it down and call a play against Dallas' set defense.
Instead, Lillard comes out of nowhere, beating Richard Jefferson down the floor and spotting up behind the arc before RJ or anyone else can get to him. Lillard's speed and shoot-first mentality effectively turn this lackluster 2-on-2 fast break into a dangerous 3-on-2. The result, of course, is three points.
Not everyone can play the Lillard role in a play like this. You've got to be a pretty stellar shooter - not just to make the shot, but also to earn your teammates' respect to the point where they're looking for you in transition, expecting you to make it. If it'd been Aminu or Harkless trailing Crabbe in transition, this play would have unfolded quite a bit differently.
Then again, spotting up for 3 is only one way to be effective as a transition scorer. There are plenty more. Like this:
This clip, from a Charlotte loss against Detroit last season, showcases two future Blazers in transition action. The play begins with a defensive rebound from Vonleh, who crashes the boards after a missed driving layup from the Pistons' Shawne Williams. Vonleh then makes the outlet pass to Kemba Walker to trigger the breakaway, and it doesn't look good at first glance, as the Pistons have the early advantage in numbers. Kemba's playing 2-on-3 as he crosses halfcourt.
But while the Pistons have numbers, they're not very organized defensively. Williams gets back on D quickly, but he gets mixed up - he tries to guard Kemba at the top of the key, even though Brandon Jennings already has that assignment covered. Williams' actual man, Gerald Henderson, ends up with a big gaping hole in the defense, and he goes right at it, producing an easy two points.
This is a really smart play by Henderson. He saw a brief opportunity, recognized it probably wouldn't last long, and attacked the defense with perfect timing. These are the types of instincts you really hope he brings to Portland.
The Blazers' other newcomer on the wing is also no stranger to transition buckets:
There isn't a lot to say about this play, X's and O's-wise. It's basically just Al-Farouq Aminu being a way better freakin' athlete than everyone else on the floor. When the clip begins, with Utah's Rudy Gobert missing a jumper, Aminu is basically on the Jazz's baseline. As he snags Gobert's rebound, he's got to cover the greatest distance of anyone to get down the floor. And cover it, he does - there's 3:35 on the game clock when Aminu first triggers the break with a quick pass to Raymond Felton, and 3:32 left when Aminu gets the ball back, eight feet from the basket, after outrunning everyone down the floor and putting himself in prime position to score. Boom - coast to coast in three seconds. Aminu ends up telling Gobert, basically the best rim protector in the NBA today, "protect this." Slam dunk.
The moral of the story is that transition buckets can come in a lot of different ways. You can get them because you're a strong shooter, a clever opportunist or just a superior athlete. But in any event, they're going to come in handy when you're a young team with speed as basically its only competitive advantage. When the Blazers find themselves matched up with slower veteran teams this coming season - and that'll happen a lot in the West, what with the Spurs, Mavericks, Grizzlies and Clippers all not getting any younger - their one way to control the tenor of the game will be to get out there and run, run, run.
There's just one problem. Namely, it's that transition opportunities don't just magically fall into your lap - you have to earn them. You do so by fighting hard on defense, forcing turnovers, crashing the defensive glass and wrestling the ball away from the opposing offense. One thing that remains to be seen is how good this Blazers team will be at generating fast breaks in the first place. Remember, Stotts has already said that going all-out for steals is not his style.
This is where it gets tricky. It's only Aug. 14, and you don't want to get carried away discussing the identity of a team that doesn't even have a set roster yet. I think it's obvious that a prolific transition game is a must for the Blazers if they want to be competitive next season, but I also think we're a long way from finding out whether that's realistic.
In all likelihood, we still won't know much on opening night. Chances are, November and December are going to be a long feeling-out period for Stotts and his players as they try to find a style that fits their needs. How much should they stick with Stotts' conservative defensive principles, maintaining a balanced defense that keeps opposing shooting numbers low? How much should they stray from the game plan, attacking the ball in the hopes of creating extra fast breaks? It will require some trial and error - really, if we're being realistic, probably a lot more error - before Portland can figure this out.
That's OK. The Blazers are now a rebuilding team, and this is what rebuilding teams do. They experiment with everything, from the salary cap sheet to the nightly rotation to their style on both ends of the floor. When you jettison two-thirds of your roster, change is inevitable. It might be a long time before the Blazers and their old friend, continuity, are reunited.