clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Evaluating the Portland Trail Blazers' New Penetration-Based Offense

The Blazer's Edge Mailbag takes a look at the Portland Trail Blazers' new emphasis on driving, plus the expectations for Portland's young acquisitions.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Time for another Blazer's Edge Mailbag, tackling all your wonderful questions about the Portland Trail Blazers. If you'd like to submit a question for consideration, send it to We read them all and try to use most!


Last year's team launched a lot of 3's but was not very effective with the dribble/drive to the rim. It seems like Henderson, Aminu and maybe Harkless and Vonleh may be better. With Dame, CJ and Leonard being good 3-pt shooters, and the aforementioned, not so much, this might be a new weapon in Stotts playbook. I mean Wes and Nic wouldn't drive unless it was wide open. They really didn't have the handles and when they got in traffic there was a 50/50 chance of them losing the ball. I'm not sure what kind of passers the newbies are but it seems like there is hope that if our 3 pt shooters can spread the floor, it does seem to open the middle for those who can take advantage. What do you think?


You're onto it exactly.Not only will the Blazers bank on getting more transition points, they'll look to hammer the rim in the halfcourt offense as well. Dribble penetration will be part of the scheme, but look for pick and rolls (with the big man rolling traditionally instead of popping), alley-oops and offensive rebound put-backs to make a strong return in 2015-16.

Ideally the system will work as you describe, with a couple offensive players hitting the lane, a couple more keeping the defense honest at the three-point arc, and somebody hanging around to snag offensive rebounds.That ideal may not be easy to achieve, though, because so many of these players only operate optimally within a single range.

Saying Aminu, Harkless, et al are better drivers than Portland's past wings is wholly accurate. But what's to prevent their defenders from sagging off of them, knowing that they're not great distance shooters and that their next available option is the low-efficiency mid-range jumper?

Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews were primarily three-point shooters. They struggled when they had to score off the dribble in traffic. Even so, this was a better offensive attack than the inverse will be because the opponent still needed extra defenders to prevent a dunk when they beat their men. That shift would open up other players. But sagging off of a non-jump-shooter requires no extra defenders and no shift. It opens up nothing but the jump shot easy trade-off if the ball-handler can't hit it.

Using straight logic it seems like "great jump-shooter, mediocre driver" would stand roughly equal with "mediocre jump-shooter, great driver". In practice it doesn't work that way. The threat of the three-pointer opens up the floor more than the threat of the drive, as jump shooters can still hit a layup if you don't compensate whereas drivers won't hit that long shot.

The three-point shooting of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Meyers Leonard won't help much if none of their defenders are forced to leave them. Even skilled distance shooters will going to miss if they're covered. [Insert obligatory Steph Curry counterexample here.]

For these reasons, I'm guessing Portland's offense will start with players who are capable of shooting and driving. None of the new acquisitions fit that bill, really. (Gerald Henderson sort of, but he's more of a mid-range guy.) Instead the Blazers will be depending heavily on Lillard and McCollum. I don't think they're averse to that. It may be intentional even. Damian and CJ will find the ball in their hands and pressure on their shoulders to make Portland's offense run.

Both are capable, of course. This is the kind of game they were born for. The worry is that the defense will know this too and swarm the point of attack. That will open up opportunities for other players...the exact players you mentioned. How well they take advantage of those opportunities will determine Portland's success. It'll be the difference between rim-rattling Aminu dunks off of a Lillard double-team and Damian throwing up circus shots from 20 feet into oblivion.They're going to have to milk the most dimensions possible out of one- or two-dimensional guys.

You don't have to look that far back to find an example of a good, but limited, offensive player ruining an otherwise sound scheme. Though Portland fans would like to forget it, Raymond Felton was a decent point guard when he joined the Blazers. His problem wasn't talent, but range. In those days Portland's PG was charged with feeding LaMarcus Aldridge in the post, then remaining on the strong side for the return pass when the defense double-teamed LMA. Nobody who watched Felton's season in Portland could ever forget him bricking three after wide-open three. It was undiluted frustration in a bottle. Had he been able to hit that shot, the offense would have soared. Instead the coach got fired and Felton followed soon after.

The Blazers may find themselves in a similar situation this year, with good plays producing shots that just don't go in. Every offense runs well in theory. It'll be interesting to see how much of that theory the Blazers can put into practice against live defenders this year.


Charlotte gave up Noah Vonleh for basically a one year Batum rental and the hope to re-sign. Orlando gave up Moe Harkless for nearly nothing. Is it reasonable to have high hopes for those players when their former teams did not? Is it fair to hope that those teams simply handled those players poorly, or poorly projected them?


Good question. I'll take "All of the Above".

When you acquire young players second-hand you have to understand that their prior teams had the same hopes as you do. The Sacramento Kings assumed Thomas Robinson was going to be a franchise player. Charlotte felt the same way about Vonleh, the Clippers and Pelicans/Hornets about Aminu. (Harkless was drafted 15th overall, leaving his situation more muddled.) Had those hopes panned out, you wouldn't be able to acquire those players now. You are picking up guys that have, in some measure, disappointed their previous teams and failed to live up to expectations. Let the buyer beware.

But cost also comes into play here. Those other teams all spent first-round picks--in three of the cases above lottery picks--to acquire their players. The cost was enormous. At that price point, the players weren't worth it. The Blazers didn't pay that much, however. Aminu was a cheap signing, Harkless cost a future second-rounder, and Vonleh was the second guy in a 2-for-1 swap that included Gerald Henderson. What have the Blazers lost even if all three fail? Their value is far greater at Portland's compared to the cost other teams paid.

Since the Blazers got these players so cheaply, Portland fans are free to look at upside. Anything these three guys give will be sufficient. If they fail it's a wash, if they produce it's pure profit. The Blazers and their supporters can also make the mental leap backwards in time, saying that somebody saw all-world potential in these players at one point. That's a bitter statement for their former teams, but a hopeful one for Portland. If even one of these guys becomes a starter, let alone a star, the Blazers have just robbed the bank and gotten away with it. A small forward they weren't going to use anymore, a future second-round pick, and a couple million bucks (the aggregate cost of all three players) will look like a bargain if any of the three end up in an important role.

Back to the original question... It's reasonable to have high hopes for these players, yes. The Blazers are sticking quarters into one of those progressive jackpot slot machines in Vegas, the kind that pay out tens of millions if you hit right. High hopes are the foundation of the game. Win huge or go home. If I'm feeding money to casinos, I don't want a thousand-dollar payout. That's not going to change my life. I'll take the shot for the $50 million, just like the Blazers have.

It's not reasonable to have high expectations in that situation though. That's the key distinction. I'm perfectly comfortable saying there's a chance that Vonleh, Harkless, Aminu, and the rest turn out to be excellent acquisitions. Saying the Blazers just got the front line of their future is more problematic, as is saying that acquiring them amounts to a solid plan. That's like sticking your quarter in that Wheel of Fortune slot and calling it an investment. You're only thinking that way because your other investments didn't work. Most people who end up financially secure don't do it like this. If you are doing it like this, something probably went wrong along the way.

It's possible that other teams valued Portland's current young players poorly or failed to nurture them. It's also possible that those teams were mistaken about the players' potential when they acquired them in the first place, a la Thomas Robinson, and the Blazers are chasing down a road that dead ends. Time will tell.

All we know at this point is that the Blazers have given themselves plenty of chances to succeed or fail. They're sitting at that slot machine with a roll of quarters and they'll spend the next year or two pulling the lever. If even one set of 7's comes up they'll be ahead. If none do they won't be any worse off than they are now. That makes the experiment worth it economically. We'll see if the results follow.

Remember to send your Mailbag questions to!

--Dave / @DaveDeckard@Blazersedge