Wow, I can't believe Media Day was this past Monday and that our beloved Blazers are going through drills as I type this. Basketball is almost back!
And I'm almost gone.
In just a few days, I'll be leaving the country for Africa, embarking on an extended backpacking trip. If everything goes according to plan (read: assuming I don't run out of money), I'll be abroad for a full year. I can't wait for all the challenges, pictures, stories, and experiences that are bound to come along the way.
I'm also excited to write about basketball from a new perspective.
I remember starting at Blazer's Edge last summer, writing article summaries in September. News was terribly slow and Dave said there was space for a few additional features if anyone had ideas. Since then, it's been nothing short of a roller coaster. I carved out a bit of a niche looking at the team from an X's and O's perspective, breaking down film and focusing on the decision making of the players and coaches.
That's always been my favorite part of basketball but backpacking without a TV or internet doesn't allow for these kinds of deep dives. It's entirely possible I won't be able to watch a single complete game all season. But basketball is growing, people from other countries can give us a unique perspective on the sport, and I'm excited to explore some of those perspectives while I travel.
I'll be sharing some of these stories over the course of the year. I'm not sure exactly what I'll find or how often I'll be able to write, but I'm hoping I can stay connected and contribute to this community as much as possible.
With my last article looking at the team from an X's and O's perspective, I thought I would leave you all with some parting thoughts about the upcoming season. Of course, most of the fun this year will come from finding answers to the many questions facing the franchise, but at this point, the best I can do is leave you with a few things to watch for when looking for those answers.
Pace and Space in the Pick-and-Roll
One of the biggest questions is how Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will handle being the primary offensive initiators. Shooting and driving are strengths for each but both of them could become better passers, especially out of the pick-and-roll. If you're wondering how they're doing look at their pace and space as they come around the screen.
The very best point guards don't come off of pick-and-rolls the same way every time and they're constantly manipulating help defenders as they move. McCollum and Lillard have a tendency to come off the screen and attack, looking to pass once they're path to the rim is cut-off. For them to get to the next level, look for them to dribble horizontally after darting around a pick, increasing the space between the ball and the roll man. Also, look for them to take hesitation dribbles beneath the free throw line, controlling space and pausing in the center of the defense waiting for passing lanes to develop.
If you start seeing more examples of these types of plays then that will be a good indicator that McCollum and Lillard are becoming better distributors and are ready to be the number one option on a good team.
Passes to the Opposite Corner
Another indicator is the number of passes to the far corner. Out of the pick-and-roll, passes to the big man or the shooter in the strong side corner are relatively easy. Both players are right in front of the ball handler and the helpside rotations are easy to read.
The next level reads are when the weakside defender crashes the play. This will likely happen a lot next year, given the poor shooters up and down the Blazers roster, but many of them can at least nail a corner three. As a result, McCollum and Lillard will be forced to make those tough cross court passes on a regular basis.
If their pick-and-rolls are drawing extra defenders and they're burning teams by finding passing lanes through multiple defenders and across the court, then that bodes well for the future of the franchise. Even if the receiving shooter can't finish the play consistently, it's a lot easier to add shooters to the team than a dynamic pick-and-roll player.
Which Way Defenders Are Moving When They Make Those Passes
The NBA is so crazy, uber-athletic and competitive that making the right pass is no longer enough. The very best point guards make those passes at a precise moment in order to catch the helpside defender leaning or moving in the wrong direction. This forces the defender to take an extra half second to stop their momentum, gather themselves, and then go close out the shooter. The half second can be the difference between an open corner three and getting run off the 3-point line.
Look for defenders that seem surprised by passes and that take a beat before reacting. If Lillard and McCollum can dribble with the right space and pace to create good passing lanes, make even the most difficult reads in those situations, and then time those passes just right, they'll be ascending into elite point guard territory.
For most of the league's history, to be a good big man you had to excel inside, rebounding and posting up. Then, for a time, a big man had to shoot a three and that was enough. Now, teams are starting to scheme against the stretch four often running them off the 3-point line. I'm generalizing a bit but bigs are steadily getting more and more skilled.
Draymond Green isn't just a small ball killer because he can shoot and defend. He's so tough because if you run him off the 3-point line he can dribble by you and finish or make the right pass. That's the skill that really destroys teams and gets those machine-like, whirling offenses really moving.
And it's the skill fans should be looking for in Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard. Vonleh hasn't played much in the NBA but David MacKay wrote a nice breakdown of his potential. It will be interesting to see which skills translate but his dribbling should intrigue everyone. If he can learn how to pass on the move as well then the Blazers will really have something.
Leonard didn't have that same billing coming out of college but he's shown flashes from time to time. Most everything in the NBA has seemed too fast and unnatural for Leonard - except for the occasional brilliant pass. These seem to come out of nowhere and it bodes well for his future as a key offensive contributor. He's also scored off of pump fakes from time to time, either taking a one dribble pull-up or going all the way to the rim for a dunk.
Leonard will be one of the better offensive players on the team next year and he'll get run off the line more and more. How he reacts, and if he's capable of attacking the rim and burning teams, will tell us a lot about how good he can become.
Floor Balance When Crashing the Offensive Boards
All the other players on the roster strike me as role players. They're all old enough and limited enough that it's doubtful they'll become well-rounded offensive players. As a result, they won't be able to be the heart or core of an offense and they're somewhat less critical to the future of the franchise. Role players are important but not until you have the elite talent in place for them to complement.
One of the main ways many of those guys contribute is through the offensive glass. Al-farouq Aminu and Ed Davis both feast on putbacks but it's important they do so within the scheme of the team. If guys are going rogue and hunting for their own stats, not getting back and leaving their teammates in a lurch, then these tendencies will hurt rather than help. Even during a rebuild, it's important the Blazers hold people accountable so that when there is enough talent on the roster, the role players are disciplined enough to play winning basketball.
Look for floor balance when a shot goes up on offense. One of the dangerous things about having guys that can only score near the rim or from the corners is that's often where they hang out. If Lillard shoots a three from the top of the key and three Blazers are caught near the hoop or in the corner things could get ugly real quick. Players need to take a few steps out of the corner and balance the floor once a shot goes up. If they are going to crash the glass, they need to take looping routes that allow them to get back if they don't have a shot at the rebound.
Allowing fast break points might not seem like a big deal given how few games the team will win anyway, but it will be a good indicator of how disciplined and focused the team is and if they're building a culture of winning basketball.
Ball Control When Defending Screens
Speaking of defense, this is where I see the Blazers struggling the most long-term. I just argued that Lillard, McCollum, Vonleh, and Leonard were the guys who have the potential to become well-rounded offensive weapons. You can see them developing into a pretty devastating group with Lillard and McCollum slicing through all the space provided by the sweet shooting big men, and then Leonard and Vonleh attacking close outs if defenses try and run them off the 3-point line. But if that unit is eventually going to be successful, they'll need to be able to lock down on defense as well.
Quick Aside: Wouldn't Ben Simmons be the perfect player to slot into that small forward spot? The biggest knock on Simmons is that he can't shoot but look who he'd be playing with! You'd have Simmons running high pick-and-rolls, using his height to pepper the ball around the perimeter. Imagine how much space Simmons would have with four shooters surrounding him and how difficult it would be for defenses to contain Lillard and McCollum on close outs. Oh man, it almost makes you wanna tank doesn't it?
For Lillard and McCollum to prove they can play together, they both need to control the ball better. I just spoke about how critical it is for point guards to use pace and space coming off of picks in order to create passing lanes and shred up a defense. As you might imagine, one of the defense's goals is to not let them do that. That means forcing the ball handler in certain directions and not giving them space.
Both Lillard and McCollum were often caught leaning the wrong way and struggled to keep ball handlers to certain sides of the floor (I'm having nightmares of Mike Conley dribbling into the middle all over again). This is the top priority for perimeter defenders in the Thibedeau-style defenses and something they'll have to learn if that is to be the Blazers' backcourt of the future. Being small doesn't mean as much now given the disappearance of the post but none of that will matter if they can't control the ball.
For Leonard and Vonleh, their challenge will be rim protection. Vonleh is basically a rookie so he's going to suck - it's basically a given for all rookie big men - but it would be nice to see some flashes of potential. Any time Vonleh makes an athletic weakside rotation or even attempts to stay vertical would be welcome signs.
Leonard has struggled more than most but he's coming around slowly. His post defense has improved to the point where he didn't get manhandled by Marc Gasol during the playoffs and his pick-and-roll defense has improved from unacceptable to passable. But center is arguably the most important defensive position these days and if he's going to spend time there he'll have to continue to improve. Leonard should be challenging shots without fouling consistently, knowing which actions to ignore and when to help, and anticipating rather than reacting. Simply put, no team won a round in the playoffs last year without an above average defensive center and Leonard still has a lot of work left in order for him to get there.
Defensive Positioning Against the Pick-and-Roll
Those a few defensive things to look for from an individual perspective, but what about the defensive scheme as a whole? Their defense has a solid foundation but I think it could use some fine tuning. The Blazers were too predictable and gave ball handlers too much space last year. It's too simple to blame the guards completely and Stotts should bring his bigs up a few feet closer to the action when defending the pick-and-roll.
I wrote about this at length a few weeks ago and I would look for it going into next year. If you see big men defending pick-and-rolls with with their feet positioned above the free throw line then that will be a great sign for the future of the defense.
Physicality Along the Perimeter
The other indicator I would look for is the number of perimeter passes that are disrupted. One of the main ways Memphis ground Portland's offense to a halt during the playoffs was by altering simple passes along the perimeter. Instead of catching the ball at the 3-point line, our guards were often forced a few extra feet out. Passes were delayed a second or two as guys had to make multiple cuts to get open throwing off the timing of the offense.
If opposing teams have to double clutch on simple passes or wind up initiating the offense from well behind the 3-point line, it will show the Blazers are beginning to disrupt opposing offenses rather than just react to them. The best defenses find this sweet spot, where they don't over extend themselves but they also don't get too passive. That's the sweet spot the Blazers will need to find eventually and they should be experimenting with it as soon as possible.
That's it. That's all I got for ya. Enjoy the start of the season and the next time you hear from me I'll be writing from somewhere in Africa.