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7 Things to Look for in the Trail Blazers’ Season Opener

The Trail Blazers open their 2016-17 regular season tonight against the Utah Jazz. What should fans in Portland be watching for on the court?

NBA: Preseason-Portland Trail Blazers at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016-17 regular season is here! What was once speculation will soon become analysis. What was once conjecture will soon become conclusion. Will they regress? Will they progress? When will Meyers Leonard cut his hair? There are so many burning questions, it’s tempting to try and find all the answers right away. But the NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint. Any single game can confuse rather than clarify. A hot shooting night can mask a lot of fundamental flaws. A few uncharacteristic misses can undermine a solid process.

So what should we look for in the first game of the season?

I suggest we watch for habits or winning tendencies, things that are less susceptible (although not immune) to the variance that plagues early season analysis. We could highlight any number of these but here’s seven that I’ll be tracking in the Blazers’ opener against the Utah Jazz. If the Blazers do these consistently, that bodes well for the season, regardless of the outcome of their first game.

Disrupting Opposing Offenses

Every offense has a very specific timing. Plays are designed so that a player cuts open at the same moment his teammate is in position to deliver the ball. As offenses get more complicated, other actions are incorporated to distract help defenders. These days, guards run off an orchestra of picks and flare screens before getting to the actual meat of the play. All of this has to be synchronized for it to be effective.

Disrupt a single part of that machine and the whole thing falls apart. A pass may seem inconsequential, but forcing the offense to hesitate, to double-clutch a pass, may throw everything else out of whack.

One of the big problems with Portland’s defense last year was that they weren’t disruptive enough. They made sure to protect the rim and the corners but were so conservative in doing so that they allowed the opponent to make whatever perimeter passes they wanted. This gave the opposing offenses too much space and comfort.

But this preseason, the Blazers have been more aggressively positioned. They’re not gambling for steals but they’re getting into more passing lanes and forcing the offense to go to second and third options. Watch this play against the Golden State Warriors.

Zaza Pachulia has the ball up top. First he looks for Kevin Durant on the right but can’t make the pass because Moe Harkless is in the passing lane. Then Al-farouq Aminu denies Draymond Green so Pachulia is forced to turn around. He can’t find Klay Thompson either and is forced to pass the ball all the way out to halfcourt. All told, Pachulia holds the ball for about six seconds, perhaps the least threatening six seconds the Warriors will play all year.

Anytime an opposing player looks to move the ball to a teammate but can’t, it will be a win for the Blazers’ defense.

Getting Bodies in the Paint

Oftentimes, Portland won’t be able to deny the pass. For example, when a good shooter is coming off a down screen it’s basically impossible to deny the ball. The down screen gives the shooter a half-step advantage and creates an open passing lane. The defense is forced to worry about how to defend the play after they catch the ball.

Thompson comes off the down screen and curls into the paint. It’s important that Allen Crabbe trails behind so Thompson doesn’t have any space for a shot. As a result, Portland needs to send help to prevent a layup. Last year, the Blazers were often a half-step late in these rotations but Ed Davis and CJ McCollum do a great job.

It’s possible to over-help, but assuming the other team isn’t getting wide open threes, seeing bodies in the paint is a good thing. It will mean the Blazers are more active and giving that exceptional effort needed for a great defense.

Minimizing Separation in the Pick-and-Roll

Helping is important but defenses want to use it sparingly. In fact, the Blazers’ whole defensive scheme is designed to limit the need for extra defenders. Portland wants to defend the pick-and-roll with just two men but struggled to contain the ball handlers last year.

If they want to improve, Portland’s guards will have to pursue the pick-and-roll better. I wrote about the improvement the team has shown in the preseason so far (complete with video examples) and it would be great if that improvement carries over into the regular season.

Look for how much space develops between the ball handler and the Blazers’ guard defending the play. If they can stay a half-step behind or less, it will go a long way to containing the ball.

Big Man Defense Along the Perimeter

Portland’s big men can help by taking an extra step towards the perimeter. Last year, the centers would position themselves at the free throw line or even a little bit below when defending a pick-and-roll. This helped limit penetration but it gave the opposing ball handler a clear runway to separate themselves from Portland’s guards.

During the preseason, Portland’s bigs have been stepping up, meeting the ball handler higher up the court. Look at where Plumlee’s feet are when he defends this Durant pick-and-roll.

One step above the free throw line (as opposed to one step below it) might not sound like a big difference but it changes the whole rhythm of the play. Durant is forced to slow down and make a move allowing Harkless time to catch up. Once Harkless is back in the play, the defense can reset.

The ability of the Portland big men to defend along the perimeter also opens up numerous switching possibilities.

Both Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh have the foot speed to switch onto back-to-back MVP Stephen Curry. The famous Curry-Green pick-and-roll leads nowhere and Curry is forced into a deep midrange step-back. With today’s modern offenses, switching is quickly becoming a necessity and it’s important that Portland can switch through all five positions when they need to.

The more you see the Blazers’ big men defending beyond the free throw line (without giving up easy layups), the better off Portland’s defense will be.

Transition Communication and Hustle

I thought the Blazers’ defense was pretty good against the Warriors in the halfcourt. The problem was they never got their defense set, especially in the second half. There were just too many plays like this one.

First off, Damian Lillard should be hustling back. Plumlee, Lillard, and Andre Iguodala are all about even as Iggy starts dribbling the other way. Ideally, Lillard sprints back to contain the ball and Harkless picks up Durant. This would leave Plumlee to pick up the trailing Draymond Green and the Blazers would avoid a problematic mismatch. Instead, Lillard decides to take Green and jogs his way up the floor. Plumlee compounds this mistake by going for the steal and a play that should have been contained turns into a four-on-three possession for the Warriors.

Three things need to happen for a successful transition defense. First, at least three players need to start getting back when the shot goes up. Second, the other two players need to sprint back and catch up to the play. Third, they have to communicate, matchup on the fly, and be disciplined.

Portland’s positioning (step 1) is often pretty good. In the above clip, you can see Evan Turner, Crabbe, and Harkless all take a few steps backward as soon as Damian misses the layup. But they too often miscommunicate or someone fails to hustle back.

Wing Playmaking

We all know what we’re going to get from Lillard and McCollum. The presence of those two, and the brilliance of coach Terry Stotts, is why no one worries about the offense much. Dame and CJ will shoot through the defense, opening up cracks everywhere else. The question is how well the rest of the roster can exploit those cracks. That’s the difference between the Blazers being a top-10 offense and a top-three offense.

More than anyone else, this burden will fall on Portland’s wings and forwards. If Harkless and Aminu and can space the floor and attack closeouts they’ll become almost impossible to guard. We won’t learn much about their shooting from a single game, but we can catch a glimpse of their playmaking ability.

Look for plays like this one where Aminu, Harkless, Crabbe, or Turner attack the rim and make the right read, either creating a great look for themselves or a teammate.

Movement on Offense Without Dame

The big free agent acquisition, Evan Turner, was justified with a single word -- “playmaking.” The argument was that the Blazers needed an additional playmaker to take some of the burden off of Damian and CJ and allow them to play off-ball. This argument is the strongest when looking at the Blazers’ offense without Lillard. Their Offensive Rating dropped from 110.1 with both Lillard and McCollum to a paltry 105.7 when CJ played without Dame. That would be the equivalent to dropping from the Raptors’ fifth-ranked offense to the Nuggets’ 17th.

Those minutes without Damian also looked stagnant. McCollum would get pushed up towards midcourt and spend too much time dribbling. There was less movement and fewer passes. The rest of the bench struggled to do anything with the ball unless they were set up perfectly.

Hopefully, Turner’s presence re-energizes these units. With two ball handlers, the Blazers should be able to continue their side-to-side pick-and-roll attack. Ball movement and player movement should increase and the dropoff when Damian sits should diminish.

Whether the ball goes in or not is less of a concern, but watch for a continuity in the offense between the first and second units. If the movement and spacing is consistent throughout the game then Portland will be on its way to shoring up a major weakness.