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Creating a Statistical Baseline for the Blazers’ Offense

Last week, Willy Raedy broke down how the Trail Blazers can improve defensively. Today, let’s look at how we can track Portland’s offense, which finished among the top teams in the NBA last season.

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Trail Blazers’ performance last year on offense put them in the upper echelon of the league on that side of the ball. However, as they try to make to the jump from good to great the standards also increase, and as successful as they were last year there’s still a gap they need to close with the truly elite. After exploring last week how we can track team defensive improvement, let’s now take a look at how the Blazers’ offense should be graded this season.

Team Offense

Offensive Rating: 106.1 points scored per 100 possessions (No. 7)

*note: all stats are from stats.nba.com unless otherwise noted.

Top ten. That’s great, but the gap between the Blazers and the top-ranked Warriors was 6.4 points per 100 possessions. That’s about the same gap that separated the Blazers from the No. 28 ranked Phoenix Suns. If the elite teams separate themselves from the top ten then top ten won’t mean as much.

How do they improve? Well, let’s get more granular with the four factors.

  • Effective Field Goal Percentage: 51.1 percent (No. 8)
  • Turnovers per 100 Possessions: 14.8 (No. 17)
  • Offensive Rebounding Percentage: 25.9 percent (No. 3)
  • Free Throw Rate (FTA/FGA): 0.268 (No. 17)

The Blazers could shoot a little better but the real opportunities lie in turnovers and free throw attempts. Evan Turner, the biggest addition to the Blazers offense, is pretty average in both these categories so improvement won’t come from outside the roster. If anything, the full-time shift of Al-farouq Aminu to power forward will be the larger story to watch. That adds shooting, driving, and playmaking but fans should monitor how it affects the team’s offensive rebounding. If the shift improves some areas but undermines one of the team’s key strengths, the overall impact will be limited.

That lineup shift should also move the offense even further out to the perimeter, which may or may not be a good thing.

Shot Locations

Here’s the team’s shot distribution last year:

Portland shot lots of threes but really struggled to generate looks at the rim. Perhaps pulling a defender out of the paint opens it up for drives. That will be an interesting dynamic to watch but I expect those effects to be outweighed by Aminu’s tendencies. Almost half of Aminu’s shots last year were 3-pointers, a sharp contrast to Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh. As a result, I expect this shot distribution to shift towards the perimeter even more.

Is that a bad thing? The Warriors put to bed the idea that a jump shooting team can’t win an NBA championship, and the Blazers shot really well from behind the arc last season:

The difference in rank between corner and above-the-break threes is notable. Consider who is taking the majority of the shots in each area. The Blazers have some elite shooters at the guard positions but their forwards are just average. Getting some better shooting from the corners could open up the floor even more and make the entire offense that much more dangerous. If they’re going to be a perimeter-oriented team then they need to get quality shooting from all their positions.

The Perimeter Forwards

Whether the Blazers improve in this area will largely be determined by their three big, perimeter forwards: Al-farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless, and Evan Turner. All three have one unicorn season in which they shot well from behind the arc. Aminu’s was last year so many are expecting that to continue. The Blazers need him to be an outside threat or their spacing will start to get cramped. If Moe or Evan (or both!) can also develop their outside shots the Blazers will have weapons up and down their roster.

Here’s what those players shot last year and how often:

Spacing is important, but the offense starts with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Coach Terry Stotts gives them the ball and puts them in numerous pick-and-rolls every possession. That’s unlikely to change.

However, they could try to find spot-up shooters more often as Portland ranked pretty low in the frequency of that play type. This is especially true because they scored so efficiently in those situations. Look at the chart below showing how Portland’s offensive efficiency changed by play type:

Spot-ups were more efficient than Ball Handler plays so if they can find more spot-up shooters out of the pick-and-roll it should help the offense.

The most surprising thing in this chart is the transition offense. I knew the Blazers weren’t the best finishers on the break but the extent that they struggled surprised me. They didn’t get any new personnel to help in that area so it’s unclear where to look for improvement.

One potential area could be Lillard and McCollum’s shooting percentage around the rim. Last year, both players finished well below average from within two feet of the rim:

  • Damian Lillard: 54.6 percent
  • CJ McCollum: 52.2 percent

*stats from basketball-reference.com

McCollum has never shot well from that area but he was marginally better two years ago. With only one full year under his belt, I expect McCollum to find new ways to score over bigger defenders as he gets more comfortable in the league. We saw that improvement from Lillard two years ago when he shot 64.2 percent near the hoop. If he can get back to that, and CJ can join him, it will make Portland almost impossible to guard.

Incorporating Evan Turner

Turner wasn’t brought in to space the floor and play off the ball. Instead, GM Neil Olshey has highlighted his playmaking ability and how it will open up new possibilities for the team.

Last year, the offense was fairly predictable in some respects. The Blazers gave the ball to Lillard and McCollum and let them go to work in the pick-and-roll. You can see that by how many dribbles and how many seconds Portland averaged per touch. They ranked third in the league in both categories indicating the ball stayed in the hands of their guards a lot.

If the arrival of Turner allows Dame and CJ to flourish off the ball we should see it reflected in these numbers. There will be more possessions where Lillard and McCollum shoot immediately after catching the ball off of pin-down screens and other off-ball actions. Those types of touches will have no dribbles and almost no time of possession dragging the average figures down.

Becoming more diversified is always a good thing but the predictability didn’t harm the Blazers too much last year. Everyone knew Lillard and McCollum would get the ball but Stotts incorporated enough player movement to keep help defenders honest.

Portland ranked third in player movement even though they passed the ball relatively infrequently.

  • Offensive Miles Travelled per game: 9.50 (rank: No. 3)
  • Passes per game: 284.7 (rank: No. 25)

Help defenders can’t focus on Lillard and McCollum if their man keeps running around the court. This will be especially critical when incorporating Turner into the offense. Last year, Evan spent many possessions planted in the corner making it easier for his defender to cheat. If the Blazers can keep him moving, his defender will have to track him limiting whatever spacing problems his lack of shooting creates. This movement will also accentuate his playmaking, giving him a head start when he catches the ball. If Turner is being incorporated effectively, we should see the seconds per touch decrease while the offensive miles travelled remains high.

The other area his presence will be felt is on the bench. The offense fell off whenever Lillard sat down last year:

  • Offensive Rating with Dame: 110.8
  • Offensive Rating without Dame: 104.3

*note: these numbers are from basketball-reference.com which calculates offensive rating differently than stats.nba.com. As a result, they’re not directly comparable to the overall team numbers included earlier.

This drop-off is pretty typical for any star player and it will never go away completely. There’s just no way to avoid a dip in offense when you’re best offensive player sits down. However, minimizing the gap would go a long way towards improving the team’s overall offense. Lineups without Damian had only one playmaker last year so I expect Turner’s presence to be most noticeable in this metric.

The Blazers excelled on offense last year but there are still plenty of ways for them to get better. The team can improve its spacing, especially from the forward positions. If McCollum and Lillard can also finish at a higher rate this will put pressure on opposing defenses to defend both the paint and the perimeter. Throw in Turner’s playmaking off the bench and this team could see a substantial increase in offensive efficiency. These dynamics will affect whether Portland can make the jump to elite and it will be interesting to track them over the course of the season. If they break the other way, it means Portland bought high on an overachieving roster and will have some tough decisions ahead.

Let the games begin!