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Why the Trail Blazers’ Bench Struggles to Score

The Portland Trail Blazers’ starters have been carrying the offensive load this season, while the bench unit has struggled to produce points at times. What gives?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve been reading the game recaps at Blazer’s Edge, you’ve probably noticed a pattern. Portland starts off hot, using lots of movement to open up a first quarter lead. When the bench comes in that fluidity in the offense disappears and the lead dwindles before becoming a deficit in the second. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum spark a run to close out the half getting the Blazers back into the game. Rinse and repeat for the second half with some extra Lillard flair for the win.

Those second units aren’t just missing shots. They look bad. Hand-offs get jumbled. Players stand around and when they do move, they struggle to get open. No one seems to get into the teeth of the defense. It almost feels like they’re running a different offense.

This eye test is backed up by the stats, all courtesy of The bench passes less and creates fewer assists. They turn the ball over more often and take significantly more midrange jump shots. Perhaps most telling, the starters average over two times the number of drives per minute compared to the bench. All of this adds up to a Net Rating of -9.3 for the bench, the lowest in the Western Conference and the worst out of all the current playoff teams.

These issues go beyond any individual player or two. Teams compete as collectives and it’s impossible to pull out one piece without talking about every other. This reality comes up against the necessity of analytical thinking and the impossibility of discussing everything at once. In order to understand trends, we have to pull things apart, look at the underlying components, and identify causes. Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe are not the sole reason the bench is struggling but they are certainly its most significant components. Their inability to puncture the defense is one of the main reasons the second unit has so much difficulty scoring, as demonstrated below.

The Blazers don’t get a bad shot here. It’s not the result that concerns me. What I’m concerned about is what leads up to the shot and the pattern it represents. Let’s break the play down into its component “actions.” A play is nothing more than a series of actions which are all designed to create an advantage for the offense. Examples would be a pick-and-roll, a down screen, or a floppy if you want to get fancy.

The first action of the play is a flare screen for Allen Crabbe. Coach Terry Stotts has set this up by having Crabbe run off a Noah Vonleh screen and then set a pick for Lillard. In theory, Crabbe’s defender (Jamal Murray) will lose a half-step getting around Vonleh and dealing with Lillard. This would give Allen a head start as he cuts around a Mason Plumlee screen flaring to the left wing.

The second action of the play is a down screen for Evan Turner. Noah Vonleh sets the screen and Turner pops up to the right wing. Lillard has Crabbe on his left and Turner on his right. Damian gets to choose which player he passes too based on who is in the better position.

The problem is, neither of them really have an advantage over the defense. There’s no passing lane to Crabbe and Turner hasn’t made a very hard cut. Turner’s defender (Danillo Gallinari) gets hung up on the screen but it doesn’t matter because he knows Turner isn’t a threat to shoot. Gallinari literally walks out to defend Evan.

This leads into the third action -- a side pick-and-roll. Vonleh offers a ball screen but Turner drives the other way and is easily cut off by Gallinari. When Evan swings the ball to Plumlee at the top of the key the defense resets and there are eight seconds left on the shot clock. Three actions, 16 seconds, and the Blazers haven’t produced a single threat. The ball has barely gotten inside the 3-point line.

Lillard clears and the Blazers run a fourth and final action -- a dribble hand-off between Crabbe and Plumlee. This forces a switch, the first advantage the Blazers have had all possession, which the Blazers exploit for an open look and an offensive rebound. The problem wasn’t the result but how much time it took the Blazers to create even a momentary advantage. That’s been the pattern with the second unit. They spend lots of time without creating a meaningful threat. This play aside, that usually leads to poor results.

Stotts’ offense has a lot of movement before the first action. Guards and wings will often run a big circle around the entire court before anyone makes the first pass. All this movement is designed to make the first action harder to guard. It’s a tradeoff. Stotts is giving up precious seconds to increase the likelihood that the first action forces the defense into a compromised position. Once that happens, the offense can read and react, bending the defense until it breaks.

But what happens if the defense is never compromised in the first place? Then you’ve just used up a lot of time with no benefit. Turner and Crabbe are both struggling to penetrate the defense, essentially wasting actions, and forcing tough shots as a result.

For Turner, his lack of shooting is making it easy for teams to defend his pick-and-rolls. By going under, defenders cut off lanes to the basket and he never forces any rotations.

This play is designed for Evan Turner. It starts with a Crabbe cut and a dribble hand-off to Turner. That’s all just the prelude. It’s designed to give Turner a head start before he runs a pick-and-roll with Vonleh. In a way, it works. Turner’s defender (Wilson Chandler) is a half-step behind when Evan receives the ball. But it doesn’t matter because Chandler takes a different angle, completely avoids Vonleh’s screen, and cuts off Turner’s lane. The defense doesn’t have to rotate and there’s no crack to exploit. The Blazers used 10 seconds to little effect, leaving Turner to attack in isolation. Whatever advantage Stotts’ offense tries to create, Turner’s lack of shooting gives back.

For Crabbe, it’s the opposite problem. Too often, he’s only a shooter.

If you pause it when Crabbe catches the ball and plants his feet you’ll notice how much space he has in front of him. Instead of taking a one-dribble pull-up (or even better, attacking the big man off the bounce) Crabbe settles for a long two. He never really probes the defense or forces the defense to react. A good action leads to an inefficient shot.

To make matters worse, Turner and Crabbe sometimes get in the way of the rest of the offense.

This play breaks down a bit but Turner and McCollum both go to the top of the key. As a result, Turner is stuck in no man’s land when Ed Davis comes up to screen for CJ. Turner should have spaced back to the corner as the ball swung around the perimeter but instead decides to set a pseudo-double screen. All this does is allow his man to switch, putting Gallinari on McCollum. If Turner hadn’t been there, that switch would have put Nikola Jokic, the Nugget’s center, on CJ instead.

A little confusion from Turner is understandable considering how much of Stotts’ offense is improvised. I’m not sure what’s going on with Crabbe.

What is he doing in the paint? Damian has Jokic on an island but there’s no space because Crabbe is standing there. It looks like Crabbe tries to set a back screen to free up Davis but it doesn’t work at all. Perhaps that’s how the play was designed but I’ve never seen anything like that in Stotts’ offense.

It’s important to note that this stuff happens to everyone. Even the best players get in someone’s way or get nothing out of a pick-and-roll. It’s not like the offense has never stagnated with Damian and CJ. Plus, Turner and Crabbe are both capable of putting together beautiful basketball sequences:

That’s a great play. Even if Jamal Murray doesn’t fall down Crabbe would still be open off of the flare screen. He draws help and then makes the right pass. Turner attacks the closeout and could probably look for his own shot but hits Crabbe in the corner for an even better look.

During the preseason, Crabbe showed flashes of an expanded game and Turner has occasionally found ways to be effective without a 3-point shot.

Turner’s defender leaves him to defend Crabbe’s pull-up and Evan makes a great play, knifing into the heart of the defense. I highlighted this specific cut as one Turner would need to master in Stotts’ offense and it’s a great sign that Evan is starting to make these reads.

So it’s not a yes or no question but a matter of degree. We know Turner and Crabbe are capable of making these plays, but at what rate? How consistently can they open up a crack in the defense? Will they find the right spacing more frequently? How often will their actions create an advantage for the Blazers? Up until this point, the answer has been “not often enough” but it’s still early. There will come a point when the “still acclimating” excuse will no longer hold water. Eleven games is not that point.

For now, we’ll have to be satisfied looking for signs of progress. The more Turner can turn the corner and get into the paint, the better. Look for Crabbe to take an extra step in and force defenses to react and rotate. If, on the other hand, we see Turner and Crabbe frequently pulling the ball out and resetting the offense it will be harbinger of struggles to come. These are the fundamental things to look for regardless of whether the ball goes in or not.

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