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Taking the Pulse of the Trail Blazers’ Offense

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The Blazers sit at 9-10 a quarter of the way through the 2016-17 season. How has Portland’s offense looked so far?

NBA: Houston Rockets at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

We’re almost a quarter of the way through the season so it’s time for a statistical check-up. It’s nice to start on a positive note so we’ll do the offense first, comparing the team’s current statistical profile to last year’s baseline. Look for the defensive check-in next week.

Team Offense

Offensive Rating: 106.5, No. 8 (106.1, No. 7)

*note: all stats are from stats.nba.com unless otherwise noted. Last year’s statistics will be listed in parentheses.

Overall, the team’s first-quarter performance is almost exactly the same as last year. That’s a bit of a surprise considering the bench struggles and the long stretches where the offense has looked out of sorts.

The Blazers’ efficiency has remained constant but the way they’re getting their points has changed somewhat.

Four Factors

  • EFG%: 51.8 percent, No. 6 (51.1 percent, No. 8)
  • TO per 100 possessions: 13.5, No. 10 (14.8, No. 17)
  • OREB%: 20.4 percent, No. 24 (25.9 percent, No. 3)
  • FT Rate (FTA/FGA): 0.269, No. 17 (0.268, No. 17)

Portland is shooting just like last year but has swapped offensive rebounds for fewer turnovers. Perhaps the emphasis on small ball has caused this shift. Intuitively, fewer bigs would hurt you on the boards and more skilled players would do better at taking care of the ball. However, the lineup data doesn’t support this conclusion. Of the five worst Portland lineups in terms of offensive rebounding, four of them feature two big men. Every single Blazers’ big man is pulling down fewer offensive rebounds than he did a year ago.

The turnovers seems to be a collective effort as well. Numerous players have improved and no single player has made a drastic jump. Evan Turner is certainly a part of this, sporting the lowest Turnover Percentage of his career.

Shot Locations

Breaking down the Blazers’ shooting by location reveals a few minor tweaks.

There’s been a small decrease in shots at the rim and from the midrange. In exchange, they’ve added more shots in the paint and above the break. Given Portland’s shooting percentages from those locations, that shift should be a net negative. The Blazers are getting a slightly less efficient distribution of shots than they did last year and we would expect their overall EFG% to drop. However, they’re finishing better around the rim which more than makes up for it. We’ll see if that continues for the rest of the season.

That improvement has a lot to do with Lillard. The Rain Bros. proved to be a dynamic pair last year but they both struggled in close. This was one of the ways Portland could reach the next level. If they could start finishing at a high rate then they would become that much harder to guard. Lillard has made the jump but CJ is still struggling. Here’s their shooting percentages within three feet of the rim:

  • Damian Lillard: 62.4% (54.6%)
  • CJ McCollum: 48.4% (52.2%)

*stats from basketball-reference.com

Mason Plumlee also deserves a shout out for raising his percentage at the rim from 63 percent to 76 percent. Those improvements could be essential during the playoffs when defenses hound Lillard away from the hoop, daring someone to beat them at the rim.

Play Type

The most notable change is the shift away from pick-and-rolls towards spot-ups. Since the system has largely stayed the same, this indicates that Portland is passing out of the pick-and-roll more often than last year. The rise in spot-ups supports this conclusion. It also points to the addition of Evan Turner, which I’ll discuss in depth later.

That shouldn't be a bad thing considering the relative efficiency of those types of shots. spot-ups have been significantly more efficient the last two seasons and any change that generates more of them is positive.

The transition improvement is also notable. I was surprised Portland was ranked so low last year and it could have been a fluke. I haven’t noticed anything structurally different with their transition attack so this could be just a regression to the mean. Lillard’s finishing might be a piece of this too.

The Perimeter Forwards

Space. What was once an advanced concept is now an absolute necessity. Portland needs their small forwards to provide it but only one of them is doing an adequate job at this point.

How could you be (any better) MOE HARKLESS?! Those numbers are ridiculous. He’s hitting over 40 percent from above the break! That’s elite, Damian Lillard territory. If looking at the rim instead of the ball can make this much of a difference I suggest all you ball watchers give it a try during your next pick-up game.

This is an incredibly important development. Golden State hardly guarded Harkless in the playoffs and his inability to burn them limited how good the Blazers’ best lineup could be. It was so bad, I thought Turner would be the best option next to Dame and CJ. If Harkless can keep this up, that’s never going to happen. His offensive expansion will be really critical in the playoffs when teams look for any and every weakness to exploit (assuming they get there...gulp).

If only Harkless’ teammates could keep up with him. Perhaps we can give Al-farouq Aminu a pass given the small number of games he’s played. However, we should remember that Aminu shot a career high last year and a repeat performance is far from guaranteed.

Turner’s shooting percentages aren’t great but they’re somewhat encouraging. His form means he’ll always struggle from above the break but he’s stroking it from the corners. If he can keep that corner shooting above 35 percent it will be a major win for Portland.

Incorporating Evan Turner

Throughout training camp, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum discussed the advantages of letting Evan Turner handle the ball. Defenses wouldn’t be able to key in on them as effectively and they could mix up their offense by spending more time off the ball. This would make them, and by extension the Blazers, more difficult to guard.

If this is happening, we would expect the team’s average seconds and dribbles per touch to drop. If Dame and CJ are scoring off the ball, that means they’re running off a screen, catching the ball, and then shooting almost immediately. That’s an additional touch with no dribbles and very little time pulling down the team’s averages.

We see the expected drop to some extent:

I mentioned above that the increase in spot-up attempts also indicates an increase in off-ball offense. These magnitudes are small but that’s to be expected when looking at team averages. More compellingly, the percentage of plays that CJ spends in the pick-and-roll has dropped by 25 percent. Dame’s pick-and-roll frequency has dropped a bit as well. It hasn’t had a drastic effect on the team’s offense but Dame and CJ have diversified their scoring this year.

However, Turner hasn’t spent much time next to both Lillard and McCollum, making his role as a bench playmaker more important. Last year, the offense fell off whenever Lillard sat down. That’s pretty much unavoidable. Every team’s best player takes their offense to a better place. That’s why they’re the team’s best player.

With a brief look at the numbers, it appears that Turner has done his job. The offense is doing about the same with Lillard and doing much better when he sits:

  • Offensive Rating with Dame: 110.1 (110.8)
  • Offensive Rating without Dame: 108.7 (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 discussed above. For reference, Portland’s ORTG according to basketball-reference.com is 109.3.

But then you look at the other plus/minus numbers. Unlike last year, Lillard doesn’t have the largest offensive plus/minus on the team. In fact, the other three healthy starters all have a better offensive plus/minus than Dame. Here’s McCollum’s statistics:

  • Offensive Rating with CJ: 112.6
  • Offensive Rating without CJ: 102.7

Despite Lillard’s hot start and his unquestioned best player status he’s not having the biggest impact on the offense. What gives?

Turns out, there’s a HUGE gap depending on which players Lillard plays alongside. Flank him with at least two other starters and the offense excels. Trot him out as the only starter and Portland struggles to put points on the board. Like really struggles. Every lineup with Lillard and three or more bench players has averaged fewer than 75 points per 100 possessions. The other starters weren’t a part of those lineups so their plus/minus numbers are much better.

This goes beyond just Lillard. Portland can add two bench players and be just fine. But once there’s three or four of them on the floor together the offense stalls. It doesn’t really matter which bench players Stotts picks. Turner and Crabbe have received the bulk of the criticism but it’s worth noting that they’ve done fine when grouped with the starters.

The problem is most of their minutes come alongside Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, and Meyers Leonard, who are all having terrible seasons. Despite the promising glimpses, Vonleh is shooting 36 percent from the field. Old reliable Ed Davis is shooting less than 55 percent at the rim, a terrible rate for a big man and the worst of his career. Leonard has earned his reputation as a plus offensive player but that’s entirely dependent on his outside shooting. He’s shooting 33 percent from behind the arc. Let’s not write off Turner and Crabbe until they get a little help up front.

With so few threats elsewhere, opposing defenses can focus in on Crabbe and Turner, who are struggling to be the engines of the second unit. Crabbe has never been much of a creator and his contract was a bet that he’d continue to improve. That hasn’t happened and he’s still settling for jumpers. Crabbe can finish a play fine but he hasn’t been able to force rotations and exploit cracks in the defense.

With Turner, the struggles are a bit more nuanced. He was a bench creator for Boston and excelled in that role for the most part. Evan was the lone ball handler for some of those lineups but he also played alongside Isaiah Thomas frequently. Those lineups with both Thomas and Turner were effective and they should be fairly similar to Turner playing alongside Dame or CJ. If Turner was a successful secondary ball handler in Boston, why is he struggling so much in Portland?

Unfortunately he might be a bad fit, but not in the way you’d expect. Stotts has tons of player movement in his offense and guards often run big loops around the court. His teams have ranked high in offensive miles traveled and low in passes. The same is true this season:

  • Offensive Miles Traveled per game: 9.58, No. 2 (9.50, No. 3)
  • Passes per game: 295.8, No. 19 (284.7, No. 25)

That’s the inverse of Brad Steven’s offense in Boston, which ranks high in passes and low in player movement. I thought all of this motion would help Turner be more effective. Non-shooters typically benefit from movement and complexity. It’s more difficult to cheat off of someone who’s moving than someone who’s stationary. However, I didn’t appreciate where that movement was located and how the defense could take advantage of it.

Stotts’ offense has a lot of cutting from the baseline to the wings or from the corners to the top of the key. Turner might be a credible threat along the baseline or in the corners but he really struggles above the break (see his shooting percentages above). When Turner moves from the baseline to the wing, defenders can stop short and cut off his lanes to the basket. Whenever he cuts from the wing to the top of the key, defenders can just go under the screen and meet him at the free throw line.

Even if Turner has a half-step advantage when he starts his cut, the defenders can make up that ground by taking a different angle. Instead of making Turner harder to guard, the movement in Stotts’ offense gives defenders an opportunity to recover and stall the offense.

A lot has been made about Evan Turner’s fit. Typically, the argument is that he needs the ball to be effective and he won’t have it playing next to Lillard and McCollum. That’s a bit oversimplified considering very few of his minutes have come alongside both guards and he played well next to Isaiah Thomas last year. In fact, the fit issues may not be so much who has the ball but where he is on the floor. Stotts’ has gotten a lot of credit for making players into better shooters but that might be a double-edged sword. Players may need to be good shooters to succeed in his offense.

If that’s the case, then Evan Turner’s struggles are much more fundamental. A successful marriage will require significant adjustments from Stotts, barring a miraculous improvement from ET. Stotts has made his living by getting the most out of his players so he might be up to the challenge. But it will require a significant reworking of the offense to fit Turner’s skill set, and I’d expect the second unit to look like a distinct offense rather than a continuation of the starters.

Stop by next Tuesday to see the quarter-season defensive check-in for the Blazers, if you dare...


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