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The Blazers’ Offense Continues Improving

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The Blazers’ offense still leads the charge, as they still can’t seem to get their defense consistent.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers sit at 18-25 with a little over half of their games in the books. Another quarter of the season has passed, which means it’s time for another check-in. As usual, we’ll start with the offense.

Team Offense

Offensive Rating: 107.2, No. 9 (106.1, No. 7)

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

In a statement that will shock no one, the Trail Blazers have been better during the second quarter of the season. Their Offensive Rating has improved and they’re doing just about everything better. Their improvement compared to last year has widened even further.

Four Factors

  • EFG%: 52.0%, No. 10 (51.1%, No. 8)
  • TO per 100 possessions: 13.6, No. 11 (14.8, No. 17)
  • OREB%: 21.7 percent, No. 24 (25.9 percent, No. 3)
  • FT Rate (FTA/FGA): 0.275, No. 16 (0.268, No. 17)

All the trends we identified at the quarter pole are holding strong. Portland has made a modest improvement in shooting percentage and is slightly better at getting to the line. In the possession battle, the Blazers are offsetting fewer second-chance points with a reduction in turnovers.

During the first quarter of the season, the rebounding slump wasn’t related to small ball. Some of Portland’s best offensive rebounding lineups were small ball units. Every single Blazers’ big was having a worse rebounding season and Ed Davis’ production had fallen off a cliff.

Now, the data has shifted. Ed Davis’ Offensive Rebounding Percentage is starting to approach his career average. The Blazers’ starting lineup with Al-farouq Aminu at power forward is getting a much larger share of the minutes and only pulling down 20 percent of offensive rebounds. That same group secured 25 percent last year. I also took every lineup with two traditional big men and found their collective offensive rebounding percentage by weighting each lineup according to how many minutes it played. “Big” lineups have collected about 24 percent of the available offensive rebounds. That percentage is well above the team’s average of 21.7 percent, indicating small ball units are pulling down the team’s numbers. As the season progresses and the sample sizes get larger, Portland hasn’t been able to escape the small ball trade-off.

However, that trade off has been worth it from an offensive perspective. The offense is playing better than last year and the improved shooting, turnovers, and foul shooting has outweighed the regression in rebounding. Almost every team that’s tried small-ball has found the benefits outweigh the costs and Portland is no exception.

Shot Locations

Portland’s shot distribution has remained fairly consistent compared to last year and remarkably consistent over the course of the season.

Corner threes have gone down in the second quarter of the season and Portland is now taking fewer than last year. In their place, Portland is shooting more threes from Above the Break and more shots In the Paint. They’ve also traded Mid-Range looks for looks In the Paint.

The Above the Break region is particularly interesting because it reflects the changes happening in the NBA. In that region, Portland’s percentage has increased but their rank has fallen. The Trail Blazers have improved but other teams have improved faster.

The same is true of Portland’s offense overall. Just like Above the Break threes, Portland improved their ORTG but has fallen in league rank from 7th to 9th.

These things are likely related. As the league moves out to the 3-point line, the offenses have gotten more potent. Portland is taking more threes and scoring more points per possession, but teams are passing them in both categories. There’s so many problems with the defense, it’s hard to even think about the offense, but the improvement around the league is noteworthy. Portland is top-10 for now but, if the trends continue, they will need to pick it up to keep their spot.

The Blazers started the year shooting a much better percentage at the rim and they’ve more or less maintained that improvement. Lillard continues to finish well while McCollum has recovered after a poor start to the year. Both players are now shooting better in the restricted area compared to last year:

  • Damian Lillard: 63.4% (54.6%)
  • CJ McCollum: 55.3% (52.2%)

*stats from basketball-reference.com

Mason Plumlee is also having a great year, putting in about 70 percent of his shots near the rim. These three players are the ones most often involved in pick-and-rolls and their collective finishing makes them much more dangerous. Throw in Dame and CJ’s outside shooting and that action is almost impossible to guard.

Portland would be doing much better as a team if it weren’t for Ed Davis and Aminu. Both were reliable finishers last year who continue to struggle. Aminu is barely hitting half his shots and Davis remains under 60 percent. If they can get back to where they were last year, the Blazers would have threats all over the floor.

Play Type

The most notable change in the first quarter of the season was the decline in Roll Man plays and increase in Spot-Ups. Plumlee was kicking out to shooters much more often and it showed in the data. Instead of finishing and having it recorded as a “Roll Man” play, Plumlee would pass to an open shooter.

This shift from “Roll Man” to “Spot-Up” still exists but it has lessened. Compared to the first quarter, Roll Man plays are up five percent while Spot Up plays are down by the same margin. As Plumlee has expanded his passing, teams have adjusted. They’ve started cutting off his passing lanes and he’s finding more opportunities at the rim. Ideally, Portland's’ bigs would be able to do both, but taking away the pass has consistently been the better option.

Portland’s bigs still rank poorly as the roll man. It’s part of the reason why teams still trap McCollum and Lillard. Even with Plumlee’s progress, forcing the Blazers’ bigs are in the bottom third of the league.

The Perimeter Forwards

The pick-and-roll is the engine in Portland’s offense, but it needs space to work. The Blazers need their forwards to knock down outside shots.

Moe Harkless has maintained his hot start while Aminu has struggled. Last year, Chief shot 36 percent while Harkless struggled at 28 percent. This year, those numbers have just about flipped. The hope was that Harkless would join Aminu as an outside threat, not replace him. Opponents still have someone they can leave open to muck up the rest of Portland’s offense. Instead of adding a weapon and changing the geometry of the floor, the Blazers’ starting forwards have essentially swapped jersey numbers.

Evan Turner has never had success behind the arc but many hoped he would at least improve his percentage from the corners. To his credit, Turner has done that. Thirty-eight percent is nothing to sneeze at and it makes him a threat from at least some areas of the floor.

Incorporating Evan Turner

One of Evan Turner’s main jobs was to get Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum off the ball more. This would help diversify their games and make them harder to guard. It looks like this is happening, albeit at a very small level.

The decreases in the seconds and dribbles per touch indicates the team is pounding the ball at the top of the key less often. Both Lillard and McCollum have seen their seconds per touch and dribbles per touch decrease as well. The problem is, that hasn’t had the positive impact everyone had hoped.

Portland’s offense dropped off whenever Lillard sat down last year. Turner was supposed to help keep it afloat by keeping a second playmaker on the floor at all times. But after some early season noise, Portland’s offense is still a shadow of itself without Lillard.

  • Offensive Rating with Dame: 112.7 (110.8)
  • Offensive Rating without Dame: 104.9 (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.

These numbers are starting to turn around. Since Dec. 1, Turner has played 399 minutes with either Dame or CJ. During those minutes, Portland has scored about 109 points per 100 possessions, according to NBAwowy.com. That’s a very solid number which would rank just outside the top-10. For the first time, both the starters and the bench are consistently producing. It’s taken numerous adjustments from all parties but the team is starting to work like the front office planned (well, offensively at least).

Allen Crabbe’s resurgence has played a big role in this improvement. He’s scorching from deep, hitting almost half his threes since the beginning of December, but his improvements go well beyond shooting. He’s much more aggressive and has been willing to dribble into the heart of the defense. I’ve even seen a pocket pass or two.

It will be interesting to see how teams value Turner and Crabbe at the trade deadline. Considering their seasons as a whole, it’s hard to imagine they have any value at this point. However, they’re certainly playing better and another solid month could substantially boost their resumes. At that point, perhaps President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey could convince an opposing GM that the Turner and Crabbe of late are more representative of their skills.

This could be critical because, regardless of whether Turner and Crabbe work out in the long run, Portland could have some unique opportunities this deadline. Who knows when a number of quality big men will all be available market again. Olshey has a narrow window to upgrade the roster. It would be a shame if Turner and Crabbe build their value only after those opportunities have passed.

On the other hand, Olshey should be careful not to sell too low. LaMarcus Aldridge’s departure took away any margin for error and they’ve already had their share of bad luck. Panic trades rarely benefit the struggling team and Portland desperately needs to come out on top of any potential deal.

But then again, it may be foolish to assume Turner and Crabbe will continue to improve. They look like they’re on an upward trajectory now but extrapolating has been impossible with this team. How many times have they seemingly turned a corner just to fall back into bad habits? Perhaps Olshey should cut and run and see what he can get in the draft.

As you can see, their unpredictability makes it so much harder to make decisions. The trends that make a move necessary are obstacles to making a deal at all. It’s a negative cycle that Olshey will struggle to turn around all by himself. If the players can pull it together before the deadline, it will be much easier for the front office to improve the roster. If they can’t, then it will be even harder to right to ship. Only time will tell.


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