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Why Don’t the Trail Blazers Run More?

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Portland is producing fast break points at a historically low rate. What’s going on?

NBA: Orlando Magic at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into tonight’s bout with the Sacramento Kings, the Portland Trail Blazers own an 8-6 record off of 104.6 points produced per game. The former number is mediocre compared to expectations; the latter is down more than three points from last season’s rate. A Blazer’s Edge reader wonders if lack of fast-break points could be part of the issue. Quick guards like Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, plus athletic wings, plus big rebounders should equate to buckets on the run, right? As it turns out, maybe not.

Hi Dave - Long time reader first time mailbag writer here...I'm wondering if you can shed some light on why Portland is dead last - and it's not even close - in fast break scoring? Back in the 80's and 90's it was conventional wisdom that if your team was (1) young (2) athletic (3) rebounded well (4) had better than average depth and (5) was in need of offensive diversity, then without question you would look for every fast break opportunity you could. Turn the game into a track meet and the odds of winning go up. Way up. It seems to me the Blazers can check each one of those 5 boxes.

What do you think Dave? I'd love to see Nurk firing outlet passes to a streaking Harkless...I'd love to see Dame and CJ running so hard that defenses collapse and are nearly dead when Shabazz comes in and gives them and even speedier target to chase down the court.

River

I posited at the beginning of the season that the Blazers would try to fastbreak more. I still think they should. Several factors may be intervening against, however.

The first may be small sample size. Portland hasn’t been around the league or around the conference yet. I don’t think they’ll soar from 30th to 1st after they do, but the disparity may not be quite as wide as it seems at this juncture.

The Blazers are currently scoring 4.4 fast break points per game. That leaves them 1.5 behind the 29th-place New York Knicks and a whopping 22.2 per game short of the league-leading Golden State Warriors. Last year’s 30th-place team, the Dallas Mavericks, scored 7.8. No team has finished below 7 fast break points per game since the Blazers posted a 6.3 back in 2006-07. The 4.4 will not hold up.

You foreshadowed another factor in your question. In the traditional fast break the center rebounds, the point guard runs, and a wing finishes. Pulses quicken when we recall Kevin Duckworth or Buck Williams snagging the rock, flipping it to Terry Porter, who then hit a streaking Clyde Drexler or Jerome Kersey for the thunderous finish. The 2017-18 Trail Blazers aren’t designed to function like that.

Everybody in Portland’s system rebounds. That’s one of the reasons they’re so dominant on the glass. Their top eight rotation players all average 4+ per game. Only Shabazz Napier (3.4) and Jake Layman (insert Family Feud buzzer here) post fewer than 4 rebounds per 36 minutes. Guards and wings are staying in front of their men, shadowing down into the lane, and trying to nab the carom. As a result, their turn-around time in transition is longer. Opponents are already out in front of them, muting the break before it even starts.

Portland’s wings also happen to be the worst offensive players in the lineup. Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Noah Vonleh can all throw down a dunk. Can they catch on the run? Which of them to do you trust to beat a man with a nifty escape move? Shots from Lillard and McCollum in the halfcourt might be preferable to any of those three dribbling against a defender. Daylight isn’t sufficient; Portland’s wings need to be completely unguarded in order to finish with confidence. That seldom happens.

This leaves the dynamic duo of Lillard and McCollum themselves. Neither one would turn away an easy shot, but Lillard has always been more comfortable as a slow-down guard and McCollum is more likely to make the highlight reels for jumpers than layups. Even if they wanted to buck their natural tendencies, energy is a finite resource. The Blazers need to focus on defense. Those two guards proved weak points last season. They’ve been asked to step up, which siphons off their stamina. They’ll not be eager to drain further energy, upping the pace and engaging in footraces with defenders to generate scoring opportunities they could have gotten in the halfcourt anyway.

Most break opportunities don’t actually end in dunks, or even in scores. Tiring opponents is part of the plan for any running team. Given Portland’s depth and reliance on their Big Three, they’d end up fatiguing themselves more than the enemy. Most opponents would only have to run hard when the Blazers came to town. The Blazers would have to run hard every night.

The Blazers do need to score more easy buckets. I believe they will, but I’d be surprised if the break becomes a staple unless the lineup changes radically. Even when opining during the pre-season that Portland would run more based on rebounding, we were talking about eking out 3-4 more points a game...a significant difference, but more opportunism than change in philosophy. Increasing by that much, they’d have been average. As it turns out, the Blazers are 6.9 points below last year’s level. Even if they’re scoring in other ways and shaving 10 points off of the opponent’s score with improved defense, that hurts. When they get back to normal—which they probably will, given the small sample size—the view will be sunnier. Until then, games will end up looking a little uglier, and end up far closer, than they need to.

Send your Mailbag question to blazersub@gmail.com or hit me up on twitter @davedeckard!

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com