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Trail Blazers Wandering in Assist Desert

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Portland has scoring punch, but their passes aren’t exploiting it.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

In the midst of an up-and-down season, the Portland Trail Blazers are struggling to find answers to basic questions. Why is their offense languishing just when their best scorers are hitting their primes? How does a team with so many athletes generate so few fast-break points? And then there’s the matter of passing. Terry Stotts is known for teaching a beautiful, motion-filled offense. So why do the Blazers rank dead last in the NBA in assists?

Dave, mailbag fodder.

The Blazers are currently last in the league in assists per game (by a good margin). This strikes me as odd because it doesn't seem like we should be with Terry's flow offense nor do we have particularly selfish players. It also seems like a bad place to be in the modern NBA where ball movement and drive and kick 3s are such a big part of the league.

Do you think this is a product of our offense or players? Do you think team assists are an important stat to get up if we are to be a successful playoff team?

Thanks,

It’s less a product of the system than the players occupying it and the situation of the team.

The heyday of the Stotts “sharing offense” came in the late LaMarcus Aldridge years. In 2013-14 the Blazers ranked 12th in the NBA in assists per possession at .23. A year later they came in 15th at .22. Neither one was sterling on the ordinal scale but considering the league leaders tallied between .25-.26, it wasn’t bad.

Portland started falling off the pace as soon as Aldridge departed (along with all the three-point spot-up shooters), but the real decline came in 2016-17 when they finished 25th in the league. This year they’re dead last at .18 with the Golden State Warriors leading the league at .29. That’s a huge drop and a huge gap. The “sharing offense” hasn’t been sharing for a while now.

It’s a safe bet that the Blazers would still be running their old offense if they could. They simply don’t have the personnel to support it anymore.

Among the 8 Blazers who depend on assists to set up at least half of their field goal attempts, only Meyers Leonard and Noah Vonleh are shooting above 45%. They’ve combined for only 117 of Portland’s 2299 total field goal attempts this season. Al-Farouq Aminu shoots right at 45%. He accounts for 106 more attempts. That leaves Portland’s “hot” assist-receiver attempts (shots from guys who make use of passes and who actually shoot well) at about 10% of their total shots. The other 90% come from players who don’t use assists (Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, primarily), players who don’t shoot regularly, or players who shouldn’t be shooting.

The story improves a little when we narrow down to three-point attempts. Four Blazers who shoot a statistically-significant number of threes depend on assists to set them up: Aminu, Pat Connaughton, Evan Turner, and Moe Harkless. Aminu is by far the best bet, hitting over 48% of his triples. Connaughton is good at 39%. Between them, they account for 21% of Portland’s three-point attempts. (Harkless and Turner are awful from the arc. They combine for 12% of the attempts.) Compared to overall field goal numbers, this is assist paradise for Portland: 1 in 5 actual shots coming from good, assist-dependent shooters doubles the norm. But that still means 4 in 5 three-point shots come from non-assisted, infrequent, or bad shooters.

In short, the guys who would be the recipient of assists either don’t get enough shots (Aminu/Leonard/Connaughton) or don’t hit the shots they take (Turner/Harkless). To generate more assists, the Blazers need to get more shots from Meyers Leonard, Noah Vonleh, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Pat Connaughton. That’s probably not a sound or sane game plan, though. Shooting more frequently would probably drop the shooting percentages from that quartet rather than raising the assist rate.

Just passing to open shooters doesn’t tell the complete story of the motion offense. Having multiple players able to dish the rock made the passing game flow naturally for the Aldridge-era teams. They weren’t dependent on catch-and-shoot off of moves from a single point guard. They sported three major rotation players with 7 or more assists per 100 possessions. Only their biggest bigs were incapable of passing.

Fully half of the 2017-18 Trail Blazers rank below 2013-14 Joel Freeland in assists per possession. (Freeland was 13th out of 15 Blazers in assists per possession that year...bottom of the barrel.) This includes 5 of Portland’s currently-significant rotation players. Passes are going one way: from the guards, to a shooter/scorer, full stop.

This year Damian Lillard averages 8.2 assists per 100 Possessions. Shabazz Napier and Evan Turner average half that, and it goes downward from there. Most of Portland’s questionable shooters are also questionable passers. There’s no Nicolas Batum zipping through the defense or Aldridge threading needle passes to long-range shooters from steady post position.

If the Blazers could get better shots at the rim, they could raise assists even with questionable shooters and passers. Tossing alley-oops and hitting backdoor cutters isn’t that hard; converting those shots is even easier. They just don’t generate those looks.

Then you have the obvious presence of the starting guard. Lillard is assisted on just 14% of his shots, CJ McCollum on 21%. Those numbers rise to 38% and 64% on three-pointers. Getting CJ more open looks from three would raise Portland’s assist level. As soon as defenses see that happening, though, they’re going to move to stop it. That’s going to force McCollum into dribbling for his shot, taking away the assist. Even if the Blazers managed it perfectly, they’d probably only add to the total marginally.

In the end, low assists is an automatic by-product of having two phenomenal ball-handling scorers in the backcourt and basically nothing else reliable outside of a center who also likes to get his own shot. You can try to finesse tricks with 6’s and 7’s, but your Ace and King will remain the money play no matter what. That’s where Portland has gone with their offense.

Fortunately for the Blazers, assist totals are more a result of playing style than an indicator of good play. Historically the correlation between assists and elite status has been sketchy. Golden State has established a new standard recently and the San Antonio Spurs have led the league in assist efficiency multiple times, but plenty of bad teams have ranked highly as well. Increasing assists alone doesn’t mean that you’re winning more, or even playing better.

Unfortunately for the Blazers, a minuscule assist total could also indicate that other agendas are starting to creep into the mix. It’s too early to speculate on such, but teams do give up on players who fail to perform. Some guys get passed to, some don’t. Those frozen out of the offense end up participating less enthusiastically, and then the ball moves even less.

Keep in mind that individual scoring totals weigh into contracts (a fairly secure issue for most Portland players) and national recognition (less so). When teams start under-performing, there’s incentive for players to go into business for themselves. That’s partially to right the ship, partially to make sure they don’t sink with it. It’ll be interesting to see what the offense looks like from late January onward. Until then, count trailing the league in assists by a large margin as an interesting side-effect of Portland’s style of play and general effectiveness, but not a primary issue in itself. The Blazers have plenty of other things to worry about that are more important and indicative.

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