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Explaining Why Pat Connaughton Starts for the Portland Trail Blazers

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Eric Griffith goes to the video to explain why Terry Stotts inserted Pat Connaughton into the starting lineup.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts surprised everyone five games ago when he inserted Pat Connaughton into the team’s starting lineup. Prior to Nov. 24, the third-year guard had been mostly unremarkable, scoring in double figures only twice in 18 appearances.

Stotts has a straightforward explanation for why he moved Connaughton into the starting lineup: “I went with [Connaughton] mainly to get shooting on the court. I felt like we needed some spacing.”

Connaughton has delivered, so far, averaging 10.3 points on 54 percent 3-point shooting over the last four games. His presence has helped his teammates too, as Stotts hoped — the Blazers offense has shot 50.7 percent on field goals and have an offensive rating of 116 with Connaughton on the floor since he became a starter. The team, however, has shot only 42.6 percent and has a rating of 109 with Connaughton on the bench. Let’s take a look at what he’s done to achieve that impact:

Connaughton Creates Space

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have transformed into elite NBA scorers over the last two seasons. They’re both capable of exploding for 40 points on a given night and are threats to pull up from three if given any space, and can drive hard to the rim if the defense overplays.

Many teams have begun to trap Lillard and McCollm on the perimeter to get the ball out of their hands, which creates a situation where three defenders are trying to cover two players. A quick pass will create an open shot — Connaughton is often the open shooter and he’s been taking advantage.

As mentioned above, Connaughton has been knocking down over half of his 3-point looks and the Blazers offense has been thriving as a result. Ball movement has also improved; 48.3 percent of field goals are assisted with Connaughton on the floor, but only 41 percent are assisted when he sits.

Lillard and McCollum both benefit when the threat of Connaughton’s shooting forces the defense to stay on the perimeter to prevent an open 3-pointer. Here’s a screenshot from this play against the Pelicans:

DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo are trying to trap Lillard, forcing Dante Cunningham to cover Jusuf Nurkic. Lillard has broken through the trap which should, theoretically, force another Pelicans’ defender to slide over and stop the ball, but E’Twuan Moore is staring at Connaughton and late to respond. The result: Lillard scores, with a spacing assist from Connaughton and Nurkic. This play doesn’t happen if Moore feels confident collapsing into the middle while letting a teammate rotate to the corner to cover Connaughton.

As one of the few reliable shooters on the roster, it’s not surprising that the offense sputters when Connaughton leaves the game. The defense faces no repercussions for putting heavy pressure on Lillard and McCollum and can easily shut down the offense:

Blazer’s Edge reader LaMarcusAldridgeMVP breaks down the Connaughton’s impact on this play, specifically, and the spacing, in general:

While Embiid, not Simmons, makes the crucial defensive play, look at how far Simmons is helping off Turner. He’s literally daring Turner to shoot the ball.

...

If the outlet here is Harkless or Turner, the defense has just blown up the entire play, since neither of them can make jumpshots from outside, and the ball usually ends up back in McLillard’s hands, giving them a short shot clock to work with.

If the outlet is Connaughton, he more often than not gets an open three or finds the open man as the defense scrambles to compensate for overhelping.

(Editor’s Note: Be sure to checkout LaMarcusAldridgeMVP’s entire article. It covers Connaughton’s spacing impact in more detail with more video examples. - Eric)

Connaughton the Cutter

Connaughton has become an analytics expert’s ideal player. In addition to dead-eye 3-point shooting, he’s attempted 14 shots at the rim in 23 minutes per game as a starter, translating to roughly one lay-up/dunk attempt every 12 minutes.

For context, Allen Crabbe, the player Connaughton has nominally replaced, averaged one dunk or lay-up attempt every 21.3 minutes last season.

Most of Connaughton’s scores around the rim have come off hard cuts, usually from the weakside, as the defense struggles to contain Portland’s primary scorers. Jusuf Nurkic, especially, has become adept at finding him.

Reading the Defense

Connaughton’s been able to score effectively on both cuts and 3-pointers because he consistently makes the correct decisions within Stotts’ read and react system.

At its simplest, the Blazers’ offense calls on the off-ball wings to go in motion and force defenders to go over or under screens. The offensive play responds by rolling to the hoop if the defender goes over, or popping out for a triple if the defender goes under. Connaughton regularly makes the correct reads in these situations and finds the open spots on the court, leading to easy baskets.

On this play, the defender trails Connaughton over the screen, triggering the Portland guard to loop hard back toward the rim. Nurkic finds him for an easy lay-up. If the defender had gone under the screen Connaughton could have popped out for an open 3-pointer.

Connaughton’s reads extend beyond simple plays in the Blazers’ offense; he has exploited defensive overplays in nearly any scenario. This allows Stotts to use Connaughton in a variety of roles beyond simple spot up shooter, including primary screener and ballhandler.

For example, here he improvises a simple give and go with Nurkic when Tony Snell over plays the pass. And on this play he begins as a screener, and then slides to open spot at the top of the key when the Knicks’ defenders stay home in the paint.

Connaughton also rarely makes mistakes with the ball, committing only a single turnover in over 100 minutes of playing time as a starter.

Connaughton’s Limitations — the Checkdown Receiver

Connaughton’s offensive game is not perfect. In many ways, calling on Connaughton for offense is like relying on checkdown screen passes to a running back in football. The play can be very effective, but it’s heavily dependent on solid blocking and the defense being occupied with the star receivers.

Reviewing the plays highlighted above reveals a similar theme; Connaughton takes advantage of the open space and offensive gravity of his teammates but he can’t create scoring opportunities without their help. In short, he relies heavily on his teammates to create his scoring opportunities.

Blazers’ fans saw this principle in action against the Bucks on Nov. 30. Connaughton finished the game with only 4 points on 2-for-7 shooting and rarely had open looks. The Bucks’ defenders used length to stop McLillard and Nurkic from hitting secondary scorers for open looks, so plays that usually come easily were labored or ineffective.

Connaughton had similar problems to Vonleh, often finding himself open on the perimeter but the Blazers’ guards were unable to get him the ball. For example, on this play, Connaughton was open for a 3-pointer after giving the ball to McCollum:

But McCollum couldn’t make the pass around three Bucks’ defenders and missed a lay-up. Here’s an example of the play being run effectively.

On this play, identical to one reviewed above, Connaughton reads the defense correctly and cuts to the basket, receiving a pass from Nurkic, but the Bucks’ defenders respond and cut off his driving lane:

Connaughton, not used to this shot being challenged on cuts like this one, forces up a contested lay-up.

Stotts would play him only 16 minutes for the game, preferring to give Evan Turner 27 minutes. This decision likely stemmed from a realization that the secondary offense usually available to Connaughton would meet stronger defensive resistance and more playmaking would be needed.

This weakness reveals the limits to Connaughton’s game when compared to past Blazers’ sharpshooters like Wes Matthews, who was able to score out of the post relibly. Connaughton does not have a similar go-to skill and will likely struggle in certain matchups, leading to potentially frustrating up-and-down box scores.

Whether or not Connaughton stays effective in the long term, and especially in the playoffs, will depend on his ability to score against stouter defenses, like Milwaukee, who do not cede buckets on straightforward backdoor cuts and curls.

Connaughton’s Role going Forward

Taken together, Connaughton’s shooting ability, hard cuts, decision making, and mistake-free play make him an asset for a team that has struggled to find offensive consistency. He plays within his role and can make decisions that exploit defenses that overplay the primary scorers. Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic all benefit from having Connaughton on the court, compared to the team’s other options.

With that said, the reactionary nature of his offensive game will result in strained performances against better defenses. In the long run, he’ll need to add a go-to shot creating move to his offense, or he’ll struggle to become more than a spot-starter.