The Portland Trail Blazers are struggling right now. Nowhere is this more evident, and more surprising, than in their offensive production. A team with Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic—coming off of a season in which they ranked 8th in scoring and 11th in offensive efficiency—is not supposed to live among the bottom third of NBA offenses. That’s exactly where the Blazers are.
Yesterday we addressed a Mailbag question asking who the “real” Blazers were and what’s happening with their offense. To complete that answer, here are four things that are holding back Portland’s production.
Spreading the Floor Doesn’t Matter Anymore
The Bible on the Blazers used to be pretty clear: if the wings hit their three-point shots, Portland’s offense was unstoppable. The lane would clear, Lillard and McCollum (and later Jusuf Nurkic) would feast inside. Even though the forwards didn’t always come through, the theory was sound and the threat present.
A funny thing has happened this season, especially of late. Al-Farouq Aminu is shooting 46% from beyond the arc. Recent starter Pat Connaughton stands at 43%, three-guard-lineup wonder Shabazz Napier at 49%. Nobody cares. Defenses will still close out on obvious looks, but for the most part they’re leaving the wing shooters alone in order to cram another athletic defender inside.
Portland’s last loss to the Washington Wizards was a classic example. Aminu shot 5-8 from distance and posted 17 points, almost doubling his season average. The Aminu-Connaughton-Napier trio fired 50% from the arc combined. The Blazers scored only 92 and lost handily.
Connaughton shot poorly from distance in that Washington game, only 1-5. Had he managed 3-5, which would have brought the triple-clique to an amazing 10-14 beyond the arc, Portland still wouldn’t have cracked 100 total points.
Here’s the list of bad things that can happen when opponents leave Portland’s wings outside alone:
- They might hit the shot.
That’s it. None of them are a driving threat. With the defense playing 5-on-4 against everybody else, there’s nobody to pass to. If they miss the attempt, the defense wins. Even if they hit, it’s pretty hard for any amount of scoring from Aminu, Connaughton, and Napier to kill you. It’ll happen, but rarely.
Now here’s the list of good things that result from keeping an extra defender near the lane:
- Shut off Lillard and McCollum driving angles
- Force Nurkic to take longer making his post moves, increasing the chances he’ll turn it over
- Stop momentum on the Nurkic-Lillard high pick and roll before it starts
- Close off passing lanes
- Crowd McCollum’s mid-range shot
- Take away offensive rebounds, including those that might result from three-point wing misses
Those things strike right to the core of Portland’s scoring potential, hampering their biggest names while taking away one of their supplemental offensive strengths (rebounding). Once opponents figured this out, it was like the guy smacking his head in an old V8 commercial. Everybody started doing it.
It’s one thing to say, “If the Blazers are successful at this strategy (of shooting three-pointers), their offense will be scary.” It’s quite another to say, “Even if the strategy succeeds, it won’t make that much of a difference.” Portland was in the former situation last year. Now opponents dare them to do their worst with the ancillary players, knowing they’ve got the big guns muffled. One or two of the main three scorers might go off even with extra attention in the middle, but it’s unlikely all three will...especially McCollum, who wasn’t taking the highest percentage shots to begin with.
Attrition Breeds Disinterest
Lacking scoring depth, faced with extra defenders inside, the Blazers get forced into isolation ball. This is not as bad as it seems. Almost any shot from Lillard is preferable to the average attempt from scorers 4-12 on this team. But once upon a time the Blazers managed to generate quality attempts for their main scorers through crisp screens and decoy motion. As the supporting cast has been frozen out of the offense, their enthusiasm about participating in same seems to have waned.
You can’t fault Ed Davis or Noah Vonleh. They seem revved up most every night. (They’re also rotten scorers and floor-spacers, illustrating the team’s conundrum.) But overall Portland’s screening game has gotten sloppy or disappeared. Offensive rebounding—once a blazing strength—has started to slip towards mediocrity. Off-ball movement has slowed to a standstill. Whatever passion existed in early November seems to have drizzled away like a winter rain, making those isolation sets both more necessary and correspondingly harder.
Easy Points Have Evaporated
We’ve already chronicled Portland’s horrid 4.1 point-per-game production on the fast break, a historically-low mark that trails the entire league by a wide margin. One can argue system and personnel conspire against transition scoring. The problem is, they’re not making it up anywhere else.
The Blazers rank 25th in the league in Points in the Paint, 27th in Points off Turnovers. Even though they’re 9th in offensive rebounds per game and offensive rebounding percentage, they rank 16th in second-chance points . They’re also down to 13th in the league in free throws attempted per game. A month ago they ranked 6th in that category.
In every conceivable source of easy scoring, the Blazers range from poor to mediocre (holding an anchor). You can get away with that for a week. Over the course of a season, it’ll come back to haunt you.
The Bench is Back to Dullsville
Despite occasional highlight-worthy outbursts, the Blazers bench is packed with dismal scorers. They rank 25th overall in bench scoring, more than 20 points shy of the league-leading Sacramento Kings. Their field goal percentage also ranks 25th, free throw attempts 24th. Their three-point shooting is a relatively robust 13th, but as we said above, they’re being ceded those shots. Those points aren’t making enough of a difference.
Early in the season the Blazers averaged positive differentials in all four quarters. They’re still high in the first, third, and fourth. Their second-quarter margin has dropped like a rock. That’s the period in which bench players are likely to play unfiltered.
To their credit, Portland’s starters rank 9th in the NBA in scoring and three-point percentage, 8th in free throw attempts. That isn’t nearly enough momentum to overcome the second-unit millstone around their neck.
(P.S. Those starters rank 25th in overall field goal percentage and 19th in offensive efficiency, so not all’s rosy there either.)
Put it all together, and it’s pretty easy to see why huge scoring games from the Big 3 are changing from wonderful bonuses to near mandatory. Every other possibility is being slowly whittled away by a combination of defensive attention and offensive ineptitude. That’s not a crisis if Lillard and McCollum find themselves free on a nightly basis, but the opposite is happening. When opponents have to pick and choose what to stop, you have a good chance of winning. When they can stop everything they want to and the rest doesn’t matter, your team’s in trouble. Against good defensive teams, this is starting to happen with regularity. The Blazers haven’t found a solution yet. Whether that’s tweaking the system or getting new players, they need to...and soon.
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