As the 2017 NBA Playoffs march toward their eventual conclusion with a champion crowned next month, the Portland Trail Blazers sit on the outside after suffering a 4-0 sweep in the first round via the Golden State Warriors. Clearly the Blazers, despite their strong finish to the season, have plenty of progress to make before they can be considered a true challenger in the West. Why not take a look at some of the current teams they could draw inspiration from as they look to make a push next year and beyond?
Obviously, a team like the Cleveland Cavaliers—one that takes the best all-around player in the world and surround him with quality veterans—is out. Unless the Blazers clear major cap space, sign a bunch of veterans desperate to win a ring, learn how to defend, and see Damian LIllard or CJ McCollum quickly develop into one of the better two-way players in the league, they aren’t going to be able to follow the Cavs’ path.
So what are some of the teams they’d be able to somewhat mirror? The Houston Rockets, Washington Wizards, and Toronto Raptors have all reached realistically attainable levels of success for a team like the Blazers.
Though they were just eliminated by the San Antonio Spurs in a blowout loss on last week, the Rockets exceeded nearly everyone’s expectations this season, and they did it with one thing—3-point shooting. The Rockets already had one of the best offensive threats in the game in James Harden, and surrounded him with 3-point shooters such as Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, and Trevor Ariza.
The Rockets’ game plan was based on one simple fact: a 3-pointer is worth 50 percent more than a 2-point shot. Houston attempted more than 46 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc with a team full of poor defenders and little post presence—not to mention a 15th-ranked 3-point shooting team by percentage—and managed to win 55 games by simply outgunning their opponent every night in the process.
With Portland’s current roster makeup, this is an approach that makes sense, even if not to the extreme to which Houston takes it. The Blazers attempted 32 percent of their looks from the 3-point line and shot nearly 38 percent from beyond the arc. While the team does have Jusuf Nurkic to pose some sort of threat in the post, coach Terry Stotts may want to look to have his team shoot more from deep.
However, that comes with drawbacks. While Portland does have long-range bombers such as Lillard, McCollum, and Allen Crabbe on the roster, they also feature players like Evan Turner and Al-Farouq Aminu—players who don’t necessarily inspire confidence with their range.
Stotts’ coaching philosophy does encourage everyone to shoot if they have an open look, so either that would need to change slightly, or, more likely, some of the personnel would need to change. Additionally, players like Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless, both adequate shooters when left wide-open, would need to demonstrate further (or renewed) ability to cash in from deep.
Playing a high-paced long-range bombing style of game could potentially benefit the Blazers if they aren’t able to address their deficiencies on the defensive end. It certainly would be interesting to see how Nurkic would handle the up-and-down pace of such a scheme, but, done with some minor tweaks, Portland could see some success hoping to outgun everyone else in the Western Conference.
Along with the Blazers and Warriors, the Washington Wizards feature one of the three best backcourts in the NBA in John Wall and Bradley Beal. While the Wizards possess explosive scoring out of their dynamic duo, they also receive surprisingly solid contributions from their supporting cast. Washington had six players average double figures this season, compared to Portland’s five (not including Mason Plumlee) and featured a small forward who shot better than 43 percent from distance (Otto Porter, Allen Crabbe).
Similar to Portland, the Wizards don’t feature a stellar defense, ranked 20th in the NBA. However, the two teams differ in converting their defense to offense. The Wizards are the third-best team in the league at forcing turnovers and rank fourth in the NBA in fast break points. The Blazers? Not quite as good: they’re fourth-worst in the league at forcing turnovers and 22nd in the NBA in fast break points.
The Blazers have the youth and athleticism to get out on the break but transition basketball has never been a hallmark of team coached by Stotts. Perhaps Portland should look to take more chances on the perimeter and turn them into some easy buckets. After all, Nurkic can more ably hold down the interior and the team is poor at defending the wings anyway.
The Raptors have a solid core, similar to Portland’s in more ways than one. Super-talented scoring point guard? Check. Productive, high-volume shooting guard? Check. Back-to-the-basket center with a decent jump shot? Check. All-around small forward who had a disappointing year after signing a big contract? Yeah...probably gotta check that one off too. Toronto has a good nucleus and has simply had the unfortunate luck of running into the Cavaliers in the last two postseasons.
The Raptors are sort of the anti-Houston Rockets. They play fairly solid defense and try to control the game at a slower pace, with only about 95 possessions per game. They also only take 28 percent of their looks from beyond the arc, looking to play more isolation while getting to the rim at a high rate.
Portland has a pair of stellar isolation guards in Lillard and McCollum, though I’m not sure they should look to play even more one-on-one. Toronto’s defense, though, could provide a blueprint. Obviously Nurkic improved the Blazers defensively, but a power forward like Serge Ibaka—able to stretch the floor on offense while challenging shots on defense—is something Portland simply doesn’t have. There is hope for Noah Vonleh to develop into that type of player and, though he’s not there yet, his further blossoming would be big in this regard for the Blazers.
Portland, as the youngest squad in the league, has a decision to make: what kind of team do they want to be? It’s easy to say they want to be an offensively-oriented team, but before Wesley Matthews went down with his Achilles injury, the team was playing at a high level of defense, and still finished with the 10th-stingiest defense in 2014-15.
This will all likely come down to new personnel. The Blazers have a handful of contracts they’d love to move, if possible, and hold three first-round picks in next month’s draft. Any moves in June and July will give us a hint about what adjustments the team hopes to make next season.