In the summer of 2015, after the Portland Trail Blazers lost four of their five starters, most pundits predicted that the team would plummet to the bottom of the Western Conference. It’s a testament to Head Coach Terry Stotts’ basketball acumen that the team has found a way into the playoffs the last two seasons, despite replacing veterans like LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews with unproven youngsters like Noah Vonleh and Maurice Harkless.
Stotts is recognized throughout the league as one of the best in the business when it comes to designing an offense. Despite the major changes in personnel throughout his tenure, he has always found a way to tweak the offense to maximize his players’ capabilities.
In past years, he has integrated plays for Matthews on the block to take advantage of Wes’ developing post game, increased Nicolas Batum’s role as the primary ballhandler in various lineups, and given Aldridge differing looks in the pick-and-pop. So, assuming all of Portland’s major players are back this season, what changes should Stotts implement this year?
The biggest adjustment staring the team in the face is the full utilization of center Jusuf Nurkic. By default, Nurkic will be better integrated when the season kicks off next October, but he has already revealed some ability that hints at some differently designed plays.
With Nurkic’s ability to find cutters (and willingness to make risky passes), look for more sets that make him a playmaker. Last season it was common to see Harkless, and occasionally Vonleh, curl around a screener from the corner for an easy layup or dunk. While previous Blazers center Mason Plumlee was a fine passer in his own right, he wasn’t much of a threat to do anything else with the ball in his hands. With Nurkic’s unique gravity, expect Stotts to give Nurkic even more options at the top of the key.
The big on-court question headed into last season was “how is Evan Turner going to fit within Portland’s offense?” The results were mixed to say the least, with Turner getting off to a horrendous start and then, after finally finding a bit of a groove, breaking his hand. Upon his return from the injury, he found that Portland had added a center in Nurkic whose usage rate rivaled that of CJ McCollum.
That creates something of a logjam for Stotts as Turner was also at his best when he was handling the ball and working his defender into the paint. Turner is a poor outside shooter, but shot 52 percent from 3-10 feet. Interestingly, he has a reputation as a mid-range shooter, but has seen his percentages from 10 feet out to the 3-point line fall for two consecutive years.
Most strikingly, last season Turner was assisted on only 17 percent of his made shots. Over his career, that number jumps to above 35 percent. Even ignoring his first early years in Philadelphia, Turner is playing isolation basketball even more than he ever has in his career.
Stotts may be able to take advantage of Turner’s inside effectiveness by designing some off-ball plays for Turner next season, specifically flashing to the paint around a Nurkic pick for an easy assisted spot up jumper. The team ran a similar play for Allen Crabbe several times late in the season with solid results.
Re-distributing Outside Shot Attempts
Stotts is known as an offensive mastermind, and with good reason. As stated above, he allows his players to make good decisions and have the freedom to take open shots without hesitation. But should Evan Turner, a 26 percent shooter from beyond the arc, be taking two 3-pointers a game? How about Al-Farouq Aminu taking three-and-a-half 3-pointers per game at 33 percent?
Stotts has got to find a way to limit these shots while still maintaining the freedom that his offense provides, which may not be possible. Portland can’t afford to lose the fluidity that the freedom to make on-court decisions provides. But the team also can’t afford to have teams know that they can leave Turner and Aminu open from the outside because they have the green light to chuck it up.
I’m not sure what the answer is here, but when you have Allen Crabbe and Al-Farouq Aminu shooting virtually the same amount of 3-pointers per game, adjustments need to be made.
Readers, let us know what you think in the comments! What offensive tweaks should Portland make as they head into next season?