Albert Einstein once said “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler”. It stands to reason that simple shots in basketball are preferable to difficult ones. While a contested three over a double team will look great on the highlight reel, an open layup works far more often.
The easiest baskets tend to come on fast breaks and in transition, but that was an area that the Portland Trail Blazers fell short in last season. After finishing 21st in transition offense in 2015-2016, and 25th in 2016-2017, the team bottomed out at 30th last season, with 10.5% of possessions in transition.
Part of that is the style preached by head coach Terry Stotts, a conservative approach to limit the opponent’s fast break opportunities as well. And it has worked, with Portland ranking in the top ten in transition defense in each of the last three seasons, including sixth last year.
However, these concepts do not have to be mutually exclusive. The Milwaukee Bucks finished second in transition offense last season (19.4% of possessions), but also finished first in transition defense (12.3%). Much of that is owed to their defensive stoppers in Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and Giannis Antetoekounmpo, who all ranked in the top 25 in the NBA in steals. Meanwhile, the only Blazers to average more than one steal per game were Al-Farouq Aminu (1.14), Damian Lillard (1.05) and the departed Shabazz Napier (1.09).
The Milwaukee style did come with one downside: the Bucks finished 26th in the NBA in fouls per game, committing 21.6 per contest, while Portland committed 19.7. The question is if that two foul difference is worth the dramatic difference in easy buckets.
The bottom line for Portland is that the simple baskets were not coming, and the offense as a whole suffered for it. The Blazers took the 8th most shots in the NBA last season (87 per contest), but ranked 20th in shooting percentage (45.2%). Would it surprise you to learn that the top three teams in shooting percentage last season (Golden State, New Orleans, Milwaukee) all finished in the top five in transition offense?
The NBA is faster paced and higher scoring than ever, and the league has taken a shine to the efficiency of shot taking. If Portland wants to take a step forward this year, the team will need to be able to amp up the tempo when appropriate in order to create better shooting opportunities.