Early Thursday morning the current Dean of Basketball Wordsmithery, Zach Lowe, released a piece that was as much about where the Portland Trail Blazers are now with their new-found expectations as it is about the process and grind of an NBA season.
As usual, Lowe goes deep into the bag to give readers insight into not only the premise of his article, in this case the Blazers raising their artificial ceiling, but the ecosystems that made it all possible. The first thing on the menu? Addressing Portland’s offensive woes early in the season with a healthy dose of introspection.
Around that time, Terry Stotts, the team’s head coach, gave his staff an assignment: Find out why the Blazers couldn’t score anymore, and don’t be afraid to come back with uncomfortable answers. “You don’t want to just say, ‘Oh, we are not making shots,’” Stotts says. “You can’t give into that. You want to feel like you can make changes.”
He wanted to investigate everything, he says: “Are certain passes not being made? Are teams guarding us differently?” Or worst of all: “Are we growing stale?”
As the Blazers gathered for a team meeting at their hotel the next morning, Stotts mentioned the issue to the group almost off-hand: “We shoot 3s well,” Stotts told them. “But we don’t take enough. Let’s take more.” C.J. McCollum smiled and nodded at the thought of a greener light. “Oh, I have no problem with that,” he recalls thinking. He glanced around to see if teammates had the same reaction. Stotts must have sensed the glee. “Good 3s, guys,” he said. “Take more good 3s.”
Lowe goes on to break down specifically how the Blazers’ offense has since evolved. It’s more than just taking and making more 3’s, but it’s about how Portland got those shots, where they were taken and by whom. With the help of video, Lowe shows how Portland executes on pick-and-rolls.
Switch those plays, and Lillard goes to work against big guys. This is where you see Lillard’s evolution into a different, meaner, more complete player. He has seen every defensive scheme, and run enough pick-and-rolls -- probably something approaching 10,000 -- to anticipate how all nine other guys will shift in response to what he does. He has mastered more dribble moves.
That combination of skill and knowledge transforms a player from reactor to manipulator. When Lillard finds a plodder in front him, he already knows what passes will be available after he blows by that sucker.
Since early January, Portland has poured in 1.2 points per possession anytime Lillard shoots after a switch on a pick-and-roll -- or passes to a teammate who shoots right away, per Second Spectrum tracking data. That ranks second, behind only Tony Parker, among all high-volume ball-handlers.
Lowe leaves no stone unturned when talking about what has allowed this Portland team to evolve from the mediocrity that should keep a general manager up at night to a fringe contender. Whether it’s discussing Portland’s assist rate, the contributions of role players, the rise of Maurice Harkless or the audacity of anyone not named Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum to drive the ball and create an opportunity, Lowe has you covered.
Grab a beverage of your choice, have a seat and indulge in what has led to the Blazers’ success since the beginning of 2018. It’s not often that this Blazers team has been thought of as one move away, but that’s exactly the position they’ve played themselves into.
We can probably bump that ceiling up to a second-round playoff team that wins 48 to 52 games. Settle there, and you put yourself in position to do bigger things if one player pops, or a juggernaut postseason opponent takes an injury at the wrong time. That should be enough to quiet calls to trade McCollum -- calls the Blazers have never taken seriously.
That’s probably still not worth paying the luxury tax. It’s not enough for the championship-or-bust crowd. But it represents a damned good NBA team, one move away from developing into something more.