The Portland Trail Blazers don’t run and they don’t score well when they do get out on the break, two realities which may cost them in their run through the NBA Playoffs. They’ve produced the fewest transition points in the NBA this season and rank 29th (per Synergy) in transition efficiency. Conventional wisdom tells us that transition opportunities are some of the most efficient in all of basketball, so why would a team make the active choice to run less than they have in previous seasons?
Normally, a downtrend in transition opportunities is accompanied with an uptick in opponent offensive rebounding—if you have to send more players to the defensive glass to secure the rebound, it stands to reason that you’d be less active in transition. But the Trail Blazers haven’t had that problem: they rank sixth in defensive rebounding percentage and eighth in halfcourt defensive rebounding percentage.
What comes first, the chicken or the egg? Do the Trail Blazers not run because they know they’re not very good at finishing those opportunities, or are they poor finishers in transition because they don’t put an emphasis on running, therefore bowling headfirst into defenders without much support? Watching the film, it seems as though it’s a support issue: one or two guys will run, but the rest of the team is late getting up the court, giving the ball handler far fewer options and sometimes forcing him to take a bad shot rather than pass it out to a teammate.
By the time CJ McCollum gets into the Memphis paint, he’s got just one player with him against all five Grizzlies defenders. Evan Turner is in the corner being covered by a single defender, but the rest of the Portland team is well behind the play and Damian Lillard never makes an appearance back in the frame before McCollum’s shot bounces off the rim. McCollum has been particularly terrible in transition this season: the Trail Blazers run 2.3 percent more often when he’s on the floor, but score 9.1 points per 100 possessions fewer, a ghastly combination of high usage and low efficiency in this area. McCollum’s having another very good year offensively, but his transition game is certainly bringing down his overall efficiency.
Running in transition is an important part of playoff offense in this era: the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers have consistently ranked among the top of the league in playoff transition frequency over the past few years. Even if they don’t score at a great clip, getting out in transition will still boost the Trail Blazers’ offense in the postseason, when teams will be more heavily tuned into their game plan to stop Lillard and McCollum in the halfcourt. Portland has ranked 12th, 12th, and 16th (per Synergy) the past three years in halfcourt points per possession in the playoffs and getting an extra few points in transition could make a big difference in their results over the next two months.