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Is There Any Cure for the Trail Blazers’ Low Assist Numbers?

Portland can shoot and score. Why can’t they pass?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers have an offense to be envied as long as the ball stays in the hands of starting guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. All-NBA scoring and striking power from all ranges are hallmarks of the star backcourt duo. When the ball floats to one of their teammates, though, the story changes. Though the Blazers ranked 8th in field goal attempts and 16th in points scored during the 2017-18 NBA season, their assist rate is so low that you have to click “Add to Cart” to see the actual number. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question, submitted via Twitter.

I doubt the Blazers are content with their assist rate. I believe they’re living with it as a natural consequence of how the team is constructed. They’d love to be dropping dimes to Kevin Durant and...oh... the #1 best three-point shooting roster in the league. AND the #1 best two-point shooting roster in the league. (Neither here nor there in terms of assists, but Golden State is also the #1 free throw shooting team in the league.) Sadly, the Blazers are not the Warriors. No matter what scheme Head Coach Terry Stotts devises, throwing the ball to Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu isn’t the same as throwing it to Durant and Klay Thompson.

The Blazers did rank 11th in the NBA in three-point percentage last season with a .366 average. That’s slightly down from their rankings and percentages in the two prior seasons, but it’s still decent. If and when they can set up open three-pointers, Portland’s passing game works.

The real problem is their lack of other plans. They shot .493 on two-pointers, 23rd in the league. They were 17th in free throws per field goal attempt. When they’re not hitting open, stand-still shooters, they’re not scoring efficiently or earning assists.

Even if they decide to play to their strengths, only giving the ball to open shooters, how do those shooters get open? Somebody has to force a double-team to draw a defender away. The only players capable of commanding that kind of attention are Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. They justify it by taking and making shots, a lot of them. Those shots are not assisted. Nor do Lillard and McCollum attempt many assisted shots off of teammate passes. A double-teamed Durant can toss the ball back to Thompson at the arc. Zero teams are leaving Dame and CJ to devote an extra man to Zach Collins.

The next two likeliest scorers in Portland’s rotation after the starting guards are Jusuf Nurkic and Evan Turner. They’ve got skills, but neither is mobile. Two-point assists come off of ball-movement and cuts. Turner is not likely to beat a defender backdoor; Nurkic isn’t headed to the rim for alley-oops. When they get the ball, they slow down and take dribbles before attempting a shot. This negates the assist.

If the Blazers were a fast-breaking team, they could generate extra assists from dunks or layups. They finished dead last in fast break points per game last season. (Guess who ranked #1 in that category too?)

In short, the Blazers aren’t choosing to go with a low-assist offense. If assist are water, the Blazers are oil...on the middle of the desert. Their only two capable scorers are primary ball-handlers. Nobody else can be trusted to hit quick shots off the pass. Their three-point shooters must be wide open and set up to succeed, which requires more isolation scoring from the main guys. Secondary scorers utilize a slower, ground-bound attack. The team does not run. Until the roster changes, the assist total is not likely to rise.

When Plan B is middle-of-the-road at best, you’ve got to stick with Plan A. Since Plan A involves 25 ppg from Lillard and McCollum on a nightly basis, Portland’s probably going to go with that until further notice.

Thanks for the question! Keep them coming to or on Twitter @davedeckard!

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge /