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Everything to know about the Blazers’ transition offense

A deep look at Portland’s transition offense last year, with some hope for this season.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

You may have heard that the Portland Trail Blazers were lousy at scoring in transition last season, averaging only 8.1 points per game on fast breaks (last) and 11.6 points total in transition (last). They were also last in frequency (10.5%) and percentage of points scored off of fast breaks (7.6%). The bright spot was that they were third from the bottom in accuracy (50.3%). I’m kidding, that is not a bright spot.

Early in the season Dave Deckard wrote a mailbag in response to a fan who noticed a lack of offense generated by fast breaks (Why don’t the Trail Blazers run more?). Things had not changed by the end of the season prompting Jeff Seigel to write about how Blazers’ lack of transition scoring might hurt them in the playoffs.

Just how badly did the Blazers finish the season in transition and fast break offense? And are there any players in the wings the Blazers can turn to in order to be more effective in transition next season?

How long have the Blazers put up low numbers in transition?

To start, let’s see if this year was an anomaly and find out how the Blazers have fared over the last three seasons. (Note: On you can find fast break points (FBPS) by team under a “General>Misc” category. Transition points are found under “Playtype” and are provided by Synergy.)

Trail Blazers in Transition

Season Fast Break Points % Points FBP Transition Frequency (%) Transition PPP Transition points scored Transition FG%
Season Fast Break Points % Points FBP Transition Frequency (%) Transition PPP Transition points scored Transition FG%
2017-18 8.1 7.6 10.5 1.02 11.6 50.3
2016-17 11.3 10.5 11.5 1.15 *14.5 *55.5
2015-16 10.7 10.2 12.5 1.05 14.3 52.3
Cells with an asterix denote metrics they were not in the bottom 10 in the league.

Over the last three years, in most categories — fast break points, percentage of fast break points, transition points, transition frequency, transition points per possession and transition field goal percentage — the Blazers were in the bottom ten if not the bottom five in the league.

The 2016-17 season was by far their most effective in transition of the last three years but they were still in the bottom 10 on all metrics except transition points per possession (7th in the league) and field goal percentage in transition (also 7th). I could not find but I would be curious to know the PPP and FG% in transition before and after the Nurkic/Plumlee trade and see if there are any noticeable differences. Another difference could have been Allen Crabbe’s production in 2017 (more on that when we talk about individual players below).

I looked even further back, wondering if the running game could have changed due to personnel, or if this is the type of style Stotts has always coached. The transition playtype category only goes back 3 years on so I looked at fast break points (FBP) which go much further back. Since Stotts took over in 2012 the Blazers never ranked higher than 22nd. Going back 10 years, they still never cracked the top half of the league.

Blazers fast break points over last 10 seasons

Season FBP per game # in the league
Season FBP per game # in the league
2018 8.1 30
2017 11.3 22
2016 10.7 26
2015 10.1 25
2014 10.9 22
2013 9.9 26
2012 10.9 24
2011 10.1 29
2010 9.5 30
2009 9.2 29

The last time the Blazers were among the top 10 teams in fast break points, the Super Sonics were still in the league. In 2004-05 the Trail Blazers were ninth.

Which players are most likely to be involved in transition?

I watched every one of the Blazers’ successful transition plays from the 2017-18 season (go ahead and insert your jokes about how it didn’t take very long). One thing that is hard to measure is how much energy a good fast break can bring to a game. Here are a few of my favorites.

After watching all of these, it seemed like Shabazz Napier, Evan Turner, and Al-Farouq Aminu were involved in starting a lot of the transition plays while Maurice Harkless finished a lot of them. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum both started and finished a lot of their own end-to-end transition plays. doesn’t break down the plays by who started or finished them, but we can see who was involved in the most transition offense:

Evan Turner does indeed lead the team in frequency (aside from Jake Layman who only had one game in which he was involved in a transition play). Frequency means the percentage of points that they (the players) scored in transition.

  • Turner 14.8%
  • McCollum 13.9%
  • Harkless 13.5%
  • Aminu 13.2%
  • Napier 12.7%
  • Connaughton 10.8%
  • Lillard 10.6%

Harkless leads these players in points per possession:

  • Harkless 1.18
  • Lillard 1.12
  • Napier 1.05
  • Aminu 1.01
  • McCollum .91
  • Turner .90
  • Connaughton .82

And in total fast break points per game, here is how the players produced last season.

  • Lillard 2.2
  • McCollum 2.0
  • Napier 0.9
  • Aminu 0.8
  • Harkless 0.8
  • Turner 0.6

Even though he is involved in a lot of transition plays, Turner doesn’t score much on them. Conversely, Lillard scores the most fast break points but with a lower transition frequency. This is probably because Lillard simply scores in so many ways and likes the isolation type plays. A bit of good news is that both Harkless and Lillard, who are most effective in points per possession, are regular rotation players. Bad news if you like fast breaks is that Napier and Connaughton — both higher frequency transition players — are no longer with the team.

Which lineups were most effective?

The lineups that played 10 or more games together that were most effective in fast break points were

  • The sometimes starters: Aminu, Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic and Turner (3.0 per game)
  • The end of season starters: Aminu, Harkless, Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic (2.9)
  • The bench unit of Aminu, McCollum, Napier, Turner and Nurkic (1.5 points per game)

I was a little surprised that the lineup without Harkless just edged out the lineup with him in it.

A lineup that was somewhat less tested that is worth looking at is Aminu, Leonard, Lillard, McCollum and Turner. They averaged 3.8 fast break points in the 8 games they played. Good news if you like fast breaks! Bad news if you like defense as they put up a 124.9 DRTG in the 41 minutes they played together. (Aminu, Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic and Turner had a DRTG of 99.3 and Aminu, Harkless, Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic had a DRTG of 103.2)

What about the new players? What is their transition play like?

Seth Curry played 77 games for Dallas in 2016-17 before sitting out for a year with an injury. In that season, Dallas was the worst team in the league in fast break points (7.8 per game), second to last in transition frequency (10.8%) and third from the bottom in points per possession (1.02).

Curry had a 10.3% frequency (just below Lillard this past season). He managed to score 1.28 PPP which would have put him above any of the Portland players listed above. He averaged 1.2 fast break points per game, 1.6 transition points, with 52.5 FG%.

Curry showed he could get a steal and finish on his own fast break and he also was very nice at setting himself up on the 3 point line to receive a pass.

Watching Curry reminded me a of Allen Crabbe who, while he was with the Blazers, scored 14.8% of his points off the fast break, averaging 1.6 FBP per game. Losing Allen Crabbe could be part of the drop-off in 2018.

Wade Baldwin has played limited minutes in the NBA but has shown that he does like to score on the fast break. That makes sense since he is a player who is know to be good at stealing the ball. In 33 games with Memphis he averaged 12.3 minutes per game and only averaged .7 fast break points. However, the fast break points accounted for 16% of his points.

In the G League last season Baldwin put up 6.3 FBP per game, accounting for 34.5% of his points. Okay, so I know he’s not going to run through the NBA like he did through the G League, but that does appear to be a skill set that he is comfortable with. So maybe next year we can look forward to more of this.

What happened in the playoffs?

Okay, brace yourselves and get ready to give an explanation in the comments below. In the playoffs, the Blazer’s FBP rose to 16.3 points per game, 5th among playoff teams. Their frequency was still low: 12.4% of their points came in transition (compare to the Milwaukee Bucks who lead playoff teams by scoring 20.6% of their points in transition). The Blazers put up 16.8 total points in transition (13th among playoff teams) on 65.1 field goal percentage (highest among playoff teams.)

That’s a lot to take in so here it is put a different way: They scored more points, more frequently with a higher percentage of their shots going in than they did in the regular season, but it was still only enough to be 13th in total transition points among the 16 playoff teams.

In the playoffs, CJ McCollum led players in transition points with a total of 23 points in transition over 4 games. In two of the games, Lillard was unable to get any transition points at all, totaling only 7 transition points in those 4 games.

What did we learn about Blazers in transition?

What did I learn from all of this? I took away a couple of things.

Expecting the Blazers to suddenly run would be a big shift in playing style for this team. Last year was so bad that I think (hope) it might have been an anomaly. While I don’t expect the Blazers to suddenly jump to the top of the league in fast break points, I would expect that next year they may get closer to a less distressing mean.

Also, some of the new players may help the Blazers improve their transition game. Wade Baldwin with his ability to create steals may give a boost to these types of plays. And if Curry returns healthy and is able to shoot the way he did in Dallas, we may see an improvement in FG% and even in 3’s in transition. He may be able to take on some of the transition shooting that Allen Crabbe provided which the Blazers had a hard time replacing.

What did you learn? Let us know in the comments below!