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Setting a baseline for Blazer assists this season

With new players in the rotation, will the Portland Trail Blazers’ offense feature more assists and movement? Take a look at last year’s stats to find areas for growth.

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

Portland Trail Blazers Coach Terry Stotts was asked on media day about the low number of assists the team had last season. As reported by Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune, Stotts answered with what he thought might be the culprit and how they would address it: “Some of it was poor shooting inside and outside. We’ll try to improve on that this year by shooting less off the dribble, using more movement and getting better shots.”

Now that these specific areas of improvement have been identified, I was eager to dive into the numbers from last year. I wanted to get an understanding of where they have been in order to see where they might go. (All stats are from

Today I aim to establish a baseline for assists against which we can measure how the team does in the coming season, then I’ll look at how the team fared in the categories Coach Stotts called out: poor shooting inside and outside, shooting less off the dribble and using more movement. I’m going to leave “getting better shots” to another time because there’s a lot to unpack there and I think I might need to appeal to the Blazer’s Edge hive-mind to get a definition of “better shots.”

Let’s get this out of the way: just because a team has a low number of assists does not necessarily mean that they are the worst and, similarly, teams with the most assists are not always the best. The top five and bottom five teams in assists last season were a mixed bag when it comes to Win-Loss records. Especially at the bottom where you can find the regular season leaders, the Houston Rockets.

1. Golden State Warriors

2. Philadelphia 76ers

3. New Orleans Pelicans

4. Washington Wizards

5. Denver Nuggets

26. Memphis Grizzlies

27. Houston Rockets

28. Oklahoma City Thunder

29. Phoenix Suns

30. Portland Trail Blazers

Teams with more assists definitely tend to do better, but teams with fewer assists can also enjoy success. As we saw last season, three of the bottom five in assists made the playoffs. My point is that they shouldn’t be expected to get assists just for the sake of getting assists, but more assists will probably mean their offense is working better.

The swing between the team with the most assists and the team with the least was 9.8 assists per game. As a fan of the team on the bottom of the list, a difference of almost 10 assists per game feels like a huge gap. To help me quantify my feelings on this (how worried should I be?), I looked at the difference between the top and bottom teams in terms of assists for the last 5 seasons.

Assists per game, top and bottom teams in the league

Season Top Team APG Bottom Team APG Difference APG
Season Top Team APG Bottom Team APG Difference APG
2017-18 29.3 19.5 9.8
2016-17 30.4 18.5 11.9
2015-16 28.9 18 10.9
2014-15 27.4 19.8 7.6
2013-14 25.2 18.9 6.3

So, definitely concerning, but not the worst. In the previous two seasons, the gap was even larger between the top and bottom teams. This table shows me that the number of assists for the top teams is trending upwards at a faster rate than the number of assists for the bottom teams.

Last season, the Trail Blazers did not finish with the fewest APG in recent memory--we’re not talking historically low numbers here--but it was still pretty dismal.

Poor inside shooting and outside shooting

You can’t get an assist if the ball doesn’t go in, so let’s see if poor shooting may have contributed to a low number of assists.

Inside and outside shots, type of shots

Type of Shot Blazers League Average Blazers in 2016-17
Type of Shot Blazers League Average Blazers in 2016-17
2 FG% Overall 53.6 55.63 54.6
3 FG% Overall 36.9 35.41 37.9
Catch and Shoot 2s 42.9 42.7 44
Catch and Shoot 3s 37.6 37.7 38.9
Pull up 2s 43.3 41 44.8
Pull up 3s 35.6 32.49 36

The Blazers’ shooting in 2017-18 was nothing to write home about. Overall they were a little over league average on 3’s and a little under on 2’s. Broken down by shot type, they were right there on average for catch and shoot attempts and above average on pull ups. However, when you compare them to how they shot the previous season, they regressed in all categories from the year before. We will want to keep an eye on how they do this year to find out which one of those seasons is more representative of how they play.

Note too that their overall field goal attempts in 2016-17 was 80.8 per game, in 2017-18 it was 81.6 per game. So they actually saw an increase of about one shot per game last season with slightly less accuracy.

Off the Dribble

Stotts mentioned they would try to take fewer shots off the dribble. Like all teams in the league, the Blazers took at least 40% of their shots off of zero dribbles. The team with the fewest shots of this type was the Minnesota Timberwolves who took just 40.8% of their shots off of no dribbles. The 76ers led the league, taking over half of their shots (53.8%) off of zero dribbles.

Here is a table showing how often the Blazers shot off of the dribble compared to league average, as well as their effective field goal percentage on these shots.

Shooting off the dribble

# of Dribbles Blazers Freq League Av Freq Blazers EFG% League Avg EFG%
# of Dribbles Blazers Freq League Av Freq Blazers EFG% League Avg EFG%
0 41.8 46.75 58.5 59.84
1 11.7 13.4 53.9 53.6
2 10.1 11.52 48.4 50.68
3-6 20.5 18.14 51.4 50.28
7+ 15.8 10.15 50.3 50

You can see that with regards to passes and touches, the Blazers are pretty far off the league average, in fact they were 27th in the league in passes made and 28th in touches.

The Blazers were right around league average in the distance players run during a game. However, it should be noted that two of the Blazers, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, were in the top seven players in the league for distance last season. McCollum lead the league once again with 2.69 miles per game and Lillard was seventh in the league at 2.52. If Stotts is looking to increase player movement, I would expect that he will create more movement for the other players and perhaps even try to reduce the amount that the backcourt duo typically cover.

The baseline

These numbers give us a snapshot of where the Blazers were as a team last season in the shooting categories Stotts mentioned.

  • Average or slightly below on inside shooting and catch-and-shoot field goals
  • Lower shooting percentages from 2016-17 levels
  • Mostly below average and lower volume of shots off of 0-3 dribbles
  • Above average and a high volume of shots off 3 or more dribbles
  • Among the lowest in the league in passes and touches
  • Average player movement with the exception of Lillard and McCollum who run more than almost any other players in the league

These numbers probably don’t surprise anyone. They are meant to give us a place to start when when puzzling out which rotations will work well going into the season. I’ll be watching these numbers to see if the shooting percentages drift back up, if they shoot less off the dribble and get movement from players other than their starting backcourt.

I’ll be back next week to address the rest of Stotts’ answer--the part about getting better shots. In the meantime, let us know in the comments below if you were surprised by any of these metrics.

Do you see a way forward to get more catch-and-shoot opportunities? How about ways to distribute the ball more? Or, do you think they don’t need to change their schemes, they just need to see the ball go in?

xoxo Team Mom | @tcbbiggs