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What the Portland Trail Blazers Want their Offense to Look Like

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The Blazers have a near-ideal offense, but it doesn’t always work. Here’s why.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers’ offense is a thing of beauty...until the exact moment it’s not. Seldom does a single franchise get to boast about relying on pristine ball movement and “hero ball” antics in the same season, let alone the same game. Yet here are the Trail Blazers, balancing Jusuf Nurkic and Jake Layman with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on a nightly basis. Sometimes it works, others not so much. What’s the ideal look for the team, though, and what would it take to get there? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

My mailbag question would be to hear your thoughts on how the Blazers should be playing/constructing their team? I know you had to have watched the Pelicans game recently where Jake Layman absolutely exploded. While watching that game, and more specifically quarter, what really struck me was the style of play. Especially as Layman began to knock down buckets, the offense really opened up to the point where it started to look like a YMCA or local gym game where a collection of former or current collegiate ballers playing against a collection of ragtag friends from high school who didn’t really play competitively. Every possession where Jake was cutting and weaving through traffic, you could see his teammates’ eyes light up to the lanes from him, their teammates, and themselves that they could pass through, drive through, or alley-oop through. It was the Blazers offense full of motion and ball movement I’ve dreamed of as long as I can remember, or at least since the early 90’s teams that made championships pushes. We’ve seen it since, albeit in small spurts, in a few games since that have allowed the Blazers to pull away and develop enough cushion in games where even bad bench play or bad second half shooting doesn’t alter the course of the game at that point. Is Terry Stotts seeing this and trying to implement in the future? Or is this just some outlier that isn’t ever going to become the norm?

I know my question has been a long one, and feel free to edit whatever necessary to cut it down, but watching that quarter of play has had me thinking about if an offense designed that way wouldn’t work perfectly to solve the Blazers normal lack of assists and ball movement. That would mean also constructing the roster with players who do more of what Layman did in that game, and more specifically quarter. We would need to get players who like to cut constantly to the basket and are constantly moving. It was a noticeable difference as well when Maurice Harkless was substituted back into the game, and coming off a recent injury, just didn’t move as much or with as much energy and it affected the ball movement and space. I feel like the flow Layman brought to this game even rubbed off on Jusuf Nurkic, as he was attempting lead passes and alley oops all over the place during that quarter that I hadn’t seen him try before and his passing has only seemed to improve since.

Thanks for reading through what I imagine is the longest mailbag question ever, can’t wait to hear your thoughts and sorry for the delay considering that game was like almost 2 weeks ago haha.

Thanks,

James

It’s actually not the longest Mailbag question ever! Most of them come in this long. I edit them down pretty severely. I left yours nearly whole because it was well-written and well-constructed, also as an example of how long the scroll gets when I don’t. But don’t worry! I love reading all of your thoughts even if we can’t print out every question verbatim on site.

As for the topic itself, I’ve got good news and bad news for you.

The good news: that IS how Portland’s offense is designed! Players weave through traffic, interspersing lob dunks with three-point strikes while defenses get humbled and crumble. That’s been Terry Stotts’ vision since he took over seven years ago. They’ve constructed the roster to run that system.

The Blazers understand that an injured Moe Harkless won’t be able to sustain production, but a young, healthy, best-case-scenario Harkless could have. That’s part of why they picked him up. So, too, with Nik Stauskas and every point guard they’ve run through the rotation in the past couple years.

The bad news: the offensive flow can be stopped at multiple points. In theory, Portland’s halfcourt offense is near-perfect. In practice, beautiful play ends (or at least is inhibited) under any of the following conditions:

  • The defense moves their feet (or employs a defensive-minded center) and doesn’t allow Layman and company easy looks at the rim.
  • Opponents choose to sag off Portland’s non-reliable three-point shooters, who then miss.
  • The Blazers don’t take care of the ball, particularly by firing careless passes.
  • Layman, Harkless, and/or bench players don’t provide great defense with great offense, rendering extra point-scoring moot because the team just gives it back again.
  • Those same players start missing shots.
  • Portland gets behind, causing Lillard and McCollum to take over in a bid to take back the game.
  • Opponents have good enough defenders to guard Lillard and McCollum straight up in the first place, leaving secondary options well-covered.
  • McCollum just needs to score, because...CJ.

Those are just the factors Portland can control. Their success also depends on the ability and focus of the opponent.

If the opposing defense plays poorly—which all defenses do from time to time—the Blazers are poised to take full advantage. When the opposing team tightens up and pays attention, Lillard and McCollum (and occasionally Jusuf Nurkic, depending on matchup) are the only players who can overcome regardless. Everybody else on the roster suffers from, “you can do 1.5 things well and we’re watching for them” syndrome. Layman and Al-Farouq Aminu are good shooting open threes or exploiting open lanes to the basket but can’t create their own shots. Harkless can create his own but isn’t consistent. Seth Curry heats up quickly, but focusing on him more would take minutes and shots from the starting guards, who are better. Who knows about Zach Collins and Nik Stauskas night to night?

For all the hype and hope, the Blazers still lack the multi-talented, dependable, skilled, big-minute forward to make the system work for 36 minutes instead of 8-12. Ideally they need the player Nicolas Batum was supposed to become, the guy late-veteran Scottie Pippen was, the guy Paul George is. They’d be far closer to contention (and all-time significance) if they had that player in tow. Given their fungible talent pool, draft picks, and cap ledger—plus the overwhelming popularity of such players in today’s NBA—you might as well say that if they had the moon, they could eat unlimited cheese.

Compromise trades could be available. They’ll cost the Blazers assets. They’ll cost luxury tax dollars down the road too, assuming the Big 3 stay intact. So far, the team hasn’t shown any indication that they’re willing to pay either price. That may be sensible, since any compromise is speculative. They’d be hoping to get an underrated, less-noticed player who somehow also held holding the most prized skill set at one of the most scrutinized positions in the league. The odds of getting taken in by fool’s gold are higher than striking the motherlode in that situation. They’d probably end up spending picks and money for a player who, even if he succeeds, ultimately won’t make enough of a difference.

Therein lies the rub in the great debate...one that Ryne Buchanan will illustrate in our second feature today, posting around noon. Stay tuned to debate whether shooting for the moon or playing the hand dealt is the smarter move.

HEY EVERYBODY...want to see what Dave does when he’s NOT writing about the Blazers?

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—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com