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Trail Blazers Need Better Screens to Help Their Guards

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are brilliant, but they could maximize their time with a little help from teammates.

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

Across the first five games of the 2019-20 season, the Portland Trail Blazers have sat Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum together for just 21 minutes. The lineup iterations missing the star back court consist solely of first-time rotation players or first-time Blazers: Only Anfernee Simons started the 2018-19 season with Portland, and only Rodney Hood played meaningful minutes for the team last year.

With a group of familiar veterans coming off the bench last season, coach Terry Stotts sat Lillard and McCollum simultaneously for 812 minutes (a chunk of which came during McCollum’s injury). The various five-man units finished the season with a discouraging plus/minus of -163.

This year’s unfamiliar bench group has earned minimal time in four of the first five games but likely won’t get anywhere close to 800 minutes without Lillard or McCollum barring another injury. The bench has struggled to stay afloat without the guards: They are a -14 and shooting 41.9% in those 21 minutes.

As expected, the offense flows like its run by a bunch of guys unaccustomed to each other’s play styles.

Nearly every time down the floor, one of the ball handlers – Simons, Mario Hezonja or Kent Bazemore – uses a screen from the center – Skal Labissiere or Hassan Whiteside – at the top of the arc. These pick-and-roll sets generally wind up with an out of control drive or a pass to the rolling big man that’s thwarted when the defense collapses.

All five Kings defenders close in on Whiteside, who is unable to find any of his open teammates and turns the ball over.

Both situations lead to turnovers; as a result, only five of the bench’s 31 shot attempts have come at the rim. Their average two-point shot distance is 10.68 feet, about four feet farther than when Lillard and/or McCollum are on the floor, because the ball handler is settling for pull-up midrange jumpers instead.

In the age of analytics, midrange jumpers should be reserved for only the best pull-up shooters, like McCollum. For Simons, Hezonja and Bazemore, even mediocre three-point shooting bests a midrange jumper in terms of points per possession.

When the bench unit doesn’t use a screen from the center, they resort to repetitive handoffs on the perimeter. This unproductive movement usually results in a contested three-point jumper. With Lillard or McCollum, a mildly contested triple isn’t the worst shot in the world, but it’s not the ideal outcome of a full shot clock’s worth of offense. With the bench’s shooters, it’s certainly not the preferred outcome of a possession.

To get the outside shooters better looks, the Blazers need to improve their use of screens and handoffs. Rather than staying on the perimeter after receiving the ball, the ball handler needs to drive with a balance of aggression and intelligence.

One of three options will be open if the center sets a good screen and the ball handler runs downhill toward the rim: an open lane for the dribbler, a pass to the cutting big man for a strong finish, or a kickout to the corner when the defender collapses for an open three-pointer.

If Simons, Hezonja or Bazemore dribble with their head up and exercise more patience on this triple option play, they can solve the previously prescribed turnover and outside shooting problem.

With a balance of screening big men, capable ball handlers and serviceable three-point shooters in the bench unit, Lillard and McCollum should be able to rest together a few extra minutes per night. The reserves just need experience alongside one another and more aggression in their offense to compete with opposing benches.