Hopes are rising as the 2019-20 NBA regular season approaches for the Portland Trail Blazers. Fresh off a Western Conference Finals appearance, armed with new veterans, the Blazers hope to sail smoothly into another deep run. Nothing in the NBA is guaranteed, though, so this week we’re looking at nine questions the Blazers will have to answer if they’re going to be successful in the coming campaign.
Question #8: Who’s Going to Hit Catch-and-Shoot Threes?
The three-point shot has become a staple of modern NBA offenses. The Blazers aren’t as reliant on the long ball as they used to be. In 2015-16—the year Damian Lillard took over as Portland’s unquestioned leader—they ranked 6th in the league in three-point attempts, 4th in three-point percentage. By 2018-19 those numbers were down to 18th and 9th.
Nevertheless, three-pointers remain a crucial part of Portland’s arsenal. As Portland’s playoffs opponents have demonstrated, the minute defenses stop respecting the three, they’re able to key in on Lillard and CJ McCollum. The results for Portland are less than optimal.
The Blazers aren’t just known for shooting threes, but for a particular philosophy of taking them. They want the first open shot available; they’re agnostic when it comes to source. Lillard layups and Al-Farouq Aminu three-point attempts are equally canonical in Portland’s offensive Bible. Aminu’s attempts existed to clear the lane for Lillard; Lillard’s layups opened the shot for Aminu. Not taking the quick, open shot was a far bigger sin than missing it.
Stretching back to Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, all the way forward through Aminu, Moe Harkless, and Meyers Leonard last year, the Blazers have populated their rotation with players who would camp at the arc, receive the pass, and fire without hesitation, These players weren’t the most skilled offensively. Half of them launched that shot because putting the ball on the floor would have been a disaster. That turned out to be an advantage of sorts. The catch and shoot became Portland’s toaster oven: no fuss, no muss...push one button and a shot comes out.
Coming into 2019-20, the Blazers have more overall talent on offense. Kent Bazemore and Rodney Hood would be expected to win handily two-on-two against Harkless and Aminu. Blazers fans are more optimistic about the future of Zach Collins than they were about Meyers Leonard. The one factor missing from the equation in all three cases is catching and shooting. Leonard, Harkless, and Aminu had one job, a single thought every time they touched the ball. Hood and Bazemore have more options at the arc, Collins can’t shoot there yet. All three like to get into the flow by putting the ball on the floor. That takes time. That changes things.
It’s hard to imagine any of the Bazemore-Hood-Collins trio developing into a limited catch-and-shoot option. Anthony Tolliver will fill that role; Pau Gasol might. It remains to be seen how much either will see the floor.
Oddly enough, Portland’s best catch-and-shoot options may be their starting guards. Lillard and CJ McCollum both score off the bounce. The Blazers don’t favor either one shooting long without passing first. (McCollum creates in the mid-range and Lillard is allowed any shot he wishes, but ball and players are still supposed to move on most possessions.) Last season, that meant exploratory probing, then hitting a wing for an open three. This year, we may see the recipient probe themselves, then pass right back to the initiating guard for their own open look.
This may end up more effective in the long run. It’s also slightly more complex and prone to breakdowns. If Tolliver gets big minutes, if Bazemore and Hood get comfortable with catch-and-shoot plays, if Collins can hit a three, if Anfernee Simons can channel the always-ready-to-fire Seth Curry, the Blazers are going to be plenty dangerous. If Lillard and McCollum draw attention, then pass, but the recipient allows the defense to recover, drives into traffic for a contest shot, or just plain can’t hit a quick jumper, Portland’s offense will devolve into isolation play.
Either way, Portland’s attack is going to be more interesting this year than it has been since LaMarcus Aldridge suited up for the Blazers. Which kind of excitement, though? That’s a question the Blazers will need to answer in the early season, then again as they hit the playoffs.
Stay tuned all week as we count our way to the #1 question facing the Blazers this season!