In Terry Stotts’ traditionally conservative defensive scheme, the Portland Trail Blazers have ranked near the bottom of the league in transition possessions per game. However, the defensive tent poles from past seasons – Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner and Jusuf Nurkic – are either no longer with the team or not on the floor for Portland. Their replacements – Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja, Rodney Hood and Hassan Whiteside – play hastier defense.
The new defensive mindset has led the team to force more turnovers and therefore more transition possessions than in years prior. Transition opportunities yield a healthy points per possession mark because of the numbers advantage or unimpeded route to a flashy dunk.
In the first seven games of 2019-20, the Blazers are scoring 1.20 points per possession in transition, fourth best in the league. Despite the improvement in aggressiveness on the defensive end, they still only amass 16 such possessions per game, 13.9% of their total offense.
Stealing the ball isn’t the only way to get a quick bucket. Portland has a litany of ball handlers, so most lineups feature four of the five players capable of grabbing a rebound and immediately dribbling up the court. In previous years, the frequent rebound gatherers – Harkless, Aminu or Nurkic – looked to the guards for an outlet pass instead of pushing forward, slowing the tempo of the offense. Now it’s grab and go.
When the team is shooting shots relative to the shot clock illustrates this quickened pace on offense. Despite forcing 15.3 turnovers per game – 20th in the league – more than 40% of the Blazers shots have come in the first nine seconds of the shot clock.
Shots early in the clock are volatile. For the most part, they’re either wide open fast break finishes or a quick shot trying to capitalize on a scrambling defense. CJ McCollum has been the primary suspect for the second category: 21.9% of his total shots have come between 18 and 22 seconds left on the shot clock. He doesn’t need a teammate’s help to beat a lone defender off the dribble and rise up for his bread and butter midrange jumper.
He’s scoring 1.22 points per transition possession (in the 67th percentile), which encapsulates a majority of those hurried attempts.
Like McCollum, the team as a whole is scoring well early in the shot clock. In fact, Portland’s effective field goal percentage per every shot clock increment set by the NBA stats website improves with more time (except for the final bracket of 22-24 seconds).
Shot attempts early in the shot clock benefit the unfamiliar roster. The Blazers rank last in assists per game as the offense relies on Lillard and McCollum to create looks for themselves first and teammates second. Getting a shot up before the defense sets itself provides the two guards, as well as other proficient off the dribble shooters like Hood, Bazemore and Simons, with better opportunities than they generate for themselves as the shot clock winds down.
This head down, isolation offense shouldn’t extend much past transition possessions. Portland, partially due to the new players learning to mesh with one another, has been overly reliant on forced pull-up jumpers when the myriad of screens at the top of the arc don’t produce an uncontested look.
A more aggressive defensive scheme will create more chances for the Blazers to successfully play the style of basketball they tend to fall back on. So will a quicker transition from rebound to initiating the offense. Those two changes may be more attainable than a fundamental shift in the team’s offense, which doesn’t move the ball well, in order to capitalize on the ability to score efficiently early in the clock.