The Portland Trail Blazers’ playoff opponents have utilized the same defensive scheme over the past few years: Don’t let Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum score and force the ball into the hands of Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless. On October 18th — opening night of the 2018-2019 NBA season — the Los Angeles Lakers brought this same scouting report to the regular season when they faced the Blazers.
With 6:48 left in the second quarter of that dramatic opening night victory, Lillard ran in transition following a LeBron miss. Once across half court, Nurkic set and slipped from a screen. Two defenders remained on Lillard, who found his big man rolling to the hoop. LeBron, without even glancing at a wide open Aminu in the corner, collapsed to try and add another name to his list of highlight block victims.
Appropriately, Nurkic kicked it to his open teammate in the corner. Aminu faked a pass to McCollum, also open on the perimeter, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope flew by to prevent the extra pass to a better shooter. With all the time in the world, Aminu calmly shot a three-pointer.
It bounced off the rim and right into the hands Lance Stephenson. Stephenson hurried the ball to LeBron, who pressed forward and assisted Javale McGee at the rim, forcing a Portland timeout.
Such was the case on 66% of Aminu’s 94 attempts from the corner, the most tries of any Blazers player this season by a significant margin.
Three-pointers from the corner yield the most points per shot of any on the floor; they’re almost two feet closer than an above-the-break three but still worth as many points. League-wide percentages illustrate the difference in difficulty between the two types of triples; players converted on 38.2% of corner threes and only 35% of above-the-break threes.
Aminu’s success rate of 34% ranks significantly below the league average from the corner. In fact, most Blazers players failed to eclipse that average. Only Rodney Hood, Seth Curry and CJ McCollum shot better than 38.2% on their corner looks. Overall, the team made 36.1% of its corner triples, seventh worst in the NBA. (Just one of the bottom six teams made the playoffs: the Boston Celtics.)
Corner 3pt shooting %
With the rise of analytics and its evaluation of each shot’s worth, the corner three is rising in popularity. The Houston Rockets, influenced by General Manager Daryl Morey, spearhead the embracement of analytics and subsequently the corner three. Houston attempted 935 triples from the corner, 528 more than Portland, which ranked last place in corner attempts.
In reality, the team’s personnel should create plenty of looks due to their frequent inside-out play. Lillard and McCollum are two of the best off-the-dribble penetrators in the league; they combined for 22.7 drives per game last season. The threat of Nurkic diving to the rim on a pick-and-roll creates the same effect; he showed an improved ability to find the open man once the defense collapsed as well.
But a drive-and-kick requires reliable catch-and-shoot guys to loiter on the perimeter. Portland’s starting forwards do not fit that bill most nights. Opposing defenses can sell out on Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic on drives and sacrifice the most efficient shot in the game: the corner three-pointer. This year’s Western Conference Finals illustrated such a defensive scheme executed perfectly by the Golden State Warriors.
Here’s how drive-and-kicks to the corner finish in an ideal scenario:
In Game 1 of the 2019 playoffs, the Blazers led the Thunder 35-21 with 2:50 remaining in the first quarter. Lillard ran a pick and roll with Enes Kanter. Two OKC defenders stopped Lillard’s attempt to split the double-team and he lost the ball. Kanter, rolling to the hoop, collected the loose ball and turned into the body of a helping Russell Westbrook. Kanter properly read the defense and kicked it to a wide-open Hood in the corner. Hood rose up and knocked down the 22-foot triple to thrust Portland in front by 17 points.
With Hood in the corner, there’s a 40.3% chance that shot falls, 6.3% better than if Aminu were in the same position.
Corner threes are a tango; they require two people. More than 95% of corner threes are assisted. Portland’s starting lineup is missing that second dancer as hinted in the first example of Aminu missing on opening night.
But with Hood on the floor, Aminu and Harkless attempted fewer triples last season. The Blazers offense hopes to find open shooters on the perimeter when Lillard and McCollum drive, but the starting forwards deter the pursuit of those rewarding looks because of their inconsistencies.
Adopting the corner three as a go-to offensive option doesn’t necessarily mean releasing Aminu or benching Harkless. They can coexist with Hood – or another proficient catch-and-shoot wing if he doesn’t return next season – providing size and defense but allowing Lillard and McCollum to better execute inside-out play.
When only one of the starting forwards is on the court without the other, they shoot fewer corner threes; the responsibility delegates to another player like Curry, Hood or even McCollum.
If Hood and Curry join another team this summer, the Blazers need to acquire a proven catch-and-shoot outside shooter to plant in the corner. Pairing this three-point specialist with either Aminu or Harkless in the starting lineup would reduce pressure on the returning forwards to reliably knock down corner threes. It also enables the offense to better utilize such a beneficial shot.
Portland isn’t a strong free agency draw, so the front office might need to get creative and acquire a shooter through the draft or via trade. In today’s NBA, there’s no shortage of wings capable of routinely knocking down outside shots. It’s up to the Blazers to find one or two to replace Hood and Curry as well as deploy them in the starting lineup to lessen the burden on Aminu and Harkless.