A lack of reliable outside shooting at the forward position has plagued the Portland Trail Blazers in three consecutive postseasons. Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless played crucial roles, primarily on the defensive end, during the regular season, but became unplayable once the playoffs intensified.
The organization’s first Western Conference Finals appearance in 20 years signaled optimism, but it concurrently signaled a climax for that iteration of its roster. The Blazers benefited from avoiding the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors until the conference finals. A forward rotation of Aminu and Harkless, with the league’s new emphasis on perimeter shooting, didn’t cut it against the elite defenses in the playoffs.
Portland can still make moves prior to the season’s start, but it seems as though the new forward rotation is set. So far, Neil Olshey has prioritized shooting in this summer’s acquisitions and trades.
For purposes of this article, we will ignore Evan Turner and Mario Hezonja. Hezonja will presumably absorb Turner’s role as a point forward off the bench. The three-for-three swap of conventional forwards this summer was:
Out: Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless, Jake Layman.
In: Kent Bazemore, Rodney Hood (yes, I’m counting Hood as a new forward) and Anthony Tolliver.
On the surface, the new trio didn’t shoot remarkably better than the departing trio last season. Hood–pre-trade deadline–and Bazemore’s role on a tanking team inhibited their play; both shot worse from three than the year prior. Tolliver endured a dip in three-point percentage as well.
Over their careers, though, the incoming forwards have shot noticeably better. Looking closer at last year’s shooting numbers, they also shot better in the zones and situations Portland will ideally utilize them in.
The ideal use of Hood, Bazemore and Tolliver? Corner threes.
The Blazers shot the fewest triples from the corner last season, likely due to the personnel’s inability to reliably make them. But the fresh faces shot better from the corner even during a down year, hopefully giving Terry Stotts the confidence to employ the league’s most popular and efficient shot.
Swapping Hassan Whiteside for Jusuf Nurkic in the early part of the season will shift Portland’s game plan toward kick outs to the corner. Whiteside will likely run to the rim after setting a screen for Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum. He shoots inefficiently from anywhere outside of the restricted area, so the Blazers guards should force feed him looks around the basket in pick-and-roll sets.
Defenders on the wing have to sag off their matchup in order to block Whiteside’s clean run to the hoop. And if the attention of the pick-and-roll goes to the big man, the same help defense occurs on the other side of the floor as Lillard or McCollum drive.
Both situations provide an opportunity for the guards or Whiteside to kick the ball out to the corner, where one of Bazemore, Hood or Tolliver stands. Compared to previous years, the offense should be satisfied with a possession resulting in a corner three from a forward.
Unfortunately, Whiteside is not a good distributor. In 343 career games, he has accumulated 203 assists. He has never averaged more than one assist per contest. In order to exploit corner shooting, he must improve his vision when rolling to the rim and make the kick out pass when appropriate.
Because of the attention Lillard and McCollum require, many of the outside looks for Portland forwards will be uncontested. Such was the case with Aminu, Harkless and Layman; 64.6%, 80.8% and 53.6% of their three-pointers were wide open (no defender within six feet), respectively.
The incoming forwards had fewer chances with as much space.
But they converted their wide-open attempts at a higher rate than the outgoing forwards.
More open perimeter opportunities for better shooters is a recipe for success. Lillard and McCollum won’t hesitate when kicking the ball out to the corners, nor force as many shots around the rim. Defenders will have to help or remain tight on the perimeter, either option supplying Portland with more desirable looks than in past seasons.
The Blazers likely won’t make wholesale changes and reach the Rockets’ level of corner three-pointer manipulation, but they won’t avoid the corner shot anymore thanks to the construction of the new roster. When playoffs roll around, opposing defenses won’t be able to sacrifice the perimeter and sell out on Lillard and McCollum either. And when Nurkic returns, the offense will only get that much better with his exceptional passing.