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Defense Optional: The Portland Trail Blazers Should Focus on Offense

If you can’t fix your weaknesses, play harder to your strengths.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers lost most – if not all – of their top defenders to free agency, trade or injury before the fourth game of the 2019-20 season began. Predictably, the team’s defense ranks in the bottom third of the league through 38 games. Coach Terry Stotts dedicated an entire practice to improving on that end of the floor, but one couple-hour session isn’t near enough time to revive such a defense. With its current personnel, the Blazers ceiling is fairly low on that end of the floor.

The team’s offense, on the other hand, has a much higher ceiling thanks to the dynamic scoring of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Carmelo Anthony and Anfernee Simons. Each is a proficient three-level scorer and can create tolerable looks off the dribble.

While it’s not a bad idea to correct the defensive rotations – which do look better since that practice – Portland won’t win many games behind stout defense. They can, however, win enough games by just outscoring the opponent, now referred to as the “Washington Wizards approach.”

The Blazers offensive rating of 110.1 currently ranks 11th in the league; its defensive rating of 111.7 ranks 23rd. With the right adjustments, that offensive rating can climb into the top 10 and Portland can recover its fringe spot in the Western Conference playoff race.

A comparison of the efficiency of the Blazers in several offensive play types compared to the league average.

Like in past years, the team’s go-to offense is the pick and roll. The Blazers have the second most such possessions in which the ball handler keeps it. They rank third in points per possession and tout the lowest turnover percentage in the league.

Lillard spearheads this success. He has the second most pick and roll possessions – only trailing Trae Young – and has the highest points per possession (1.12) among high-volume pick-and-roll players. He punishes sagging big men by sinking pull up three-pointers around a high screen from Hassan Whiteside as if they were lay ins.

Portland’s impressive scoring rate out of pick and rolls drops when the ball leaves the guard’s possession, at least compared to the rest of the league. They rank 15th in points per possession when the roll man gets the ball. It’s a much less frequent outcome, but the roster’s lack of height prohibits much rim-running outside of Whiteside, who averages 29.9 minutes per game.

Whiteside’s efficiency as the roll man can improve if the ball handler exercises patience after using the screen. He doesn’t get to the hoop quickly, so the guard must drag defenders away from the paint and avoid getting trapped by the double team. This improves the chance that Whiteside’s eventual shot will come right at the rim and not farther away; his field goal percentage dips from 66.7% within five feet to 51.6% between five and nine feet.

Although not always the most pleasant to watch, the Blazers isolate frequently and score at a respectable rate. The team ranks fifth in the league for points per isolation possession at 0.96. Having four players who can score from anywhere on the court off the dribble buoys this number.

Those four – Lillard, McCollum, Anthony and Simons – take care of the ball when isolating too. Even though their field goal percentage is 10th in the association, the lack of turnovers boosts their overall efficiency in isolation.

The offense’s biggest void, as it’s been for the last few years, is spot up shooting. Portland ranks dead last for frequency of spot up shots compared to other forms of offense. Even with a lack of shooters, especially after the injury to Rodney Hood, the team’s points per possession on spot up shots is in the middle of the pack (1.02).

Notice that 1.02 points per possession is average for spot up shooting. The Blazers ranked in the top five for isolation points per possession with 0.96, lower than average spot up shooting. Even with players who thrive in isolation, standstill jumpers from the perimeter are yielding more points per possession.

Portland also places last in transition frequency, mostly due to its conservative defense. The guards can boost the number of transition opportunities by collecting uncontested rebounds themselves and pushing the ball forward quickly instead of letting Whiteside secure it and then meandering up the court. Catching the defense off guard or before it’s set allows the isolation guys to get favorable one-on-one matchups without the threat of help defense.

Without miraculously adding a guy like Kawhi Leonard who changes an entire team’s defensive identity, the Blazers have a better chance of winning games with exceptional offense rather than average defense. With a few adjustments to maximize the injury-ridden roster, Portland can push its offense back into the top-third league-wide and recover an up-for-grabs playoff spot at the bottom of the Western Conference.