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Three Systemic Improvements that Could Make the Trail Blazers’ Season

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Portland has the lineup, but can they evolve their playing style to match?

Detroit Pistons v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers are sitting pretty as they head into the 2020-21 NBA regular season. New forwards Robert Covington and Derrick Jones, Jr. will join returnees Carmelo Anthony, Rodney Hood, and Gary Trent, Jr. to give Portland depth and talent at the middle positions. Enes Kanter will bolster the center position, as will Zach Collins when his ankle injury heals. Put it all together, and Blazers fans have reason for optimism heading into the new year.

On Tuesday, we spelled out three keys for individual players to increase the chances of Portland succeeding. Today we’ll bring up a trio of systemic improvements that could push the Blazers over the top.

Better Rebounding

The best Portland teams of yore had a common factor: they were nightmares on the boards. This was a staple of Jack Ramsay’s systems; the trend continued later with Rick Adelman. Rebounds have been missing from Portland’s repertoire for most of the 2010’s. So has sustained success.

Board work alone does not a champion make. It’s still one of the easier ways to even out the valleys (and extend the peaks) for an otherwise good team. Offensive rebounds recoup a percentage of missed points while taking away potential possessions from opponents. Defensive rebounds provide the punctuation mark for the defense. Without them, your prior work goes to waste and you have to reset for another 14 seconds.

Last season the Blazers ranked 15th in offensive rebounding percentage at 22.3%. Hassan Whiteside averaged 3.9 offensive rebounds in 30 minutes per game, carrying most of the load. Whiteside won’t return, but in his last healthy run, Jusuf Nurkic rebounded at almost the same rate, while Enes Kanter eclipsed Whiteside handily. Derrick Jones, Jr. has offensive rebounding chops as well, and his ability to put back misses is scary.

These players are surrounded by three-point shooters, making the offensive rebound even more of a weapon. Dunk-backs and kick-outs for threes should be a more common sight this season.

The Blazers languished on the defensive end of the floor last year, finishing 28th in the NBA with a 75.1% defensive rebounding percentage. Defensive rebounding numbers are not quite as significant as offensive. Most teams fall into the mushy middle, differing from each other by only a few tenths of a percent. You can’t suck at defensive rebounding, though, and Portland did. They were almost seven percentage points behind the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks, 4.4 points behind their playoff opponents, the Los Angeles Lakers.

Robert Covington is a strong defensive rebounder, as are most of the players just mentioned in the paragraphs just above. Better overall defense should create more misses. Grabbing a bigger ratio of those will give Portland more possessions compared to their opponent, which is going to turn out well for the Blazers.

Over the past few seasons, lack of talent hasn’t been a huge problem for Portland. Lack of the ability to control the floor has. Controlling the glass is one of the easier ways to imposing their will. Rebounding dominance will be an important evolution for this year’s team.

Forcing Turnovers

Terry Stotts’ Trail Blazers squads have ranged from awful to above average on defense. No matter what the season, no matter which players took the floor, they’ve never been intimidating on that end. Nobody is scared of them.

Instead of pushing opponents around on defense, the Blazers have settled for a percentage-based chess match: deny the middle, cover the three-point arc as best as possible, make the other guys work for their shots.

On average, it’s not a bad approach. Portland runs into problems when opponents are better than average. Since that’s all but guaranteed in the playoffs, the Blazers have tended to look good on defense until the exact moment they crumbled in the postseason. Chess doesn’t help when your opponent has unstoppable moves.

At the core of Portland’s “polite” defensive image is an utter lack of forced turnovers. The Blazers have been Bottom 5—often Bottom Bottom—in that category for years. They attack passing lanes like they were four-way stops. On good nights Portland defenders stay near opponents; they’re never in their face.

Covington, Jones, Jr., and Gary Trent, Jr. have the potential to change that narrative. All are athletic, committed, and have a nose for aggressive defense. They can play chess, but they’re also willing to tip over the table if it looks like they’re losing. They don’t just create steals themselves, they force opponents into bad positions and broken plays from which team turnovers come.

This is the exact intimidation factor that the Blazers need. Turnovers create tempo. They take choices out of the opponent’s hands and put them into yours. Defensive pressure limits the places an opponent can pass or dribble, which limits the kinds of shots they can take, and ultimately limits their ability to possess the ball at all.

Dictating the terms of engagement is critical to achieving these things. That never happens if the other team always has outs. At that point, they don’t really care what the defense does; there’s always another good option. The Blazers will need to send notice that this is not the same old Portland defense, making everyone who comes up against them first care, then fear them.

With the number and size of defenders now on the roster, the Blazers can afford to get aggressive and take risks that they dared not take in earlier seasons for fear of fouling out or exposing their lack of team mobility. That’s an experiment worth trying. It could pay huge dividends at a modest cost.

Fast Break Points

The Blazers have utterly failed to generate fast break points under Coach Stotts, often trailing the league by a wide margin in this category. Need and capability have factored in as much as design. Without defense, rebounding, and turnovers, opportunities for transition offense were rare.

Even if the team had wanted to emphasize this aspect, they didn’t run deep enough to keep it up. Fearing fatigue, they walked down the floor to set up a possession-for-possession matchup in which the skills of their guards (and the shooting of their often-open wings) could shine.

Once again, this worked, on average, until the exact moment it didn’t. Then the Blazers fell off a cliff, inevitably against a playoff opponent who had the offense clocked and turned out better, possession-for-possession.

For all the shot attempts and spectacular plays during a 48-minute game, average margins of victory tend to be compact. The Bucks led the NBA last season with a +9.0 average scoring margin, while the Golden State Warriors trailed it with -8.7. Those were the outliers. 20 of 30 teams won or lost by an average of 5 points or less. 11 out of 30, including the Blazers rose or fell by average margins less than a single, two-point bucket. Averaging one more basket per game would have moved the Blazers from sad to mediocre last season. One more in 2018-19, the season prior, would have lifted them from average to elite.

Winning is not quite that simple, but you can see how even a couple extra conversions per game can make an out-sized difference. The easiest buckets in the universe come 1-on-0, 1-on-1, or if you’re Derrick Jones, Jr., 1-on-it-doesn’t-matter when you’re flying on the break.

Portland now has the defensive prowess and finishers to convert stops into points. They also have enough depth that they don’t need to fear exhaustion if they get out on the break every once in a while. Instead of waiting for a blue-moon opportunity to come along when the opponent falls asleep, The Blazers can force the issue, going hard and tiring the other team instead of fearing the inverse.

Even having an opponent worry about such possibility would put the Blazers ahead of where they currently are. For years they’ve been the British Redcoats, lining up in orderly columns before engaging the enemy, insisting on Marquis of Damesbury rules. They need a little more rebel, quick-strike offense along with some Hulk Smash to spice up the attack. If they’re ever going to do it, this is the year.

Rebounding, turnovers, and fast break points: if the Blazers can make even modest inroads in these three categories, they’ll turn opponent expectations and expert projections on their ear. They’ll have more options and match up better against opponents who do all these things already, which up to this point has given them the edge against predictable Portland schemes.