The return of Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic creates an avant-garde starting lineup for the Portland Trail Blazers as they travel to Orlando to finish the 2019-20 season. The two big men have only shared the floor for 123 minutes in their three years with Portland. And when you throw Carmelo Anthony into the mix, Portland’s starting frontcourt has played a grand total of zero minutes together. (Not to mention Anthony hasn’t played small forward since 2017 with the New York Knicks.)
We all know what role Nurkic will play in his first games back since March of last year, and we all know what role Anthony wants to play even with new teammates joining him. However, as Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Nurkic are the focal points of the offense, both Anthony and Collins will need to adapt their play style accordingly. For a group that has no familiarity with each other, plus a shortened preparation period in the bubble, that might prove harder than expected.
The first three games of the 2019-20 season offered a glimpse of how Portland can succeed with its new frontcourt. Whiteside contributed to the offense by running the classic high pick and roll with Lillard – swapping in Nurkic won’t change that, it’ll only improve it. The adjustment for Collins comes from Anthony replacing Rodney Hood – one is an isolation post-up scorer and the other is a catch-and-shoot specialist.
Hood occasionally posted up to capitalize on a mismatch, but he barely recorded one a game. Anthony, on the other hand, posted up nearly five times per game. He can’t do that when playing alongside two non-shooters in Collins and Nurkic, and it’s not an efficient method of scoring. Teams already sent double teams because he didn’t have the vision to make the right pass out of the post, and now defenders have the freedom to trap even more aggressively.
Imagine Collins in the place of Hood. Jaxson Hayes doubled Anthony, and Brandon Ingram rotated down to front Whiteside at the risk of an open Hood triple. That’s a brainless rotation to make if there’s 1) a slim chance Anthony skips it to Collins and 2) if the open shooter makes less than one-third of his career threes.
Where Anthony posted up, Hood spotted up. Spot up jumpers accounted for one-third of Hood’s offense, which makes sense when Lillard and McCollum are also on the floor and appropriately handle most of the playmaking. Spot ups only accounted for one-fifth of Anthony’s offense; he also shared the court with the star guards in his time with Portland.
Pushing Anthony to the perimeter does more than just boost his offensive efficiency. It provides Lillard or Nurkic with a 38.1% three-point catch and shooter to kick out to and clears room for the worse-shooting Collins to loiter in the midrange. Collins found a niche for himself through the first three games of the season by maneuvering within the arc and finding openings for higher-percentage shots.
If Anthony is inside the three-point line and Nurkic is under the hoop, Collins must float out to the perimeter where defenders don’t care as much about him.
Look how far Paul Millsap sags off Collins on this play:
Getting Collins involved in the offense will take more than just sliding Anthony out to the perimeter. As a power forward playing with a traditional center, Collins would generally space the floor as well, but his three-point shooting prevents him from being an effective stretch four quite yet. Instead, there are two simple movements for Collins that won’t disturb the usual one-five pick and roll but still keep him engaged with the offense.
The first is setting off ball screens for one of Lillard or McCollum. More times than not, both defenders will cover the guard because they are such dynamic scoring threats. When that happens, Collins can slip the screen for a clear path to the rim or fade out to the midrange. Both options create more reliable shot opportunities for the third year forward.
The second is a double screen for one of Lillard or McCollum at the top of the key with Nurkic as the other screener. The Blazers did this every so often with Nurkic and Moe Harkless last year. Collins’ defender will be at the top of the arc after he pops from the first screen, so a clear lane will appear for a rolling Nurkic. Collins is the last option in this set, but he made an impressive 47.5% of his triples from the top of the arc in 2018-19, his best and most frequent three-point location.
When he isn’t involved in off-ball or double screens and Portland runs the Lillard-Nurkic pick and roll, Collins can’t be stationed in the corner. As mentioned earlier, defenders will leave him without a second thought to impede Lillard’s drive or Nurkic’s roll.
There are ways to prevent that help defense but not rely on him too much offensively. The simplest way: place Anthony and McCollum in either corner and Collins on the wing. His defender can only swipe at the dribbler – he can’t rotate under the hoop and deter a layup. Additionally, McCollum (47.1%) and Anthony (38.1%) are much better shooters off the catch than Collins (29.8% last season).
Another option is for all three – McCollum, Anthony and Collins – to spot up on the same side. That allows Nurkic to roll on the weakside and potentially have just a late-rotating defender in his path.
Collins has experience sharing the floor with a traditional big. Last year, he and Kanter recorded a net rating of plus-9.8 and an offensive rating of 120.8 when on the court together. Even though he took 15 less attempts in the restricted area and four more attempts in the midrange per 100 possessions, he still contributed to a productive offense.
There’s no way to predict how the frontcourt will perform offensively; Anthony, Collins and Nurkic have never played a minute together. However, by limiting—or even eliminating—Anthony’s post ups, running the occasional surprise play for Collins to keep defenders honest, and placing McCollum and/or Anthony in the corners, the Blazers’ offense can succeed behind the high pick and roll like in years past.