The Portland Trail Blazers finished third in offensive rating at 113.2 for the 2019-20 season. Even amidst long-term injuries to three starters, as well as several minor injuries to the replacement starters, Damian Lillard and company fought hard on the offensive end to compensate for defensive shortcomings.
Portland didn’t make scoring easy on itself. The team ranked last in spot up possessions, generally the most efficient way to knock down threes. The conservative defensive scheme also didn’t produce many fast breaks; the Blazers ranked last in transition possessions.
Imagine how potent the offense could be with everyone healthy and spot up and transition opportunities happening more frequently. These adjustments could boost scoring output enough to maybe make up for poor defense come postseason. Portland’s defense must improve, don’t get me wrong, but the roster’s ceiling on that end of the floor isn’t very high, so the offense must come to the rescue regardless.
A lineup touting several reliable wing shooters next year should raise the number of found and converted spot up attempts. Lillard and CJ McCollum will always force the defense to collapse on drives, not to mention Jusuf Nurkic’s rolls attract extra defenders. All three have the wherewithal to find their open teammates dotting the perimeter, teammates they can now trust to hit the open triple.
Creating more transition possession isn’t as simple. Head coach Terry Stotts likely won’t reconstruct his defensive scheme this offseason, so the conservative style will continue to produce paltry steal tallies.
The only easy-to-implement change that can generate more transition possessions breaks Hassan Whiteside’s heart. On uncontested rebounds, a ball handler, ideally Lillard or McCollum, should come back and collect the loose ball themselves. Doing so saves the time a center spends looking around for his outlet pass as a wave of bodies run up the floor. Alternatively, Nurkic can take the ball up and start the offense himself occasionally.
The ball handler, with an extra rebound on the stat sheet, can hurry up the floor or find a hit ahead pass with more accuracy. Initiating the offense two or three seconds into the shot clock doesn’t provide time for the defense to set up. Therefore, every couple trips down the floor, Lillard or McCollum might have a mismatch they can attack via pick and roll or isolation. And when they don’t, a different defender might’ve lost his assignment, leading to an open three or cut to the basket.
In limited quantity, Portland’s offense demonstrated how successful it can be early in the possession. Of any three or four second time increment on the NBA’s stat website, the Blazers shot best from two AND three between 18 and 22 seconds remaining on the shot clock. League-wide, the team had the best three-point shooting percentage in that frame of 42.8% this season.
The Blazers score well in transition. It tied for seventh best in terms of points per possession at 1.12 and only turned the ball over 11.4% of those possessions, sixth best this year. Portland can improve its ability to draw fouls on fast breaks, finishing 24th in that column.
As the shot clock winded down and opponents countered Portland’s offense, shooting inside and outside the arc worsened. That’s not unique to this team; it’s standard for shot quality and therefore conversion rates to decrease as offensive possessions expire. The longer a team holds the ball, the better its opponent is playing defense.
The Blazers won’t go away from pick and rolls and isolations as the offense’s foundation. That doesn’t mean other more efficient styles of offense should continue to be deemphasized. To avoid making wholesale adjustments to the defensive scheme given roster makeup, Portland should follow Russell Westbrook and Luka Doncic’s lead of allowing guards to collect rebounds, push the ball up the floor quickly, and attack apathetic defenses.