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The Evolution of the Trail Blazers Offense

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Portland’s attack looks different now than it did four years ago, despite continuity in personnel. We examine how and why.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers are known as one of the best offensive teams in the NBA. Shattering records and running up the score with ease, they are a prime example of the “pace and space” style that now dominates the league.

With the franchise name and “scoring points” becoming almost interchangeable, it’s easy to forget that Portland’s offense has been a work in progress. The Blazers of 2017 were not the Blazers of today, even though several key figures, including coaches and star players, remain the same.

Today we’re going to look at how Portland’s offense has evolved statistically over the past four years, asking what major changes have occurred and speculating on how they got where they are today.

*All stats were tabulated one week before the close of the regular season. Minor variations in the 2020-21 raw numbers and rankings may have occurred in the meantime.

Offensive Efficiency

At first glance, these numbers are impressive. Jumping from 105.6 to 110, then to 113.5 in the space of four years is incredible. Portland’s offense certainly isn’t suffering! But looks can be deceiving. If you look at the ordinal ranking, Portland’s first leap brought them among the league’s elite. They’ve been slipping ever so slightly backwards since, even though their raw number has increased.

There’s nothing to criticize about Portland’s offensive progression. Damian Lillard, Terry Stotts, and company have done a great job. But the Blazers have not been the only NBA franchise with skyrocketing offensive efficiency numbers during this span. The gaudy stats reflect a league trend, of which the Blazers are a part, rather than a unique accolade due to Portland’s system or talent. The Blazers are certainly taking full advantage of the new NBA, but they’re not getting an exclusive advantage.

Fast Break Points

It’s hardly their bread and butter, but the Blazers have shown an increase in transition points over the past four years. 2017-18 featured a league, and pretty much historical, low in fast break buckets for Portland. 8.4 points is about one basket per quarter, the equivalent of three three-pointers. Nowadays Anfernee Simons can sneeze and produce that in a two-minute span.

The problem with this was never raw points. The Blazers produced plenty. Reliable scoring and the gap given up to opponents in same often became an issue. The Blazers were pretty good at getting back in transition, but when they failed, they had no way to make up the gap. A near-50% increase in raw numbers from their low, plus an average league rank instead of an abysmal one, help smooth over the gap. A team led by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is never going to lead the league in fast breaks, but not being awful at them helps, if nothing else because the overall offense moves quicker.

Points in the Paint

Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, Portland’s interior scoring has dropped off even as their offensive efficiency has increased.

After peaking in 2018-19 at a near-average 48.4 points per game, the Trail Blazers’ paint offense fell off a cliff over the last two seasons. How does a drop off of almost ten points happen in a span of two years? The answer is pretty simple. The timeline correlates with the boom in how many threes the Blazers were attempting per game.

Who did these shots that used to be in the paint come from, and where have they gone? One of the biggest contributors is CJ McCollum. Only 13.8% of McCollum’s made baskets this season came at the rim, significantly down from his 24.4% mark last season, as well as his 28.4% from the 2018-19 season. McCollum has trended away from the basket, abstaining from layups in favor of threes.

The rest of the team seems to be trending in the same way. Al-Farouq Aminu and Robert Covington played the power forward position for the Blazers two years apart. They showed a radical decrease in shots at the rim. Aminu made 55.3% of his baskets at the rim in his final year in Portland, compared to the 26.5% of Robert Covington.

In short, lack of paint scoring isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

Shooting Percentages

The Trail Blazers’ three point percentage has gone way up over the last few seasons, while their overall field goal percentage has stayed roughly the same. Much of this increase can be attributed to personnel, as the Blazers have sought to add more shooting to their roster in recent years to fit with their perimeter identity. They have succeeded in this for the most part. This year Robert Covington and Norman Powell have bolstered their wing shooting. The two of them are shooting 37.9% and 36.1% from three respectively for the Blazers this season. Combine that with a top 20 player in the league in three point percentage in Anfernee Simons, and the Blazers have plenty of shooting power around their star backcourt.

That Portland’s overall percentage has remained steady while their three-point emphasis has risen is a testimony to how good they’ve become. Normally you’d expect overall percentage to fall as a trade-off for perimeter attempts. Portland has managed both fairly reasonably.

Points from Distance

We already know the three-point shot has become more prevalent in today’s NBA. The steady increase league wide does not wholly account for the boom in the Blazers’ three point attempts.

While the bulk of the Trail Blazers’ threes come from their star guards, with Lillard and McCollum averaging a combined 19.4 attempts per game this year, the real increase, and reason for the massive increase, has been the forwards. Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu averaged 6.9 and 5.5 threes attempted combined in their last two seasons with the Blazers from the 2017-18 season to the 2018-19 season. Comparatively, both Trevor Ariza and Kent Bazemore averaged 4 threes each during their time with the Blazers, and Carmelo Anthony averaged 3.9 during that same season. During the 2020-2021 season, Robert Covington has averaged 5.1 attempts per game, Norman Powell has averaged 5.4 attempts per game. Derrick Jones Jr. also averaged 2.7 attempts as a starter.

While the duo of Lillard and McCollum have increased their volume, the increase in attempts from the forward spots has been the biggest swing factor in the boom in percentage of points from three.

Turnovers and Assists

Everyone loves to say that one of the major issues with the Blazers’ offense this year has been their lack of ball movement, however, the low assist numbers being posted this season are not an outlier at all. For the last four years the Blazers have ranked bottom five in the league in assists, with their peak coming in at a whopping 26th place. Portland’s offense thrives on a blend of isolation play and offensive rebounds leading to easy putbacks under the basket, neither of which lead to large assist numbers.

The lack of assists also contributes to a lack of turnovers, something the Blazers have been good at preventing in the last few seasons. If the Blazers are going to be passing less than most teams, it stands to reason that they will also have less passes sail out of bounds, or be picked off, leading to less turnovers. Their deliberate ball control maximizes their number of effective possessions, and thus their scoring opportunities.

Conclusion

The Trail Blazers aren’t unique among their NBA brethren. They’ve grown along with the rest of the league in several offensive categories. They’ve certainly put their own flavor on the evolution, though. Everything from roster construction to play style is focused on maximizing the number and type of possessions: get as many effective shots on goal as possible, milk the most points per shot out of them. Featuring Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum has certainly influenced these choices. When you’ve got scorers, your team tends to center around them. But the Blazers have “turned it up to 11” by minimizing turnovers, playing deliberately, and seeking out three-pointers like a hunter after prey.

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