Struggling to find any semblance of offensive rhythm against a normally-lackluster Charlotte Hornets defense on Dec. 26 at the Moda Center, the Portland Trail Blazers found themselves in need of a change of approach. In danger of allowing the type of game a true postseason contender wouldn’t likely lose, star guard and franchise leader Damian Lillard decided it was time to deliver a simple message:
“Stops and rebounds. If we get stops and push it,” Lillard began, all eyes on the sidelines in his direction, “everything is way easier. Right now, we’re playing against a set defense too much.”
In theory, it sounds like simple X’s and O’s, a cliché akin to a coach saying, “Come on, guys,” or “Let’s go!” But for much of this year, the Blazers — despite starting four players who, at some point ranked among the NBA’s top 50 in fast break points — have felt content to play the game at a snail’s pace. Over the season’s first three months, the Blazers did anything but blaze; they ranked second-to-last in possessions used and were No. 27 in pace. (They’ve since jumped to No. 23; don’t blink, or you just might miss it!)
Wins haven’t consistently followed, but in observing the team over the month of January, it’s worth wondering if Portland, a team without an identity at a time in which you’d certainly want to have one, should lean further into quicker offense. Of the Blazers’ five most efficient offensive games (using ORtg), four of them have come in the month of January, and they’ve almost all been accompanied by a common philosophy: keeping a defense on its heels.
To play devil’s advocate, Portland hasn’t played a murderer’s row of defenses as of late. But, throughout the 2022-23 season, when they have elected to show off that more ambitious, transition-focused side, the results speak for themselves. As briefly noted a few recap articles ago:
— When the Blazers score 24+ fast break points — 7-0 record
— When the Blazers score 20+ fast break points — 10-3 record
— When the Blazers score > 20 fast break points — 13-23 record
This isn’t to suggest that Portland should go full-on Mike D’Antoni and the Seven Seconds or Less mode. But it speaks to the idea that if you have four starters capable of handling the ball in a floor general role on any possession and can avoid playing those set defenses, this could be a strategy worth attacking. At full strength, it often leads to possessions such as this:
Nevermind the fact that it allows the Moda Center, one of the NBA’s premier home crowds, an opportunity to provide the energy; it also allows Damian Lillard — currently putting together career-highs from 2-point range (57.8%) and true shooting percentage (63.7%) at age 32(!) — more efficient opportunities. The drag screen, the double drag screen, (or even just the idea of one, as seen below) is at its absolute best when the Blazers are attacking downhill and the defense has to play read-and-react quickly. It’s a staple in Lillard-led offenses, and should be used as often as possible:
Of course, much of this argument is all for naught without considering how sustainable this approach would be night to night. A key component in creating more transition offense comes within the ability to generate defensive stops; like washer and dryer, one isn’t as effective without the other.
In this regard, the Blazers leave tons to be desired; in any given week, Portland has proven capable of allowing 120+ to any basketball team on its schedule. And, in all seven games in which Portland surpassed the 24+ fast break points mark (vs. the Pistons, Jazz, Nuggets, Hornets, Spurs, Mavericks, and Timberwolves), they gave up 100+ in each game. So, it’s not foolproof, but it is undefeated in a small sample size.
A more defensively-oriented, faster-paced style of play feels much more reasonable given the recent returns of Nassir Little and Gary Payton II, which offer more substitution flexibility, as well as in considering what the Blazers’ brass decides to do during February’s trade deadline.
The idea becomes a bit more complex if Portland elects to move Josh Hart, who runs the floor coast-to-coast with the urgency of a wrestler cashing in a Money in the Bank briefcase. It was safe to assume, at one point, that the fit between Hart and the Blazers would’ve worked out much better than it has, but alas, Hart is among those frequently mentioned as a potential trade piece.
Trading away Hart would likely throw a wrench in this approach; he ranks second on the Blazers in transition points per game (2.9), and currently sits among the NBA’s top 25 in that regard, with 133 fast break points on the year. Portland could find a lineup fit as they entertain trade offers, but replacing Hart’s night-to-night energy, fire, and ambition could prove far more difficult. There’s also the question of if dealing a player like Jusuf Nurkic, whose playstyle might not be conducive that fast-paced play would be something to consider.
Maximizing the offense is only one part of an extremely convoluted question regarding who this year’s Blazers truly are, but in some ways, the results speak for themselves.
A few weeks ago, when the Blazers were in the middle of a four-game losing streak, Sean Highkin of the Rose Garden Report asked Anfernee Simons about Portland’s offensive struggles and getting more organized on that end. Simons’ response — “The best way is to just cut down on the randomness of some of the actions we run” — was professional and candid, and in a way, one could say that they’ve certainly acted upon it since that Jan. 11 Q&A.
Since that day, the Blazers have ranked both sixth-best in fast break PPG (16.0) and turnovers committed (12.2), the major Achilles heel on this year’s team, and even cut down on some of the lengthy scoreless droughts that have plagued them. Yet even so, as evidenced in last night’s Toronto game, that transition offense remains something that is useful one night and nonexistent the next.
In a perfect world, one would hope that the Blazers eventually found that sweet spot amidst a defense and offense that frustratingly haven’t peaked together since November, and also one that may be running out of chances.
As always, time could be what decides everything — from Lillard Time, to Lillard’s championship and contract timeline, to the trade deadline in two weeks time, and in this case, how useful, efficient and quick the Blazers’ offense is with its own time.
Here’s to hoping that in all four phases, they put themselves in position to shoot and score as those precious seconds continue to wind down on the 2022-23 season.