The Portland Trail Blazers are fielding a brand new team this season, full of young players, lacking NBA experience, let alone experience with each other. The chemical reaction varies from night to night, at times explosive, at times just pffffftttt.
This variance offers challenges completely different than the team and its viewers experienced in the relative placidity of the now-passed Damian Lillard era. The game itself isn’t any harder to watch. It may be more entertaining, in fact! But it’s harder to know what you’re seeing, let alone what to pay attention to.
Last week we published a Blazer’s Edge Mailbag submission asking how, I, personally, watch and evaluate games. I discussed the process of recapping and some of the ways in which I’ve learned to process the action. In that post, I promised to follow up with specific things I watch for from this incarnation of the Trail Blazers. That’s what we’re doing today.
Below are five things I look for from the team overall. They’re not the most important principles. Those are pretty obvious: share the ball, stay in front of your man, take and hit open shots. You don’t need me to tell you that Portland needs more size and three-point shooting, or that hitting from distance will open up the floor for their drivers. They’re foundational.
But around the edges are certain factors that appear to influence how the Blazers will play on a given night, indicators I use to judge how the game is going beyond the obvious. These are valuable for me to know as well, so I’m sharing them here.
Who’s the Third Man?
The Trail Blazers would love to score fast break points on their opponents. They currently rank 20th in the league in that category at 13.1 points per game. Unfortunately they’re also dead last in fast break points given up at 16.9 per game. That’s a near-four-point deficit in a category they’d prefer to win.
Theoretically Portland should be as fast running back on defense as they are running towards their own rim. That’s not happening. The question is, why?
The answer varies from play to play, but the key is the third man down the floor when opponents start to run on the Blazers. The first two players will always be evenly split: one opponent, one Trail Blazer. Which uniform is the next player down the court wearing? That’s going to tell you if an easy layup attempt is coming.
If that third player isn’t a Blazer, start looking at Portland players when the shot goes up. Are players diving into the lane for offensive rebounds? Have several Blazers converged in the paint because of the offensive set? Or are players just standing and watching? All three have happened at one time or another during the season.
Opposing Offensive Rebounds
In a similar vein, the Blazers want to dominate the offensive glass. As we just discussed, they may be giving up fast break points just to earn that privilege. Portland ranks 12th in the league in offensive rebounding percentage. They were higher earlier in the season. It’s a strength for them.
The emphasis won’t do much good, though, unless the Blazers earn an actual advantage with it, though. They currently sit 28th in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage allowed.
If you want to understand how the team is faring, watch the lane on opposing shots. Where is center Deandre Ayton? How many opponents are boxing out on him? Who else is present for Portland?
Crafty opponents are going to try and pull Ayton and/or any Portland bigs outside of the lane and then shoot over them. When the shot misses, they have a decent chance of recovering for an easy put-back. If the Blazers are honestly defending when this happens, there’s not much to do about it. But if they are standing around or out of position as the other team crashes the glass—and this happens with disturbing frequency—expect them to fall behind fairly quickly.
Corner Threes on D
On their good nights, the Blazers do a remarkable job closing out at the three-point arc. If they’re going to falter, it’s likely to be at the corners of the floor. Not coincidentally, that’s exactly where other teams like to line up their threes. It’s the shortest shot beyond the arc. It also spreads out the floor effectively, burying a defender against the sideline and the baseline, where he can do the least good.
Closing out on corner threes is usually the province of shooting guards and forwards. Those players are also traditionally tasked with helping out against drivers and at least faking at players who catch in the post.
Ask yourself who’s manning those positions at any given time. Watch how they’re handling each aspect of the defense. If they’re over-committing to the corner, are opponents scoring one-on-one off of drives and short shots? If they’re shutting down the middle, are opponents getting uncontested threes on the sideline? Either one is a disaster.
Timing and reflexes are the keys to accomplishing this dual defensive feat. Most of the young Blazers have quick reactions, but reading the floor is often an issue. When the other guys get a wide-open three in the corner, look to see where defenders are bunched up. Did they really need to be there? If so, why? That’s going to tell you where the hole in the defense is coming and why the Blazers moved to cover it. That’ll tell the story of the open three.
Passing Lanes on Drives
It’s easy to look at Scoot Henderson’s 5.0 turnovers per 36 minutes of play and cluck like a disappointed chicken. Former point guard Jamaree Bouyea averaged 5.1 himself. Shooting guard Shaedon Sharpe, who has assumed quasi-point-guard duties at times, notches 3.1. Only veteran Malcolm Brogdon is safe from the phenomenon. He averages 2.0 turnovers per 36.
The three youngsters aren’t getting stripped of the ball for all those TO’s. They’re diving into the lane, getting crowded, looking for passing lanes to teammates, and instead throwing it right into the other team’s hands.
Part of this is inexperience. It’s part of the lumps you take for playing young guards. But the entire team is young, especially when Brogdon isn’t on the floor. They don’t always help the point guard see the pass. When Portland’s point guards throw away the ball trying to thread passes through the lane, ask yourself what else was open? If the answer is nothing, that turnover was team-created, not just the fault of the dribbler.
Usually teams will keep a shooter on the strong side of the court, meaning the side the ball is on. If the point guard gets stuck, he has an outlet close by on the perimeter as well as options towards or cross-court. If the strong-side defender comes to help against the point guard, the shooter on that side of the floor is wide open. That’s supposed to be a strong argument for leaving drivers single-covered.
This isn’t happening often enough for the Blazers now. The team-wide lack of decent shooters may be one reason. Jerami Grant is the best shooting option, but he’s also the team’s main scorer. They don’t want to bury him in a corner waiting for a pass that may or may not come. After that, Portland’s three-point shooting gets dicey quickly. The Blazers really miss Anfernee Simons here.
If Portland puts a shooter on the driver’s side, is the defender staying home against him? If not, are the guards getting him the ball and is he hitting the resulting shot? If the defender remains with the strong-side shooter, where is the help against the drive coming from? If no help comes, why can’t the dribbler convert a fairly basic one-on-one layup? If help does come, what’s happening with the Blazers player who just got left? Often you’ll notice that the suddenly-free player doesn’t recognize the situation quickly enough, or make himself available. The help becomes a wall over which the dribbler can no longer pass, with the otherwise-open teammate behind it.
Look to see whether cutters are helping out the passer as well. A baseline cut from a teammate can create a powerful option for the point guard. So can a quick dive from the top or weak side for a potential alley-oop. Sometimes the Blazers just stand at the perimeter and watch their point guard get trapped instead of working to get open when defenders pinch down on him.
Most defenses are disrespecting the Blazers by packing the lane so thoroughly that those options get cut off before they can even develop. Lacking three-point shooters, there’s not much the Blazers can do about it. But every once in a while the floor opens up. Synergy between passer, cutter, and shooter makes a huge difference in those cases. Theoretically the Blazers should be getting far more halfcourt dunks, and far fewer turnovers, than they are currently. Don’t just blame the point guards for that. Ask what’s happening around them.
Spacing on the Break
We started this post on the run and we’ll finish it the same way. The Blazers get out against opponents with some frequency, but they have problems making connections to complete the play with a layup or slam. Watch for spacing on multi-man break opportunities. Often the Blazers aren’t doing a good job of it.
The classic break has a dribbler heading towards the hoop, slightly off the vertical center line leading to the rim, with players running down the sideline on either side, ready to cut diagonally towards the rim to create passing opportunities if a defender stops the dribbler.
Portland’s guards sometimes swing too wide of center, coming at the rim like they were cutters instead of dribblers. This leaves the actual cutters either heading straight down the center of the court (easily defended by a small switch in position) or way on the far side of the court from the dribbler (hard to pass to).
Portland cutters also crowd the center-line dribbler too often, creating a cluster of offensive players that a single defender can inhibit.
The secondary break is another key. Remember how we asked who the third man down the court was on fast break defense? This is similar. Watch whether the fourth or fifth Trail Blazers player down the court is ahead of his defender or behind. If ahead, that player should get an easy bucket on the secondary (or delayed) break. The first players down the floor, having failed to generate an easy shot, pull out to the sides while another teammate streaks down the middle. One pass to that player should yield a clear straight-away jumper or, if the defenders are really asleep, a dunk. Those shots are right in the wheelhouse of the two Blazers most likely to be last down the floor, Ayton and Grant.
The Blazers might not be able to generate all the traditional fast breaks they want, but they should be able to make hay with the secondary break, given the speed and skill of their frontcourt players. If that isn’t happening, is it because Portland’s players are slow to get down the court? Or are the primary ballhandlers just not spaced and aware to take advantage of the opportunity?
Those are five team-based factors to watch. Next up will be five more individual factors. Coming soon!