There were supposed to be only four Beatles in the NBA this year. But somebody forgot to tell the Portland Trail Blazers. As we enter the All-Star break, five teams are 20 games over .500, including Miami, San Antonio, Indiana, and Oklahoma City — the quartet many expected to top the league. Then there’s Portland. In less than two years, the Blazers have gone from middling to mind-melting, taking the NBA by storm with their juggernaut offense. They are the most efficient scoring team in the ferocious Western Conference, and score more points per possession than any team not based in Miami.
The Portland offense features a core group of performers who band together to produce a unified value worth far more than the sum of their individual parts. The Blazers remain one of the only teams left in the league to feature five starting players who clearly fit the old Wooden taxonomy of basketball positions. As a result, the team plays with a seamless flow and intelligent spacing. They consistently create shots for one another, in turn making each other look and play better. The five starters blend together to create perhaps the most balanced offensive attack in the NBA.
I visited Portland two weeks ago to talk with the team about its offensive philosophy and how it’s scoring so effectively. Coach Terry Stotts, in his second year helming the Blazers, credits their success to great passing and great shooting. “We have good, confident shooters, and we have players that have confidence in each other to get the next pass,” Stotts says. “Those two things for our team go hand in hand.” But the team’s success goes deeper than that.
The ball doesn’t “stick” much in the Portland offense. The players trust the system now, and they trust one another. That may sound corny, but it’s a key difference from last year, when, according to forward Nicolas Batum, they were learning new schemes on the fly while being led by unproven point guard Damian Lillard.
“Last year, Dame was a rookie and it took awhile to get to know each other,” Batum says. “We came back this year in training camp, and on day one we could just see something was better, something changed.”
Something has changed. Last year, the Blazers lost their final 13 games. This season, they won 17 of their first 20. LaMarcus Aldridge, the team’s leader, chalks up the difference to more familiarity with Stotts’s system. “People know where the extra pass should be, guys know where other guys should be open,” Aldridge says. “Last year was a transition period for us all. We were trying to figure out where the shots and passes were gonna come from.”
He continues: “We have better chemistry this year. Guys are buying into the system, playing unselfish, ball-movement-type basketball. We’ve seen the results of moving the ball, the ball not sticking in one guy’s hand, and we won 11 in a row like that. I think guys see that, and it gets contagious, it’s fun basketball, and teams can’t guard us like that.”
The Blazers’ offense is built around the steadily improving Aldridge and the emergent Lillard. Together, they form perhaps the most effective pick-and-roll pairing in the NBA. Lillard, who is wise beyond his years, doesn’t remember his first season fondly, even though he was awarded Rookie of the Year. “To an extent we had that trust last year, but the confidence, as a team, just wasn’t as high,” Lillard says. “We weren’t locked in like we are now.”
Lillard’s ascendance has been fast. At times, it seems like he’s cutting in line to become the best point guard in the NBA. In a league chock-full of “elite” players at the position, the kid from Weber State has flashed unflappable confidence, breezy poise, and ferocious intensity at the end of games. Though he’s undersize by traditional standards, Lillard is the kind of point guard you’d design in a lab: He commands the floor, he shoots well, he’s fearless, and he improves.
It’s a pick-and-roll league, and Lillard has become one of the best in the game at running it. Just 23 years old, he already reads and reacts to defensive tactics like a seasoned vet. Lillard scientifically evaluates the first pick-and-roll of every game.
“The first one I get every night, I come off hard just to see if that defender is gonna come out and show, or kind of halfway show, and I might be able to turn a corner,” he says. “It all depends on how [Aldridge’s] man is gonna play it. If he’s gonna show, I’m gonna come off it hard every time and pull him with me, and I’m just gonna throw it back to L.A. for that shot that he hits all the time. It’s pretty simple. If he halfway hedges, I’m gonna turn the corner and attack. Then I know the opposite defender likes to suck in, and I’ll hit his man usually in the corner.”
Anyone who thinks the Blazers are a fluke probably isn’t watching Lillard massacre pick-and-roll defenses around the league. His on-a-string handle and supreme athleticism enable him to turn corners, split defenders, and do stuff like this:
He’s already one of the best point guards in the league from long distance, and trails only Steph Curry in made 3s above the break.
Lillard is savvy, unselfish, and athletic enough to look for, and make, the right pass even when he’s blitzed by two of the most skilled defenders in the league:
And he has playmaking instincts that can’t be taught, which also come in handy:
“Two of Us”
It takes two to pick and roll, and Lillard is aware his successes with the play have a lot to do with Aldridge. Few, if any, of the league’s most common screeners are as versatile as Aldridge. He can score anywhere inside the arc, whether at the rim or 19 feet from the basket.
“When you have a guy that’s a threat to either roll to the basket or pop and knock down that jumper at the level L.A. does, then the big defender becomes worried,” says Lillard. “When the defender’s worried, he’s in a rush to get back to LaMarcus, and if he wants to be in a rush, then I’m gonna turn the corner, and I’m gonna find a way to score, or find another guy for an open shot. Teams are scared to leave L.A. When they don’t want to give me a shot, then he’s going to be open, and he’s a willing passer. When teams over-rotate to him, that’s when we get a lot of open corner 3s and skip 3s.”
Lillard makes Aldridge better; Aldridge makes Lillard better. Together, they make everyone else better. This is the hallmark of a great team. Their mini orchestra compromises the shapes of defenses and enables the perimeter soloists to do their thing.
“With a Little Help From My Friends”
Portland ranking first in made 3s per game and fourth in 3-point field goal percentage have a lot to do with Aldridge, who very rarely takes 3s of his own. Wesley Matthews knows this better than anyone. One of the best shooting guards in the league, and in the midst of a career year, Matthews is aware of the profound impact Aldridge has had on his game. “Whenever we can cause a problem on one side of the court, mainly with LaMarcus,” he says, “we put a team in rotation, and the ball flies around the perimeter with that swing-swing action.”
Nobody has benefited from these swing passes more than Matthews, who ranks first in the NBA in corner 3s made, with 52. He describes the unfolding nature of these shots in fascinating detail, describing the anticipation experienced both by himself and the fans as the Blazers fluidly move the ball.
“The ball’s over there, I’m in the opposite corner,” Matthews says. “I know that they’re gonna double L.A., because he’s got it going, so he kicks the ball out, and as the flight of the ball rotates around the perimeter, you can almost get a sense of the crowd knowing that the ball is getting ready to come to me. And then it’s just that excited pressure of once that ball gets in my hands, everybody’s expecting it to go in — ‘I gotta knock this down.’”
Corner 3s are an indicator species in healthy offensive ecosystems, and it’s no surprise, then, that Portland is making tons of them. Along with Miami, San Antonio, and Atlanta, the Blazers are one of four teams that have made 100 corner 3s, while shooting over 40 percent of their 3-pointers from those areas. But corner 3s don’t happen in a vacuum — many times, the ones taken by the Blazers occur because of Aldridge. Still, it takes shooters to knock down these shots, and the Blazers’ guards, especially Matthews and Lillard, have been nearly unmatched in the league. Both guys are in the top four in 3-pointers made, and both are hitting more than 40 percent from beyond the arc. Not bad for an undrafted shooting guard and a second-year point guard who played his college ball in Ogden, Utah.
“You Won’t See Me”
While the backcourt players have quickly developed an identity as one of the best shooting tandems in the league, Nicolas Batum, the team’s starting small forward, is developing his own reputation as one of the NBA’s fastest and most active players; according to data provided by SportVU, of 34 players averaging at least 35 minutes in the league, Batum has the highest average speed, and has traveled the highest total distance this year, logging a staggering 136.9 miles through his first 52 games. He’s one of the team’s main catalysts, barely trailing Lillard in assists, but he sees himself as a gap-filler and is committed to helping the team any way he can, whether by slashing, cutting, screening, or passing. “My goal is to improve my all-around game, set better screens, and help drive and kick to the shooters.”
Batum’s an adequate shooter who looks plain average compared with Lillard and Matthews, but he’s become an efficient attacker; he’s freakishly effective near the basket. Out of 203 players with at least 100 attempts inside eight feet, Batum trails only LeBron James in field goal percentage. He’s made 75 percent of his shots down there, 20 percent better than the NBA average. Batum’s inside play is a perfect contrast to Matthews’s and Lillard’s bomb-throwing, and it helps create space for the Blazers’ centerpiece.
“I Wanna Be Your Man”
Despite stellar play from the perimeter players, Portland’s All-Star power forward remains the unlikely engine of the offense. Aldridge ranks sixth in the league in scoring and seventh in rebounding, averaging 24 and nearly 12 per night. But he is arguably the weirdest offensive force in the league. Through February 5, 22 NBA players have attempted more than 300 midrange shots, but only two players have attempted more than 500 of them: Dirk Nowitzki (518) and Aldridge (a stunning 719). To call him an outlier would be an understatement.
Aldridge’s activity from the midrange is anomalous. He has attempted 100 more midrange shots than the Houston Rockets have as a team. The Rockets have a reputation as the most analytically attuned team in the league, and their offense is predicated, in part, on the idea that midrange shots are bad shots. The new quant-based dogma around the league is that corner 3s and attacking the rim are the smartest ways to score. But those kinds of opportunities don’t just happen, and contemporary defenses are motivated more than ever to prevent them.
Aldridge is quick to suggest his midrange shot is important because it creates opportunities for his team in those smarter locations.
“My midrange shot is good for our team because that’s my shot. I drill it all summer, I work on it, I’m known for it, and I can make it consistently,” says Aldridge. “It puts pressure on the guards and the bigs to guard me in the midrange, which makes the defender in the corner come to me on pick-and-pops, which gives Wes or Nico that open shot in the corner. Or, the big doesn’t want me to get that open shot, so he doesn’t help when Dame attacks the basket. So, by me being so good in the midrange area, it gets us corner 3s or it gets our guards open drives to the basket.”
Stotts takes it one step further, suggesting that dismissing midrange shots is a fatal strategy. “It’s not easy getting to the basket, and it’s not easy getting open shots in this league,” he says. “Half of the guys in the league, I would not want to leave open at 15 feet. An open midrange shot is a quality shot in this league. Teams basically make twice as many shots if they’re uncontested. If they’re contested, they make 30 percent; if they’re uncontested, they make 60 percent.”
It’s hard to argue with the results. The Blazers are a more efficient scoring offense than Houston, despite leading the league in midrange field goal attempts. Portland is one of the best offenses in the game, despite going against those newfangled scoring strategies.
“Carry That Weight”
So, how far can a team like this go? There is a prevailing thought around the league that jump-shooting teams don’t win in the playoffs. But that notion has recently been put on trial. The last team to send LeBron James home without a Larry O’Brien Trophy was the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks. That team had its own midrange-happy power forward surrounded by a cast of ace shooters. One of their top assistant coaches was none other than Terry Stotts, whose recollection of that title run sounds eerily similar to what’s happening in Portland now.
“I remember the summer after we won the championship, a lot of coaches came up to me and said, ‘We loved to watch you play, how you passed the ball,’” Stotts says. “Our passing during that run was incredible, and although we did play good defense, we played great offense throughout that whole run; it was a style of play that was unselfish — against really good defensive teams, we were still able to score.”
Points remain the ultimate currency in the NBA. And Portland is rolling in them. Preventing points, on the other hand — well, that’s the problem. The team ranks 21st in defensive efficiency, which erodes much of the advantage the offense creates. Historically, it’s hard to find an example of a defense that porous that has made a championship run. With their offense a harmonizing crew, defensive improvements must become the focal point for the Blazers going forward. Looking at their roster, there’s no reason they can’t improve on that end. If they keep up their offensive brilliance and somehow develop into an above-average defense, Portland will be a title contender. In the end, the points you make must be greater than the points they take.
Illustration by Nicholas Kastner.