The Portland Trail Blazers Are Scorching, But Can It Last?

Here’s the irony: The 2011-12 Blazers serve as my personal reminder against overreacting to any team trend over the first 10 or so games of the season. Those Blazers started 7-2, and the wins included an icy coldcocking of Oklahoma City on the road. LaMarcus Aldridge was cementing his status as one of the league’s 15 best players, and Gerald Wallace, still starting ahead of future nut-puncher Nic Batum, was playing the very best basketball of his life. Lots of teams have gotten off to unsustainable starts; witness last season’s Bobcats and this season’s Sixers. But Portland had been a solid playoff team three years running; this felt like a good team taking the next step, overcoming a sad injury history in the process. It felt real.

We know what happened after that: Raymond Felton forgot how to dribble, infighting engulfed the team, and the front office eventually waved the tank flag by dealing Marcus Camby to Houston and fleecing the Nets in what became the Wallace-for–Damian Lillard heist.

Two years later, the Blazers are 9-2 and the toast of the league — heady stuff for a team projected to fight for its life in the battle for the last two Western Conference playoff seeds. They’re still likely to end up in that battle, if only because of how insanely good the Western Conference is. Three of the five teams lumped into the race for the nos. 7 and 8 seeds are off to solid starts that seem very much in line with their roster structures: Portland, Dallas, and Minnesota. Only Denver and New Orleans have disappointed. It’s going to take a lot of wins — in the mid-40s, probably — just to make the playoffs, and things get dicier if the Nuggets or Pelicans find their stride.

But the Blazers have given themselves a nice head start, and they get major points for hitting their first major goal this early. Portland’s road map to a playoff spot this season was simple: an elite offense and an average defense. It’s not an ideal title contention model, but the Blazers aren’t chasing rings.

Just hitting that mark seemed like a big challenge for this group. Portland ranked just 15th in points per possession last season, and a dreadful 26th in points allowed per possession. But the signs of a very good offense were there. The team’s starting five scored at a borderline top-five rate last season before giving way to a historically awful bench. When it upgraded that bench by snagging a semi-real backup point guard for nothing (Eric Maynor), Portland ripped off a 15-game stretch in which it had the league’s very best offense — a stretch that ended with a pile of injuries and the dispiriting losing streak that concluded its season.

The jump to top-five offense wasn’t far-fetched. Lillard is an assassin, Aldridge is a foundational piece, and Batum has taken beautifully to the “flow” system Terry Stotts imported from Dallas. The Blazers have elite shooting at four positions, and they almost always have at least three reliable 3-point shooters on the floor. It’s not a shock to see Portland a robust no. 3 in this season’s points-per-possession rankings, but it is surprising to see it so high this early — even with an easy-ish early schedule that has featured only two surefire playoff teams. (Note: Aldridge is on pace to challenge the record for most midrange jumpers attempted in a season, per NBA.com. He’s jacking 12.8 per game, putting him on pace for about 1,050 such shots. Michael Jordan has the highest recorded mark, launching 1,056 midrangers in 2002-03 with the Wiz. Aldridge topped the league last season with 753 midrange jacks. He shoots them well enough that they’re effective, and the threat helps Portland’s spacing and movement. But the team could stand exchanging a couple each night for better looks.)

Defense was the thornier question. Portland was a miserable defensive team last year, perhaps the league’s very worst in preventing easy shots near the basket. Giving J.J. Hickson’s minutes at “center” to Robin Lopez was expected to help, but Lopez isn’t exactly Roy Hibbert. He’s slow, and his individual rebounding numbers have been poor. Pairing him with another so-so rebounder in Aldridge, who regressed defensively last season in general, seemed risky.

Portland’s only 18th in points allowed per possession this season, and it has played just one game against a team currently ranked in the top 10 in offensive efficiency. In other words, feel free to break out the Winston Wolfe quote the boss man enjoys so much. But average defense will likely get Portland into the playoffs, and it’s nearly there, behind a revamped scheme meant to mimic those in Chicago, San Antonio, and Indiana. Stotts cites Frank Vogel, in particular, as a coach to admire from afar.

Breaking down Portland’s defense by play type would seem to indicate massive problems. It’s dead last in points allowed per possession on both post-ups and isolation plays, per Synergy Sports. Dead stinking last! And it’s 23rd in points allowed when the ball handler in a pick-and-roll takes a shot, which would seem like a problem, since the pick-and-roll is the foundation of almost every NBA offense.

But this is all by design, to some degree. Portland is playing the odds in a way that reveals the very close interaction between its analytics-oriented front office and its numbers-friendly coaching staff headed by Stotts, who regularly cites wonky stuff like effective field goal percentage and defensive efficiency in casual hoops conversation. All those play types — post-ups, isolations, pick-and-roll attacks in which the ball handler shoots — generally yield low-efficiency shots. The good stuff comes when guys handling the ball, in the post or via the pick-and-roll, break down the defense and begin passing it around to wide-open spot-up guys and cutters near the rim.

Portland wants to do away with those passes, even if it means giving up some decent shots. Teams are killing Portland on post-ups because Stotts has refused to double the post, even when another team has a matchup advantage, or when an opposing post player has driven deep into the paint.

And Stotts is fine with that. “We want to take away the 3-pointer,” he says. “We won’t double the post. And there’s so little post play left in the league, it’s really not a big number to me, going forward.” He might instruct his guards to dig down a little more aggressively in the future, but only when post-up players penetrate the paint on their way to a close shot — and never before then.

The pick-and-roll involves two offensive players (duh), and Stotts in turn wants to contain the play with just two defensive players. Portland has stopped trapping ball handlers high on the floor or having the big men guarding the screeners lunge out aggressively at those opposing ball handlers, as it did last season. That blitzing strategy fit Hickson’s defensive “skill set,” but it also left Portland with two players chasing the ball far from the hoop — and thus just three defenders patrolling four guys below the ball. The best offenses can pick apart that style of rotating defense, whipping the ball around until they find an easy shot.

The upside of attacking the pick-and-roll like that is forcing point guards to give up the ball. Point guards are dangerous, right? But the Blazers this season are setting up to encourage those pick-and-roll ball handlers to shoot.

Check out their alignment on this Chandler Parsons/Dwight Howard pick-and-roll:

Mathis2

Aldridge, guarding Howard, has dropped back into the paint to contain Parsons and clog the territory through which Howard might roll. Lillard and Mo Williams, guarding shooters in each corner, are far outside the paint and very close to their assignments. The more aggressive pick-and-roll schemes require help from the corners; Portland has tried to minimize that help.

You can see the same general strategy in this Eric Bledsoe/Miles Plumlee pick-and-roll:

Mathis2

The downsides are obvious: Opposing point guards can work their way to easy midrange looks if they get some separation jetting around the pick. Lillard and Williams are minus defenders, though Lillard has improved in his second year, and Stotts says the guards will have to be diligent about squeezing around picks. It’s a passive style that doesn’t yield many turnovers; no team has forced fewer turnovers per possession, and the Blazers are on pace for one of the half-dozen lowest opponent turnover rates in history, per Basketball-Reference.com.

Teams have also attacked this strategy in a smart, simple way: by having their ball handlers go around the pick in one direction, and then veer right back the other way, toward the middle of the floor. You can see Parsons leaning that way in the above photo. Teams call this “snaking” the pick-and-roll, and it’s a way to lure the Blazers (and other teams that use this strategy) into switching a big man onto a smaller ball handler.

And the film indeed shows that opponents have coaxed the Blazers into this kind of switch often, which helps explain their poor numbers against isolations. Aldridge is quick and smart, but he can only do so much containing point guards.

He can generally stay in front of them, though, and the entire strategy is based upon Stotts’s comfort allowing midrange jumpers if doing so prevents more profitable shots. Only six teams have allowed more combined shots from the short midrange (i.e., the paint outside the restricted area) and the long midrange, and five of them play at a faster pace than the Blazers, thus yielding more overall shots, per NBA.com. No team has allowed fewer corner 3s — attempts or makes. Portland opponents have hit just 0.9 corner 3s per game, a remarkable early number. “Teams are shooting well from the midrange against us,” Stotts says, “but we try to keep the bigger picture in mind.”

Again, that speaks well of the synergy between Stotts and Portland’s stats people. A classic numbers-vs.-coaches battle involves coaches trying to design defenses that thwart everything, a goal analytics-oriented folks tend to find fanciful. Only Indiana has allowed fewer opponent assists per game than Portland, indicating the Blazers are executing their goal of getting teams to go one-on-one against them. (The link to Indiana is not a coincidence, and touches on another Portland trend: The Blazers aren’t going small much despite having a classic small-ball power forward in Dorell Wright. Vogel and the Pacers have steadfastly kept two big men on the floor at all times, even against small-ball teams, another approach that Stotts says he likes.)

Sitting back like this has also limited Portland’s fouling, and it has helped the team’s rebounding by keeping both bigs closer to the basket. Portland has allowed just 99.7 points per 100 possessions in the 266 minutes Lopez and Aldridge have shared the floor, equivalent to a top-five team mark, and it has rebounded 76.8 percent of opponent misses in those minutes. That would have led the league last season, a very encouraging sign given the preseason rebounding worries.

The question then becomes, Is this it? Is this as good as Portland’s defense can be? The signs on the boards aren’t all encouraging, by the way. Four of the Blazers’ first 11 opponents rank among the top seven in offensive rebounding rate, and all of them have torched Portland on the offensive glass, per NBA.com. (The other seven opponents rank 17th or worse.) The competition will get better, and there is a very basic lack of major plus defenders on the roster. A solid system without major defensive talent can only take a team so far.

It’s tempting, staring at that 9-2 record, to think about how Portland could trade itself up a notch. There is a sad, rim-protecting center available in Houston, for instance, who would represent a major defensive upgrade over Lopez and fit nicely with Aldridge’s midrange game. The Blazers could also use another backup wing, though Wright is playing almost exclusively at small forward, and rookie C.J. McCollum will be back in a few weeks. Fellow rookie Allen Crabbe might crack Stotts’s nine-man rotation at some point.

But finding a workable trade is tough, for lots of reasons. Lopez obviously doesn’t come close to matching Omer Asik’s value, and the Blazers, with McCollum injured and their first-rounder earmarked for the Bobcats, don’t have a sweetener on hand to offer Houston (or anyone else). Thomas Robinson could serve that role, but Portland gave up some useful stuff for him, and he’s providing solid minutes now alongside Joel Freeland. Meyers Leonard ain’t playing, and the Blazers don’t have any significant expiring contracts. They also won’t take in any long-term salary that impacts their projected cap space in the summer of 2015 unless it is an absolute no-brainer, which is hard to find.

All that said, it wouldn’t shock me if Neil Olshey, the team’s deal-making GM, finds a three-team trade (or some other way) to upgrade the roster. There are just a ton of moving parts on the trade market right now, and more to come over the next couple of months as things shake out. Cleveland, Washington, Detroit, and Milwaukee are all struggling amid clear mandates to make the playoffs. Perhaps one will swap the future to upgrade the present at some point. Perhaps one will decide to pull the plug on those expectations if things go really badly.

Toronto could rip apart its roster and enter the Andrew Wiggins derby pretty easily. Phoenix and Philadelphia don’t want to be quite this good, and they’re among a half-dozen teams with low expectations and a few quality veterans to spare.

Things will emerge, and Olshey may well find a chance to upgrade the roster without sacrificing that 2015 cap space or any asset of real significance. Look at the Western Conference. The Clippers have the worst defense in the NBA. Memphis is 6-5 after a three-game road win streak, but the team is still struggling to find itself. The Thunder are very, very good, but still working to fill the James Harden/Kevin Martin void. The Spurs are beating the crap out of everyone, but their offense isn’t firing yet, and Tim Duncan is in a slump. Houston has some issues. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the conference semifinals might feature an unexpected entrant.

Putting Portland there is getting way ahead of things, with the schedule about to toughen up. But then, Portland is also ahead of its own expectations so far.

Filed Under: NBA, Zach Lowe