Training camp has barely begun but already those around the Portland Trail Blazers organization have made clear what they hope will change on the offensive side of the ball this season. Along with coach Terry Stotts, GM Neil Olshey made it a point during media availability to talk about what they felt the offense was lacking.
Specifically, 3-point shooting and passing.
Stotts’ Flow system is not typically thought of as needing tuning, especially when it’s complemented by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. But something changed last season in Portland, and suddenly the Blazers felt a bit stagnant. The numbers were still there, but those watching the games and those on the sidelines guiding the team knew something was different.
Indeed, despite a healthy differential between their offensive and defensive ratings -- not to mention a number of made threes in comparison to the past two seasons -- the Blazers offense on paper didn’t look as dynamic as it once was. While regular box scores didn’t show an eye-popping difference, it was the per 100 possession data that took hold of both the coaching and analytics staff.
Portland’s 3-point attempts remained nominal in that regard, but how the Blazers have hoisted from beyond-the-arc changed in 2017-18. Tracking data from NBA.com suggests they simply pounded the air out of the ball without any kind of requisite leap in benefit for doing so. For example, although Blazers guards handled the ball more, they didn’t gain anything in efficiency, like more attempts at the free-throw line.
The Blazers have actually trended downward in the amount of shots taken with zero dribbles -- plays that result in an immediate attempt -- every season since 2013-14, finding a new low last year. In that vein, both McCollum and Evan Turner saw a dip in their per 100 assist rate, with each again reaching their nadir last season. Portland’s total assists dropped by more than 130 from the year before.
I've told you all of this to ask you this question: Did you watch the Blazers last year? If you did, you probably didn't need to hear any of those statistics.
GETTING PAID BY THE DRIBBLE?
The fact is, those of us watching Portland in 2017-18 saw the flow of Stotts’ Flow offense slowly come to a halt. At times, McCollum, Turner, and Shabazz Napier were all guilty of seemingly believing they were to be paid by the dribble. Sometimes, this was even at each other’s expense.
As an offensive squad last season, Portland was kept alive by its stellar backcourt duo and the ability of Stotts’ scheme to create shots for lower-caliber players. But the rotations didn’t fit quite right, with McCollum taking the reigns as backup point guard in title but instead often acting as the lone, trusted scorer. Sets with Evan Turner handling the ball, especially if McCollum was the only solid shooter running around screens, often resulted low quality attempts.
Now, both Olshey and Stotts have tried to remedy that in their own way.
For the front office, that meant grabbing just about any shooter they could this summer after Olshey was unable to secure wing talent with his Mid-Level Exception or the Allen Crabbe TPE. Seth Curry was the biggest pickup of the offseason, and it seems reasonable to believe he will be a more willing passer than Napier was in that same role. Olshey also declined to re-sign Ed Davis, who would have been a significant luxury tax burden despite his meager salary, and the hope is that Zach Collins will step into that same position and add extra spacing in those minutes.
Stotts, meanwhile, will try to alter his rotations to create more dynamic shooting options on every possession. That probably means that Lillard and McCollum will have their minutes synced up more than ever, rather than the previous plan of trying to keep at least one of them on the floor at all times. Turner and Curry will play with a bench unit that includes more range (Collins and Meyers Leonard, a benefactor of Davis’ minute vacuum).
None of this is to guarantee this will actually work, just that it’s the plan moving forward.
TIME TO PROVE IT
Two of Portland’s most important shooters, Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, can’t be counted on in this season preview form. They will be the ultimate “prove it” players. Harkless still needs to return from knee surgery, and even when he does he’ll need to show he can finally manage his affectation enough to be consistent. Aminu, who shot 36 percent from deep last year, still shows enough variance in every shot that he might tickle the net just as easily as he could bonk it off the side of the backboard. That, and he shot 33 percent from 3-point range just two seasons ago. It’s hard to place your bets on either, at least as shooters.
Fans might be excited for newcomers, which is understandable. Both Nik Stauskas and Gary Trent Jr. hold at least one NBA-ready skill, and that’s 3-point shooting. But what makes Portland’s offense hum is passing the ball, and much of that is on Stotts’ schemes and rotations. Say what you want about the Blazers roster not getting better, the reality is they are returning a good starting unit with two genuine stars that, if used right, can carry the bulk of the 3-point shooting they need.
The truth is that Portland needs to pass the ball, and they know it.
Working with what he already has, Stotts mentioned during Media Day that he’s removed at least one offensive set from his playbook, adding that he’s installed wrinkles to what he’s decided to keep from seasons past. So much is staying the same, but the hope in Portland is that the result will be different. Like Portland’s offseason, the real change for the Blazers on offense will need to come in the form of internal development.
At least, that’s the plan.