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The Fundamentals: Blazers reinvent old offensive system with new parts

The Trail Blazers have managed to reinvent their old offense with new players. 

When LaMarcus Aldridge decided to leave Portland in free agency, the Blazers’ priorities, expectations, and roster makeup all changed dramatically. Aldridge was a focal offensive talent who could not be directly replaced. Gone as well were three tenured, veteran starters—one (Nicolas Batum) traded in the lead-up to the draft and two others (Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez) departed by exercising their own free agency. What remained, however, were the underlying tenets of a winning approach. Blazers coach Terry Stotts was resolved to make the same basic systems work for a team of an entirely new—and undeniably different—composition.

“What I really believe in, both offensively and defensively, is that you have your fundamental philosophy,” Stotts said. “You can build on it and you can tweak it according to your personnel, but I don't think you make wholesale changes because you have a lot of good players that are able to play different systems.”

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Understandable as that sentiment may be, this particular transition is a rather remarkable case study in ideological continuity. Portland filled out its roster by flanking Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum with players who were either seldom used or confined to highly specialized roles with their previous teams. The return thus far is the ninth-best offense in the NBA, down just a single spot from last year’s ranking. Flaws on the other side of the ball have rendered Portland a sub-.500 team rather than a championship hopeful, but what Stotts and the Blazers have accomplished amid this kind of turnover is a special kind of basketball alchemy. 

The playbook, by Stotts’s estimation, held over roughly 80% of its contents from last season. Here you can see a year-to-year repeat of Portland’s weave pick-and-roll (also popularized by Golden State) from last season: 

And this season:

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What’s changed are the priorities within the Blazers’ sets and how often they’re run. Those plays designed to feed Aldridge on the left block are now put to other ends: an option on the weak side might be used more readily or a window for one of the guards to attack might be relied on more consistently. To the extent that the low post is utilized in Portland these days (which is quite little; no team uses fewer possessions in that space, according to Synergy Sports), it serves largely as a means of facilitation.

“We might throw it on the block to those guys to see what they have,” Lillard said. “If not, then we split on the perimeter—backdoor, come off of dribble hand-offs, and stuff like that. The ball continues to move instead of us just playing through one person on the block or anything like that.”

Replacing a shot-creating post player like Aldridge with low-usage bigs like Mason Plumlee, Meyers Leonard, and Noah Vonleh necessarily orients the offense to the perimeter. So much of what the Blazers are and do stems from the creative talents of Lillard and McCollum—two ballhandlers who come off of every screen in a way that demands a defense’s attention. Failing to attend to either guard closely risks giving up a comfortable and immediate pull-up jumper. Even the slightest gap of defensive coverage can become a scoring opportunity or, should the defense overreact to the threat of the jumper, a window to set up a teammate.

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“When you have two guys averaging 45 points between them, that's going to be the priority,” Stotts said.

Between them, Lillard and McCollum generally have enough juice in the scouting report to force opposing teams to adjust their base defense. Dropping back in the pick-and-roll just isn’t as prudent an approach when dealing with shooters of this caliber. Bigs, then, tend to come out higher to show or trap against the Blazers than they might otherwise. This naturally leads to some breakdowns in the defense born of a lack of practice or familiarity. In other cases, it exposes the coverage to the kind of quick split that can compromise it completely.

“The defense wants Damian and me to pick up our dribble in the pick-and-roll,” McCollum said. “As a guard, you have to be cognizant of when there's a hard hedge to split it, or drag the big guy and hit the roll man or the replace guy. I'm a guy who's comfortable splitting the defense and getting into the lane and using the floater or just pulling up.”

So, too, is Lillard. 

“They split 'em in different ways,” Stotts said. “Damian kind of bursts through it. C.J.’s a little more slithery.”

Both approaches are brutally effective. When facing the alternative of surrendering a wide open pull-up to a potent shooter, non-switching opponents are all but forced to bring two defenders to the ball. That pressure creates opportunity. It’s for this reason that Lillard and McCollum split a greater percentage of their pick-and-rolls than any other players in the league, according to Synergy Sports. In those cases, the split breaks down the defense completely; a quick move between the defenders creates what is effectively a 5-on-3 scenario, provided that the action doesn’t delay.

“When defenses react that way, that's the right play—to get between them and get to the middle of the floor,” Lillard said.

It’s that kind of judgment, backed by the consistent threat of a pull-up jumper, that gives Portland its cunning efficiency. Lillard and McCollum are scorers by nature but both are impressive in their basketball literacy. They read a defender’s positioning and priorities to find the best in many situations. That’s crucial for players who create at such volume. On most nights their play yields huge point totals. On others, like Wednesday’s game against the Jazz, it leads them to 18 combined assists. 

The constant throughout is the ability to put defenses in a tough spot. In designing and maintaining his offense, Stotts doesn’t focus so much on the endpoint of a possession but the process behind it. His plays don’t create shots. They create problems.

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“One of the things that I like, philosophically, in both our random play and our sets is that I don't know who's going to get the shot,” Stotts said. “What I want to do is create a situation that is going to cause a problem for the defense. I like to give our players freedom to read the defense and make plays either for themselves or for their teammates.”

Doing this is a surrender of the control that most coaches crave, as well as a vote of confidence in the players likely to find themselves in improvisational situations. It’s one thing for Stotts to trust Aldridge, Matthews, and Batum in that fashion, especially after they had logged more time together over the past few seasons than any other lineup in the league. It’s quite another to put the full faith of his offense in Plumlee, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Allen Crabbe in their first year together. That Stotts does, through mistakes and all, is instrumental to Portland’s success. 

Nearly every possession begins with Lillard or McCollum creating some position of advantage. From that point, however, the Blazers offense flows freely from option to option, with players in many cases doing things they’ve never been trusted to do before. It’s that fluid quality that makes Portland so difficult to scout and stop, and it’s been accomplished with a group of young players coming into their own.

“We have a young roster and we wanted to expand their games and see what they can do rather than limit them and put them in a box where this is what you do,” Stotts said. “One of our goals this season was to expand and see what players are capable of.”

Take Plumlee, for example. In Brooklyn, Plumlee was used as an energy player and pick-and-roll finisher almost exclusively. With Portland, he has more than doubled his assist output (from 1.5 to 3.6 assists per 36 minutes) in a role as one of the creative fulcrums of the offense.

“We noticed it early when we got him when he was here in September working out—his playmaking ability, how he could handle the ball for a big man, his passing,” Stotts said. “He enjoyed that part of it. I thought—I think we all thought—that when we saw that in September, that it was something that he really hasn't explored to see what he was capable of doing.”

“Mason Plumlee,” Lillard said, “he really surprised me.”

It’s Plumlee’s combination of decision-making, ballhandling, and passing ability that has really unlocked Portland’s dribble hand-off game. The priority of the Blazers’ offense—and of any offense—is to get the defense moving. Help defenders need to be unsettled. Defensive principles need to be brought into conflict with more urgent responsibilities. The more that all five defenders are moving and thinking, the more likely they are to fall out of concert.

The dribble hand-off is a perfect mechanism to bait and exploit this. Portland usually initiates a hand-off from some other action—say a cut that brings Lillard in a loop around the court and past several off-ball screens. By the time he’s ready to receive a hand-off from Plumlee at the elbow, Lillard’s defender might already be several steps behind him. It functions as sort of an accelerated pick-and-roll from that point, though it relies on the involvement of a big who feels comfortable enough with a live dribble to read a play in progress. Plumlee has turned out to be just that kind of player—one much more skilled than he was ever allowed to show in Brooklyn. His very presence opens up all kinds of possibilities in the hand-off game. 

“I think when you put myself or C.J. in those situations with a guy like [Plumlee], he hands it off to us, and that's coming off full-speed,” Lillard said. “His man has to help, and with his man having to help and our guy chasing us, [Plumlee] dives down the middle. It's a dunk for him. Or if his man doesn't come with us, we come off and we may get a shot. Or if two guys come at us, we hit [Plumlee] in the gap and the weak-side defender has to come over and Mase is good enough to make that play to the weak side. We trust in him to be that guy in the middle, to make those decisions.”

Portland’s young players, too, already have a great sense of how to maximize their spacing around these kinds of sequences. A team can create some room for a drive or post-up just by putting enough shooters on the floor at a certain distance from the action. Modern NBA defenses, though, camp with a foot in the paint and are trained in recovery. A static spot-up shooter really isn’t all that worrisome. This is why the Blazers have been coached, both through their sets and the guiding principles of their “random” play, to constantly keep the weak side involved as a play develops. 

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“It’s a combination of some movement that we specifically call and run just to get the defense moving and guys just reacting,” McCollum said. “Flares on the weak side, maybe a little hammer action, depending on if we're coming out of a timeout or not. Or a simple exchange to kind of move the nail and move the help guy. I think it's big in the NBA because guys are always in the lane. They're always trying to help, that tag roller. It's just more about having a feel for the game and continuing to learn different ways to get guys open.”

This might seem like such a small contribution, but even the slightest preoccupation of a weak-side defender can make a huge difference in a possession's development. At worst, the spot shooters in question might be even more open than before. At best, they draw their defenders with them and out of helping range entirely. Do this often enough and even a team's improvised moves begin to look like the constructs of a set play—actions which put defenders on edge and bring their attention away from the ball for fear of losing their man.

It helps, too, that Lillard and McCollum so consistently station themselves on opposite sides of the floor. An offense that flows like Portland’s is always a moment away from kicking the ball to a secondary creator. The two lead guards find balance in that way, though Stotts and his staff have made an effort to make the opportunity to create as inclusive as possible. Crabbe, who draws praise across the board for his basketball IQ and movement without the ball, gets his share of opportunities to manufacture offense. Aminu, who was parked in the corner in Dallas last season, is confident in his shot but also encouraged to run pick-and-roll in some situations. It’s not a coincidence that every player in the Blazers’ rotation seems to be having a career year. This is a group of growing players cobbled together into a smart, skilled, and constantly evolving mass. 

“We’re continuing to learn more about the game, more about ourselves, and more about our team each night,” McCollum said. “I think it's a good process and hopefully we can continue to build."

All of this, mind you, came from what was essentially a franchise reboot. Portland was ahead of the rebuilding curve in that it had Lillard committed, McCollum on track to make a leap, and some prospects worth investing in. Stotts, his staff, and the Blazers front office formed from those raw materials a winning offense predicated on emerging talent. There's a long way to go to contention, still, but Portland has almost made the first steps look easy.