The Portland Trail Blazers are in first place in the dominant Western Conference. Whether you believe they’re that good or not, you can’t deny what they’ve accomplished so far in this season. Just this week, they’ve taken down two of the other top five teams in the league. At some point, you’ve got to accept that this team is talented enough to make the postseason and play as a top three or four seed in the West.
The great start that they’ve had is going to help them in the long run. With only three losses, they look like a threat to potentially have homecourt advantage in the postseason. And in the Western Conference, that could mean the difference between winning a series and losing it. Most of the teams in the West are packed tightly together in competition. The things that are going to propel most of these teams to the next level in the playoffs is coaching and homecourt.
Terry Stotts is, at best, the fourth best coach in the Western Conference. With Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle and Mark Jackson in the same conference, wins are going to be difficult to come by. Those coaches are going to make the opposition use every trick in their book to counter what they do. In the postseason, they know how to produce great offense in a tricky, slow environment where your opponent knows you.
But Stotts has proven to be quite the innovator himself. The Blazers have really put together a dominant offensive package in their current run. Damian Lillard has developed himself as a point guard. He knows when to shoot, when to pass and when to drive–even if he isn’t necessarily the best rim finisher. Their bench isn’t historically bad this season, and really, they were the key in Portland beating Oklahoma City just last night.
Wesley Matthews has improved tremendously and is shooting at a ridiculous clip. Even if that comes down, it isn’t likely that he’ll hit a wall and fall flat on his face. And lets not forget to mention the stabilizing force of Nicolas Batum. He’s been a steady presence on both ends for the Trail Blazers this season. Finally, Lamarcus Aldridge is making extremely difficult shots and is putting his claim in for being the best power forward in the league.
And with their new and improved pieces, the Blazers flow offense looks virtually unstoppable. Their offense focuses mainly on backscreens, pindowns, staggers and backdoors. They get a lot of their looks off of cuts, screens and handoffs. Their shooting from deep is league average in most spots and when you put that together that makes your team a great offensive one. The Blazers are league average at the rim and below average in the paint.
But since the Blazers hit average from everywhere else, they make a lot of difficult shots that teams will allow them to take. That’s what makes their offense so good. Take a look at their shot chart.
The Blazers offense has really taken off because of their shooting from most spots on the floor. If you can hit from an average clip from three while taking the ninth most threes in the league, you’ll have a top flight offense. The rim finishing doesn’t really matter at that point. And the flow offense helps them manufacture a lot of these looks. The Blazers are one of the best screening teams in the league because of their scheme. They set screens for shooters to get open on virtually every possession.
These screens help them get wide open threes. And they’re also the fifth best offensive rebounding team in the league. They rebound 28.6% of their offensive rebound opportunities and that gives them more extra possessions for more points. Robin Lopez has impacted them in that area the most by rebounding 14.8% of the available offensive rebounds.
But the real staple of their offense is the pick and pop attack with Lamarcus Aldridge. The Blazers score 1.02 points per possession on plays that end with the pick and roll man shooting according to Synergy sports.
More specifically, Damian Lillard and Lamarcus Aldridge pick and pops are extremely dangerous. Reason being is that you have to guard against Lillard above the three point line. He’s shooting 43.5% on unassisted above the break threes according to NBA.com’s media tool. Such a brilliant percentage from above the break puts him in Steph Curry territory. Will this last? I’m not sure. But teams have been forced to defend it.
Defenders will fight above the screen to stay in Lillard’s grill and the big man’s defender will also hedge above his man in order to force Lillard to turn hard and try to get by him. You can see that below.
In the video above, Lillard is challenged by both the big and his own man. He’s forced to go baseline, but that was the proper decision because Thabo Sefolosha rotated over to Lamarcus Aldridge from the corner. The threat of Aldridge’s jumper and Lillard’s threes shifted the entire defense. Take a look in this screenshot.
Thabo was forced to make a decision between Lamarcus Aldridge having an easy look and Wesley Matthews having an easy corner three. Lillard wasn’t able to get Matthews the cleanest pass, so Thabo was able to recover on Matthews pretty well. But he still was caught off balance and wasn’t prepared for a screen from Lopez. Matthews was able to get into the lane and make a shot because of that.
In other instances, the point guard is able to get the ball to Aldridge. But Aldridge still creates good opportunities for his teammates through his presence in the middle of the floor. Take a look at this next play with Mo Williams at the point instead of Lillard.
There were three clean looks that were materialized around Aldridge’s jump shot. Batum had a great look from the wing but two Thunder defenders rotated to contest his jump shot. That initial look for Batum was created because Westbrook had to rotate to Aldridge after two defenders tried to trap Mo Williams.
Westbrook recovers to Batum as Ibaka rotates back to Aldridge. But because of the mad scramble, Kevin Durant leaves a rolling Joel Freeland to try to contest against a Batum shot. Batum hits Freeland as he rolls to the basket.
Then the defense overcommits once again to Freeland’s roll because no one wants to give up a clean look at the rim. Freeland kicks the ball to Aldridge and he has a wide open look from mid range. He also had the option to move the ball one more time to Wesley Matthews in the corner for the three.
Instead, he chooses to take the shot and the Thunder go unharmed. But that doesn’t take away the fact that it was a great look. All of this was manufactured by Aldridge’s ability to get into the middle of the floor and be a threat. You can’t leave the Blazer’s guards open from beyond the break or they’ll make you pay, so Aldridge is going to have to be rotated to.
Having a player like Aldridge to hit difficult shots like this make the Blazers’ offense extremely difficult to counter against. It’s very reminiscent of the offense that Stotts created for the 2010 NBA champion Dallas Mavericks. Of course, Aldridge isn’t Dirk Nowitzki, but he’s being used in similar ways.
His ability to hit long range jump shots makes teams have to defend him on the outside. He’s great out of horns sets and can take less mobile bigs from off of the dribble out of the post position. Dirk has done some of the same things throughout his career. It’s something that we should see Aldridge doing throughout his, too.
Having difficult shot makes really helps when you get to the playoffs and the game slows down. The Blazers are going to be a threat if they’re able to have a homecourt advantage at any point. Aldridge’s presence creating looks goes a long way when it’s hard to manufacture shots. That’s why the Blazers fourth quarter offense is so good.
The Blazers are a legitimate threat to make a run in the playoffs. They may not win a title, but they are going to be competitive no matter what. Their combination of great offensive sets and the combo of Lamarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard make this team hard to defend.