We’re rounding the corner from the NBA All-Star Break and have less than two months from the playoffs.
In the Western Conference, there’s a multi-team race for the final postseason spot that figures to go down to the wire. To prepare you for the final run of the regular season, I’m unveiling a scouting report on each team in the race over the next few weeks. These pieces will focus on personnel notes (including the most effective ways to mitigate their success), overarching themes of their scheme and a preview of what the road ahead looks like with the schedule.
Games take on a whole new meaning of excitement during this 25-game sprint. Rosters are mostly already set for the postseason, and every game matters in a more easily tangible way. It’s now all about jockeying for position or simply trying to play your best basketball.
This deep into the season, the small sample size can safely be thrown out the window. Teams are who they are at this point, and that makes scouting a lot easier. We’ve learned a lot about individual player tendencies, the purpose of how an offense or defensive scheme is structured and how legitimate their success is.
We start with the Portland Trail Blazers, hoping to make the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season. They’ve been without center Jusuf Nurkic all season, and youngsters Rodney Hood and Zach Collins have been out most of the year
Yet, the Blazers have hung around and patched their roster together with some veteran wings and a dash of their strong player development department.
The Personnel Files
The star of the show, Lillard is putting together what normally would be an MVP season: 29.5 points and 7.9 assists with 39.3 percent shooting from 3. He’s turned it on since January 1st, too, with 32.9 per game, 44 percent from deep and three 50-point games. He can carry the Blazers through tough games on his own.
52.2 percent of Lillard’s offense comes from the pick-and-roll, which is the staple of this Blazers offense.
Only five players have been trapped during ball screens more than 50 times this season: Lillard has been trapped 74 times, trailing only Trae Young and James Harden. Of those five, only Harden has a higher turnover rate.
The Houston Rockets had a good deal of success trapping Lillard and forcing turnovers, and other teams have toyed with the idea as well. Trapping him gets the ball out of his hands and into the arms of less capable playmakers. Whether in late-game situations or when Hassan Whiteside is in, that’s a win:
Trapping Lillard cannot be done constantly, however.
The Utah Jazz did this out of necessity during the game he scored 50 points, but they gave up plenty of offense elsewhere. The Blazers can adjust their rotations and surround Lillard with shooters and skill players, spreading the floor and letting him make the right pass to the perimeter:
Late-clock, the Blazers still isolate Lillard and play him one-on-one off switches. The best way to guard him in those situations is to make him go left.
Lillard is 12-32 on pull-up jumpers driving to his left, according to Synergy’s isolation statistics. His go-to move there is a step-back jumper, but when he drives left, his shooting hand is unable to be shielded from the defender.
That allows defenders to crowd him on his step-back:
These are small tidbits for trying to slow, not stop, a superstar. Lillard creates offense at will and has become a better defender as he’s aged.
Portland needs to get him more catch-and-shoot opportunities, which is largely dependent on the next guy.
A hell of a scorer on his own, McCollum plays second-fiddle to Lillard on most nights but sometimes steps up into the lead spot.
The Blazers offense is based around having two excellent pick-and-roll handlers, so while Dame gets the big moments, McCollum is responsible for much of his own creation. He likes screens on the right side of the floor, where he can come off the middle with his left hand.
His spot on the floor is the right elbow, and he loves to get there going to his left:
He’s also only shooting 50.6 percent at the rim, a number that must go up if the Blazers are going to win close games. Otherwise, McCollum has been remarkably consistent and he’s a lethal shooter with deep range. When he and Lillard both score 25, the Blazers are 7-4.
Teams that beat Portland do so only when they’re able to slow at least one of the Blazers’ two gunners.
Speaking of gunners… Melo has done what Melo does since joining the franchise this Fall.
Yet, he’s actually been a consistent plus for them and is a huge part of their success. In wins, Anthony averages 18.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists. In losses, those numbers drop to 13.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.0 assists.
Two big factors are at play with the team’s success: First is 3-point shooting. Anthony is a sizzling 48.8 percent from long-range in wins and a putrid 25.5 percent in losses. Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason to it… you just have to hope Anthony doesn’t get hot.
Secondly, it’s the assists: Melo is a much more willing facilitator in wins due to the way he’s played. Opponents must be able to play him one-on-one and not send double-teams because he’s proven a capable and willing passer against traps all season.
Melo is still an excellent one-on-one scorer in the mid-post or on the blocks.
More than anything, his presence prevents opponents from putting longer wing defenders on Lillard and McCollum. Were that to happen, Anthony would meander into the post and brutalize his size mismatch. He’s shooting 45.7 percent on post-ups and is one of only five players across the NBA with at least 200 post-up possessions.
The Blazers have allowed Anthony to be himself, and that’s maximized his role with their starting group.
The veteran savvy of Trevor Ariza is paying dividends as a 3-and-D presence.
Ariza and Melo are great compliments, actually. Ariza takes the top defensive assignment while spacing to the corners on offense. Melo creates some gravity for Ariza in scoring situations while being shielded defensively. (Portland has long run with essentially two small forwards up front, but this new veteran duo is a decent upgrade over the Moe Harkless / Al-Farouq Aminu pairing of seasons past—which had a few too many overlaps and vice versa on either end.)
Ariza’s shooting 40 percent from deep since joining the Blazers, but it’s the defense that this team covets. Against the Detroit Pistons, Terry Stotts deployed Ariza on Derrick Rose. With the Miami Heat, he checked Kendrick Nunn. He took Jamal Murray with the Denver Nuggets. He’s become their lanky wing that will help suffocate one pick-and-roll presence on the other team.
No matter who the assignment is, Ariza plays angles incredibly well.
He knows his purpose within their structure is to funnel guys towards Hassan Whiteside and let the rim protector do what he does. So Ariza slinks over screens to do so and is long enough to challenge from behind.
Whether he’s the one contesting or Whiteside is swatting it to the stands, Ariza is great at doing his job:
Teams that play the Blazers must be prepared to close out to Ariza in the corners on offense and for him to be a true defensive-stopper if they aren’t careful with their lineups.
For years, Whiteside has been considered an ’empty calories’ kind of guy—someone who puts up gaudy individual numbers but doesn’t impact winning in a meaningful way.
Whiteside is the league-leader in blocks per game with 3.1, including 3.9 in wins. He’s always going to chase those blocks, sag into the lane and protect the rim as best he can.
That can be a blessing and a curse. Pick-and-pop bigs will get open looks against the Blazers, so long as their guard will drag Whiteside into thinking he can block a shot. The Denver Nuggets have gotten Nikola Jokic open looks in their matchups this year, as have the San Antonio Spurs with LaMarcus Aldridge:
Look, Whiteside is the key cog in the Blazers’ defense. He does more good than harm. But he’s also a guy who can be played off the floor.
Spread him out and beat him in the pick-and-pop, then make him a playmaker off the short roll on the other end.
An individual talent, Simons is a fantastic athlete and can get to the rim at will, whether he has a pick or in isolation. He’s right-hand dominant but still athletic enough to get to his spots.
There’s a reason the 6’3″ guard has remained on the bench in Lillard’s injury absence, however. He’s best anchoring a bench unit and creating for himself, but the Blazers are 4-15 in games when he takes ten or more shots. Simons is a short-spurt, pick-your-spots kind of scorer. He’s not efficient enough to handle high volume.
Simons is also only shooting 29.5 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers while spotting up. So he’s not an ideal guy to play alongside Lillard or McCollum when they have the ball in their hands. As such, I’d expect his crunchtime minutes to be limited, even in games where CJ or Dame are out.
Gary Trent Jr.
I’ve long been a fan of Trent for his effectiveness in a role. He comes in to shoot the ball and is dang good at it.
The second-year pro is hitting over 40 percent from 3 and has turned it on since getting an expanded role when 2020 began. Trent is averaging 9.7 points per game in 2020 and has become the spot starter when Lillard or McCollum are hurt. He runs off screens or spaces the floor and has become reliable.
He’s always trying to get the 3 off, so whenever he’s chased off the line by a tight closeout or has the ball off the bounce, he’s going to try to hit a step-back.
Unfortunately, he’ll hit some dribble moves but doesn’t really go anywhere with them. Anybody guarding Trent can stay ready for the step-back and keep their eyes trained on his chest because he’s not separating from most guards.
Offensively, coach Terry Stotts has always involved a free-flowing continuity offense with lots of flare screens, down screens and ball screens. It’s similar to a Mover-Blocker offense seen at the college level and pioneered by teams like Virginia under Tony Bennett. The spacing allows for everything that fits in the modern game: kick-out 3-pointers, open rim attacks, slips off screens, spread pick-and-roll and multiple counters.
While Stotts’ offense has looked similar throughout the Lillard and McCollum era, this year’s personnel changes have brought some changes.
The Blazers will play through Anthony more frequently on the blocks and from isolations. But they still run a lot of Pistol offense early in possessions and have a few Horns formations to create some movement that turns into either a ball screen or handoff.
At the end of the day, this is Lillard’s team, and most of what they run is predicated on getting him or McCollum a pick-and-roll and letting them play.
Defensively, the Blazers apply very little pressure and funnel everything towards Whiteside in the middle. He alters shots with his length and presence.
The Blazers are very mediocre by most metrics, particularly against ball screens, but Whiteside’s length and the strength of their forwards allow them to guard the blocks one-on-one. They aren’t a team with many weak or undersized guys that can be exploited in the post, so they’ll force a healthy amount of jumpers.
If there’s one area this team struggles though, it’s guarding one-on-one on the perimeter. Their lack of ball pressure doesn’t bring a lot of turnovers and they don’t many defensive-stoppers. Their anchor can also be easily thwarted by shooting bigs.
There are many ways out there to skin this cat.
These next few weeks are insanely crucial to Portland’s playoff chances. Its next six games are against non-playoff teams, leading into a huge game with the Memphis Grizzlies on March 12th.
The Blazers actually get the Grizz twice before the postseason, each time at home. While their schedule is pretty light the rest of the way (i.e. zero road games against Western Conference playoff teams), they likely must win the head-to-head matchups with Memphis if they are to pass them.
The Grizzlies took the first meeting, so the tiebreaker only belongs to Portland if it wins both.
There’s an opportunity to slip up, too: The Blazers are 10-20 on the road and log six games in nine days during an East Coast road trip. A back-to-back with the Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons is a tough travel slate, and then going to the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers in the same weekend won’t be too friendly, either.
Portland is on a skid of late as well, having lost three of their first four coming out of the All-Star Break.
Lillard has also been hurt but is expected back soon. Yet, this recent swoon only emphasizes Portland’s dependence on his play: This team simply isn’t deep enough to be a legitimate threat to win a playoff series due to all its injuries.
But… The way the schedule is set up, and with a little Lillard magic, they can certainly grab the eighth seed.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, Basketball-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of February 27, 2020.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.