Lineup: Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez
Minutes Played: 556
Offensive Rating: 115.5 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 101.8 points per 100 possessions
How it works offensively
Order and improvisation are two great competing principles in an NBA offense. On one end of the continuum, we have strict offenses in which every half-court possession comes with a road map; on the opposite end live the improv troops who believe that pace wins possessions.
Teams have won at either extreme of the spectrum, but a clear majority of successful offenses in the past 10 to 15 years reside somewhere in the middle. For these hybrids, clear-cut principles govern strategy and specific actions are called for, but, once a possession is set into motion, it’s guided by the instinct of players, not preordained sets.
The Portland Trail Blazers’ top-ranked offense has achieved that balance beautifully, specifically the starting unit, which is five points better per 100 possessions than the team’s league-leading mark. Portland’s half-court game is fundamentally read-and-react.
Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge embody the midpoint between script and ad-libbing. Both are temperamentally half-court players. Lillard is more powerful than explosive, and much of his game is predicated upon working off the jumper. He gets a fair number of those shots off drag screens or pull-ups on the secondary break, but Lillard is happiest working in the pick-and-roll and coming off flare screens.
Aldridge is mobile, but doesn't run the open court like Blake Griffin or Anthony Davis. Aldridge is an exceptional left block-right elbow player who likes a half court with an orderly flow. By no means does he need the game to screech to a halt, and he can bury a quick-hitter off an advance pass. But he’s a man who works in a corner office, so spare him the cute open floor plan with the foosball tables.
A player such as Aldridge doesn't want to be predictable, but there’s something to be said for the four other guys knowing precisely where, when and how their power forward likes the ball. Until someone can stop Aldridge when he dribbles middle into his right-handed hook, or spins baseline for a turnaround, repetition has its virtue.
This season, Lillard is finding more shot attempts off second actions. When the Trail Blazers acquired Eric Maynor in February, they got a chance to see what Lillard could look like off the ball in a half-court offense. Maynor didn't perform well individually, but the Blazers decimated defenses when he and Lillard coinhabited the backcourt, often with Lillard as the effective shooting guard.
Aldridge is getting a greater rate of his touches -- and a better quality of touch -- this season down on the left block. And the Blazers aren't content to feed Aldridge five feet off the lane in a stationary half court. Instead, they’ll put the defense into motion and run some misdirection before they deliver him the ball.
For example, while Nicolas Batum sweeps up from the weakside corner to collect a handoff from Robin Lopez, Aldridge will use a cross-screen from Wes Matthews to stake out his territory deep on the left block. In three seconds, the Blazers have completely flipped the court as Batum and Aldridge have morphed from weakside observers to strongside actors. Defenses much prefer to guard an offense that stands still to one that transforms like Portland’s.
Sounds like a pretty formal half-court offense, right? Kinda, sorta. The actions are tight and familiar, thanks to Batum’s vision, Matthews’ improved reliability as a passer, Lopez’s selflessness and the willingness of the two scorers to trust that the ball will find them. But the vast majority of what the Blazers get is the product of smart reads.
Every team aspires to play read-oriented basketball, but to rely on playmaking instinct, a team has to have personnel who can make plays. Batum can orchestrate an offense as well as any forward in the league not named James, and he’s also the place Portland goes when it wants to run an advanced action, or get into its corner split with Lillard and Aldridge. And if Lillard and Aldridge are covered late in the shot clock, Batum can almost always create some kind of opportunity.
All of these pieces fit, and here’s one of the Blazers’ favorite actions that demonstrates how: It begins with the ball in Batum’s hands on the wing. He feeds Lopez at the opposite elbow, then dives to the rim, rubbing his man off Aldridge at the near elbow. Lopez isn't a pure playmaking big man, but he’s a capable passer who can hit a moving target if he knows the option is going to materialize. If the play to Batum isn't there, Lillard promptly curls up past a stagger screen from Aldridge to pick up the handoff from Lopez. Lillard can stop on a dime and shoot, drive if he sees daylight, or hit Aldridge on a dive.
And watch out for Matthews in the corner on this and other actions. He’s third in the league on successful corner 3s this season and is hitting them at a 47.6 percent clip. Matthews has also become a wily, backdoor threat from that spot. With the Trail Blazers moving side to side so fluidly, help decisions become infinitely more difficult because, if you’re a defender, it’s hard to know if you’re leaving the weakside corner when the weak side keeps shifting.
Matthews can’t dominate every defender, but he has gotten pretty adept at sniffing out where he might have an edge. He loves to post smaller defenders, and, against a defender who’s a pick magnet, Matthews will move to an open spot on the weak side. That’s the nice thing about Matthews -- he’s always been aware that caginess would have to be a strong attribute because there probably wasn't enough raw talent most nights.
The Blazers’ starters have all kinds of counters in the half court -- wide pin-downs on the weak side, flare screens all over the board, dribble handoffs to Batum if the ball gets stuck at the top of the floor. This is not a stubborn, strongside offense unless Aldridge is eating his matchup alive, and, when that’s the case, who cares about a little stagnation over a four-minute stretch?
The starters in Portland have constructed an offense against which it’s impossible to load up. It’s a testament to careful roster construction and to a mindfulness that, to be maximized, diverse skill sets need to complement one another on the basketball court.
How it works defensively
When Lopez was acquired this summer from New Orleans, the Trail Blazers were out to address a couple of very targeted needs. For one, Aldridge's on-court quality of life was suffering playing next to a power forward disguised as a center in J.J. Hickson. With some rare exceptions (see: Bosh, Chris) a grade-A power forward isn't generally expected to casually slide over to the 5 spot, and the management wanted to make a demonstration it appreciated that.
But beyond the roster dynamics, the starting unit was pretty dreadful last season defensively, giving up 105.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark that will lose an NBA team a lot of basketball games. With an undersized center and a rookie point guard, the starting lineup began each game at a disadvantage.
Because Hickson’s best attribute is his speed, not his size, the Blazers were a “show team” that jumped out high on pick-and-roll actions. They had started the season determined to take away the 3-pointer and had performed reasonably well in that regard but had unfurled the red carpet in the lane for opponents.
Showing high made already challenging rotations even more difficult, as Aldridge and Hickson frequently found themselves behind the play, racing from the perimeter to the paint in search of their assignment. Matthews can run over a pick, but he’s not particularly quick or long. Meanwhile, Lillard was navigating the learning curve between checking Big Sky point guards and All-NBA talents.
Swapping Lopez for Hickson has allowed the Blazers’ starters to move from performing triage on every defensive possession to developing more honest defensive schemes. They've been able to follow the league’s prevailing trend toward dropping their big men into the paint against most pick-and-rolls. They’re not as radically conservative as a San Antonio, but Lopez and Aldridge rarely venture too far out.
With the big guys committed to an attacking ball handler, Lillard and Matthews look to fight over every high pick, even against non-shooters such as Ricky Rubio. Lillard’s improvement on the defensive end is measurable. He clearly has a better grasp of how to distribute his attention between the oncoming pick and the ball. This might be the toughest task for first- and second-year NBA guards. Even if they have strength, length and speed (Lillard has a good amount of all three), they’re rarely certain when and to what extent to reach for each tool.
Batum is the best overall defender in the unit, and there are contingencies available when he’s on the strong side of the play. The Trail Blazers will switch most 1-3 and 2-3 pick-and-rolls with Batum picking up the ball handler off the action. When it comes to issuing defensive assignments on the perimeter in critical situations, Terry Stotts will often turn to Batum against a powerhouse point guard. Truth be told, Batum is a decent, but occasionally unfocused, defender off the ball, so having him on a ball-dominant point or wing is usually the best use of his strength.
The Trail Blazers ask a lot of Lopez in the interior, with mixed results. They place him on an island against even the most prolific offensive centers. There’s virtually no help coming low because, after watching a season of constant scrambling, Stotts and the staff decided structural integrity was the best course to pursue defensively -- take away the 3-point shot and deter point guards from the paint. No double-teams and no weakside fire alarms. If that means Lopez gets worked down on the block a couple of nights a week, so be it.
The cool thing about Lopez from the Blazers’ perspective is that he’s a trouper. Many bigs bristle at being forced to go at it alone, but Lopez bought in from the outset. The effect has been compounded because the perimeter defenders know they can be singularly focused on their man. This also allows Aldridge to exercise his best judgment; if he feels he has to show against a slick-shooting big man, he knows nobody will be hung out to dry if the ball moves inside because Lopez is there, rather than a 6-foot-9 forward.
This is far from an elite NBA defense -- 44.8 percent of their opponents’ shots originate in the basket area, and, although that’s considerably better than the brutal 48 percent mark for the starters in 2012-13, it’s certainly not airtight. There are nights when guards destroy this unit off the bounce, and teams with two backcourt playmakers give it particular trouble. There’s a fair amount of rearview mirror defense with contests from behind. Because the Blazers don’t place a priority on the gaps this season, this unit doesn't force turnovers. Batum has traditionally held his own as an isolation defender, but there isn't anyone else in the unit who excels in that capacity.
Yet, this five-man grouping is four points better than its predecessor per 100 possessions at a respectable 101.8. That’s far better than the team’s overall number and would be good for ninth overall in the league. The aforementioned opponents’ rim numbers speak to that general improvement. All the while, they've locked down the arc, giving up fewer 3-point attempts than last season and at a stingy 31 percent success rate. Whereas last season’s starting lineup allowed the opposing offense to recover 28.5 percent of its misses, that has dropped to less than a quarter this season.
Where you come down on the Trail Blazers’ chances to contend corresponds directly with how confident you are that a four-point improvement can become six.