A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

How the Portland Trail Blazers can be a .500 team

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The Portland Trail Blazers had what looked to be a devastating offseason. They lost 4 of 5 starters in Lamarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez, along with Arron Afflalo. A 50 win core has been stripped down to Damian Lillard and spare parts.

What they lost in these players is an effective combination of creating space and capitalizing on it. Lamarcus Aldridge has always been a unique player in how despite our instincts that scoring a lot of points on a mediocre efficiency is not as valuable as past generations thought, his real offensive value is in the defensive attention he creates. The valuable efficiency of Matthews, Batum and Lopez relied on finding open shots from 3 and at the basket. Forcing them into a greater intensity of defensive attention would take away open shots and push them into taking more concerned tested, lower efficiency field goals. Aldridge drawing extra attention helped draw defenders off the 3 point line and his shooting range out to long 2 or some 3s, drew a big man out of the paint defensively to help his teammates finish inside. This is not to take away from the skill level of Matthews, Batum and Lopez to finish those shots inside or outside while contributing on the defensive end.

Whether the Blazers will find secondary scoring options to replace Aldridge is their biggest question mark. The Blazers can succeed this year if Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee continue to be open to finish at the rim and Meyers Leonard gets quality looks from 3. All three have proven they can be efficient scorers but at a low volume of shots. Forcing them into taking a higher volume of shots than they’re comfortable with could hurt their shooting percentage. Noah Vonleh is a wild card in the frontcourt as a recent lottery pick but is unlikely to use a high volume of shots this year either.

Al-Farouq Aminu isn’t known for his shooting or ball handling skills, thus the key is C.J. McCollum and Gerald Henderson. McCollum had the 4th highest usage % last year on the Blazers behind Aldridge, Lillard, and Chris Kaman. Both his play last year and his college career at LeHigh shows he has the skill to create offense himself off the dribble while his 3 point range allows him to maintain respectability in efficiency. Driving to the basket more could help increase his volume and efficiency this year. Although widely considered defensive role player Henderson had a higher usage % last year than either Matthews or Batum and his usage would have rated 5th on the Blazers last year behind Aldridge, Lillard, Kaman and McCollum. He has had multiple 15 point per game seasons in the NBA. Last year on shots from 16-23 feet, Henderson shot 41.0% on .122 shots per minute and Aldridge’s 40.9% on .214 shots per minute. Aldridge’s higher volume showed a higher level of difficulty to get to that percentage, although Henderson also played on a more offensively inept Hornets team. Henderson’s 33.1% from 3 also has a chance to improve in Terry Stotts system. Overall it wouldn’t be surprising if either Henderson and McCollum find themselves capable of averaging 15 points in a game. This is before considering the Blazers already have one high volume scorer in Damian Lillard who can drive and create shots from 3. This isn’t as big a vacuum as the Utah Jazz faced the season after Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson where players like Gordon Hayward struggled with the defensive pressure of being #1. Lillard alone will help those high efficiency scorers like Davis, Plumlee and Leonard find space to play their games.

Another concern for the Blazers this year is floor spacing. For their efficiency the concern with Davis and Plumlee is they need to score at the rim, while Aldridge’s long 2 and 3 point range stretched out defenders. This is added to how one of the best 3 point shooters in the NBA in Matthews is replaced by a mediocre shooter in Henderson and a capable, well respected 3 point shooter in Batum has been replaced by a non-shooter in Aminu. However a strong season by Meyers Leonard could help counteract this. Leonard proved he has strong 3 point range last year and has turned the corner in his career. Playing the Mehmet Okur role his ability to hit spot up 3s could open the floor in the lineups with Henderson, Aminu, Davis and Plumlee. Noah Vonleh also showed some shooting range in college and if brought that skill to the Blazers rotation it could be valued. Allen Crabbe could also end up a valued wing player for the Blazes if he can continue to establish himself as a spot up 3 point shooter. On the defensive end the Blazers bigs are expected to struggle and Lillard has never excelled on that end, thus the defense of Henderson and Aminu will be relied upon to help carry the team.

What the Blazers have is a lot of role players who do something. Henderson and Aminu can defend, McCollum and Henderson can create shots, Plumlee, Davis and Leonard can score efficiency, Leonard, McCollum and Crabbe have the 3 point range to space the floor. None of them have to be spectacular, but if they can all contribute at their 1 or 2 jobs it can add to a sum greater than its parts. Last year the Milwaukee Bucks succeeded in part because of depth of average, competent pros. With an expected 10 man roster to start the year of Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ersan Ilyasova, Larry Sanders, Jared Dudley, O.J. Mayo, Jerryd Bayless and Zaza Pachulia, they had a full team of solid. Players like Mayo, Ilyasova and Pachulia may not be spectacular contributors or gotten the type of press of “star role player” that Middleton was last year. But they give you something. Mayo and Ilyasova space the floor with their 3 point shooting and take those valuable open shots and Pachulia can be a tough inside presence. When some of the worst teams in the league where giving the same minutes to true unproductive players like Shane Larkin, Anthony Bennett or JaKarr Sampson, having legitimate pros like Mayo and Ilyasova made a difference to the Bucks.

Likewise what I see with the Blazers is a lot of solid defenders, spacers or scorers that help this team surprise next year.

Written by jr.

August 13, 2015 at 12:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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