Newly minted All-Star point guard Damian Lillard has progressed quickly in reading the pick-and-roll; LaMarcus Aldridge, the foundation of the team's offense for the last several years, has become a more willing passer.
But it's their dual threat in pick-and-pop situations that really has the Trail Blazers' offense firing on all cylinders.
Much of what Portland does on the offensive end of the floor counters current conventional thinking regarding offensive efficiency. Much of that is due in particular to Aldridge, with 48.7 percent of his points scored this season coming from mid-range, according to NBA.com.
In theory, this is the most inefficient spot on the floor. It's a difficult two-point field-goal attempt without the cushy bonus of the extra point awarded to three-point field-goal makes.
And Aldridge—regarded as one of the best mid-range shooters among big men—is only shooting 43 percent on 15- to 19-footers, per NBA.com. On a points-per-possession basis, this is equivalent to shooting 28.7 percent from three-point range.
The point is mathematically clear: a 28.7 percent shooter from distance would be considered well below average by most standards. But not all jump shots are created equal. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Aldridge is shooting 45.8 percent on all guarded catch-and-shoots. Take away the defender, and Aldridge's shooting percentage rises to 52.5 percent.
An unguarded Aldridge, therefore, scores as many points as a 35 percent shooter does from three-point range—right around league average from three.
Now, back to the pick-and-roll. In a typical Lillard-Aldridge pick-and-roll situation, Lillard will read the on-ball defender. If he's giving up a lane to the rim, Lillard will pounce on the sliver of space and try to get to the rack.
But if he's overplaying the drive—as the Los Angeles Clippers' Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan do here—it's his responsibility to "drag out" the pick-and-roll. This means Lillard should literally drag Jordan and Paul with him and away from Aldridge, forcing an extended double-team and allowing for a wide-open throwback pass to Aldridge.
The pick was set all the way at the top of the key, but notice how far Lillard dragged Aldridge and Paul.
By the time he hooks a pass back up top, Aldridge is wide open and the Clippers' weak-side defenders must choose between giving Aldridge a wide-open mid-range shot, or rotating and giving up a corner three-pointer.
On this play, the Clippers' Blake Griffin and Matt Barnes choose not to rotate, giving Aldridge the shot. But even though it's a mid-range look for the Trail Blazers, remember that it's a 52.5 percent shot for Aldridge—which is to say, equivalent to the average three-point shot.
By standards of efficiency, this is actually a great result in spite of its mid-range location.
Lillard is also an underrated passer in this regard. Though he makes the dish look easy, it's actually a very difficult pass. Not only does he throw it perfectly on target, but he does it at an extreme distance.
Now, you might be thinking: Wouldn't it be better for Aldridge to pop to the three-point line? Theoretically this is the same play, yet with a bonus point attached.
But not only does that make the pass even tougher for Lillard, it also adds a layer of difficulty to any subsequent Aldridge passes. It's easier to operate as a passer from a more centralized location on the floor, and the shorter distance on any Aldridge pass cuts the leeway on rotation time. If the defense isn't timed up perfectly, there's usually an open shot available.
For some teams, the strategy is to simply allow mid-range shots, no matter how open. But in Aldridge's particular case, most teams understand that he's dangerous enough as a unguarded catch-and-shoot player that a contest of some kind is necessary.
If Aldridge were to simply pass the ball every time he sensed a contest, teams would merely stunt at him before recovering back to their original men. This is why, for the health of the offense, it's usually worthwhile for him to shoot guarded jumpers.
On this Mo Williams-Aldridge pick-and-pop, two Oklahoma City Thunder defenders converge on Williams. He makes the appropriate pass to Aldridge, and Aldridge squares up to shoot. Except Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka rotates, putting up a hand as Aldridge lets it go.
If Damian Lillard were to slide a bit to his right, he would be wide open. But this is the beauty of the Aldridge pick-and-pop. Defenses know he can knock it down even when guarded and are therefore sometimes overzealous in rotation.
This time, Aldridge shoots:
Now let's counter with this example. After Williams draws two, we can see the same sort of defensive setup developing. Jamal Crawford begins to fly off a corner three-point shooter to get to Aldridge, leaving Griffin to guard both Robin Lopez and C.J. McCollum.
Griffin actually has the same instinct, but retreats once he sees Crawford doing the same. Because Lopez has now snuck underneath the rim, he can't quite leave him completely to guard McCollum. He's in an awkward in-between, leaving Aldridge with an easy pass to McCollum.
Griffin is late on the closeout, and McCollum knocks it down.
It's not often that teams possess dual threats at both the point guard and power forward positions: Lillard can get to the rack and play the pick-and-roll perfectly, while Aldridge can shoot it on the catch and make the right read if a defense over-rotates.
This is the crux of the Trail Blazers offense, and is a large part of what has made them successful this season. The natural advantage of the pick-and-roll is that, for at least a brief moment, it puts the defense on its heels. There's a layer of communication that can throws things off, and the offense has a chance to capitalize.
The best defenses simply minimize these windows of vulnerability, but ultimately they're always there. In Portland, Lillard and Aldridge have become so good at recognizing, reading and reacting properly that it rarely matters how perfect the defense is.
Offense will always have a natural advantage over defense in this regard, and Lillard and Aldridge only amplify that in Portland.