Hidden Keys to the Portland Trail Blazers' Surprise Season

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistMarch 11, 2014

The Portland Trail Blazers have the seventh-best record in the NBA. Imagine saying that in the preseason.

Portland is sitting comfortably with a spot in the playoffs that's all but guaranteed. And though the numbers don't fully show it, the Blazers are winning because of hidden attributes within their system.

A bench that was dreadful in 2012-13 has climbed its way to relevance this season. And the Blazers have become one of the best offensive teams in the NBA seemingly out of nowhere.

This isn't just because of the publicly lauded emergence of LaMarcus Aldridge. It's not just because Damian Lillard is hitting threes at a historic rate.

The Blazers have more nuance than that, more craftiness to their game than they've had in recent years.

They're scoring at the fourth-best rate in the NBA, and they have actually tied for first in the league defensive efficiency since the All-Star break.

Heck, they're even breaking down film in the middle of games

It all seems to be coming together for the stretch run. For now, the Trail Blazers are blazing. 


Bench Improvements

The Blazers spent their offseason mending a flawed 33-win roster, bringing in helpful pieces to bolster the bench and the rest of the rotation. The 2012-13 team was top-heavy and talented in the first four with little to show after that.

So general manager Neil Olshey had to get creative.

He signed Mo Williams to an under-the-market, late-summer deal. He snatched Robin Lopez from the New Orleans Pelicans, who were anxious to clear money for a Tyreke Evans signing, for next to nothing. They gave up just a second-round pick for Thomas Robinson, though he hasn't contributed much this season.

Portland had the worst scoring bench in the NBA last year, according to Hoopsstats.com.

It was the only bench unit to average fewer than 20 points per game. Just one of two to shoot worse than 40 percent from the field. The only one to shoot under 30 percent from three.

This season, the bench is last in the NBA in scoring once again, but that's somewhat of a misleading stat. For the second straight year, Portland is getting fewer minutes per game from its bench than any other team in the league. 

Terry Stotts is slightly "Thibodeauian" in that way. He loves to run his starters out there for as long as possible.

With the new additions, the bench efficiency is up loads from last season.

Bench scoring is up about 31 percent. The Portland bench's once-dreadful three-point shooting is now up to 35.6 percent, ranking 14th in the league. And the long ball is generally part of what has helped the Blazers become one of the NBA's premier offensive teams.


The Drive-and-Kick

It's such a simple play, but it's so essential to the Portland scheme. The drive-and-kick is how this offense gets so many of its three-point looks.

The Blazers rank No. 1 in the NBA in points per spot-up play, according to MySynergySports (subscription required). And it's basically all they do. They just recklessly chuck up three after three after three.

Portland is attempting 25.0 threes a game, good for third in the league. That's not going to stop any time soon. When the three-point attempts aren't going up, this offense just isn't the same.

The Blazers are three-point lunatics. And it all starts with ball-handler penetration.

Synergy has classified 47 percent of Portland's three-point attempts as spot-ups. And getting those types of looks all starts with the drive-and-kick.

That play is all about Damian Lillard, who isn't the most athletic point guard in the league, but who has learned how to draw defenses in on him when he dribbles toward the hoop. Once the defense collapses, he ends up kicking out to shooters like Wes Matthews or Nicolas Batum on the outside.

Usually, it takes a little while for a young point guard to become a reliable decision-maker within an offense, and though Lillard is still far from an elite distributor, the choices he makes with the basketball tend to be the right ones. He's hardly imprudent.

Because of that, Terry Stotts can have more confidence in his point guard. So many times, we see Lillard penetrate to the right side only to pass out to shooters on the left. Once the defense collapses in on him, shooters will be even more open on the opposite side.

The common issue with that play is that it's a tougher pass for the ball-handler. You have to throw it over or through a defense, which can be dangerous. But Lillard has started to master that exact play.

The second-year point guard penetrates to the hoop 7.8 times a game, and the Blazers are averaging 1.15 points per drive when he's the ball-handler. That's up from the usual 1.08 points per possession they average on the season. And when the Blazers want a three, they're getting it.

On so many possessions, Portland won't be satisfied with a first look on a drive-and-kick, so it'll just run the same play again. The Blazers tend to do this when Lillard kicks out to Matthews, who finds a defender closing out on him quickly. 

Often, Matthews will pump, put the ball on the floor and kick back out to Lillard, Batum or another shooter on the wing. It's just the Portland way of creating as many three-point looks as possible. 

It's partly because of this strategy that you have to say the Portland bench is improved this year, even though it's still far from the best in the league. Mo Williams allows the Blazers to stay consistent within their offensive scheme.

Williams is a shooter hitting 37 percent of his threes, and when he penetrates, the Blazers are averaging 1.21 points per drive. Portland can stay consistent no matter who is running the offense, and consistency means threes piled on even more threes.


A New Type of Rebounding

LaMarcus Aldridge has experienced a massive jump in his rebounding numbers this season, and with him, so have the Trail Blazers. It may be natural to think that improvement on the boards from Aldridge has led to progress within the team, but that may not fully be the case.

The All-Star power forward is pulling down 11.0 rebounds per 36 minutes this season. But he has averaged just 8.2 rebounds per 36 over his career. His career high coming into this season was just 8.6 boards per 36.

Look at the conventional numbers, and you wouldn't assume anything other than the development of Aldridge's rebounding. His 11.2 boards per game rank seventh in the NBA. But maybe the LMA rebounding praise is a little undeserving.

Aldridge has never been a bad rebounder. He just hasn't been anywhere near as effective as he's been this season. And he can thank Robin Lopez for that.

Most of Aldridge's rebounds are wide open. It's basically the rebounding equivalent of hitting an uncontested spot-up because a point guard was able to get a shooter an open look. And in this case, playing the role of the point guard is Lopez.

It makes perfect sense that the unsung hero would be a guy named Robin. Maybe parents should steer clear of that name in the future—unless they truly appreciate under-the-radar subtlety, of course. And, oh boy, is Lopez's game subtle.

Essentially, Lopez's ability to seal off opposing rebounders has completely changed the way Portland crashes the boards. It's not the first-year Blazer's job to grab the rebound—just to make sure that someone on his team does.

In turn, Lopez has become a fantastic rebounder. But he's a team rebounder—not an individual one—and that means pretty much none of the credit goes to him.

Look at the room Lopez creates just from boxing out Samuel Dalembert in this recent game against the Dallas Mavericks:

Aldridge is just standing on the left side after a Dirk Nowitzki shot.

He's not crashing the boards. He's not throwing his body at someone. He's flat-footedly watching, but he ends up with the board anyway.

This happens so often with Portland, Aldridge pulling down boards all alone, reaping the benefits of Lopez's work. And there's nothing wrong with that.

In fact, it's great. It's part of a scheme that's allowed the Blazers to jump from 21st in rebounding rate last year to fourth this season. J.J. Hickson may have pulled down more boards individually than Lopez does, but he wasn't anywhere near the team rebounder that Lopez is on a nightly basis.

The Blazers' defensive scheme is a relatively tame one. Not a lot of hedging, not much trapping and essentially very little risk.

Because of that, Aldridge will often play back, hanging around the rim more often than an active-for-the-Blazers Lopez. That's just part of scheme. It's part of how Portland plays defense, and that strategy helps inflate the Aldridge rebounding numbers to a point that may be a tad misleading.

According to NBA.com's player-tracking data, Aldridge is grabbing just 3.1 contested rebounds per game. That's 34th in the league. Just 34th.

And who ranks second in the NBA in uncontested rebounds, just 0.2 per game behind DeAndre Jordan? Mr. Aldridge, himself. 

Ultimately, Aldridge isn't that much of a better rebounder than he was last season. But he is working within an improved system.

Portland is significantly better on the boards. And most of that is because Lopez is allowing Aldridge and everyone else to look far better than they ever have before.


A New Scheme

Portland's rebounding scheme tells the sort of the story we've seen from the Blazers all season. It's these subtle, schematic changes that weren't there last year. 

There's a fascinating contrast going on in Portland right now. The Trail Blazers have implemented analytics to such extreme levels in some ways—spacial rebounding, loading up on threes. But they still sit top three in the league in mid-range shots.

Maybe they couldn't fully execute some of these concepts because of personnel in 2012-13. After all, allowing three starters to average more than 37.5 minutes per game means guys are going to get tired by the end of the season. And that's exactly what happened when Portland ended last year on an embarrassing 13-game losing streak.

Now, in their second season under Stotts, the Blazers are more refined, and their system is more defined.

And as they move forward and improve the bench, whose production is better than last year's but still not in the top tier of the league, they will know they have a core that can execute a system well enough to find success in the long run.


Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

*All statistics current as of March 11 and from Basketball-Reference, Hoopsstats.com and NBA.com, unless otherwise noted. 


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