EXAMINING THE BLAZER BENCH

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eye of scientist  and microscope

A hot start and a place atop the Western Conference standings for the Blazers early in the season was a surprise to many. Last year’s team was a mediocre squad that couldn’t muster a single win in their last 13 games, so this team had no business looking like a “real” contender. Some were perhaps less shocked if they were wise to the slew of offseason deals that the front office made to shore up a bench that was the absolute worst in basketball last year. With fresh new faces backing up the steadfast starters, it was almost inevitable that the team would improve. After all, these reserves were much better than last year’s group.

Unless they weren’t. Portland’s bench has regressed back to its place in the cellar of backup units. The Blazers’ reserves are dead last in the league in minutes per game and points per game (per hoopsstats.com). Certainly there are other measures than simply scoring that illustrate a bench’s quality, but these are certainly poor indicators. So what happened with all these sly deals that were supposed to save Portland’s bench production? Let’s examine by looking where the minutes went from last year to this year.

 

Mo Williams (last year: Eric Maynor)

Mo is usually the first reserve to see action in each game, and he has the experience and gravitas of a veteran leader. Now, if only some more of those shots would go in. Mo’s line is 40.5/36.8/87.1 (FG/3P/FT percentages) comparable to Eric Maynor’s 42.2/38/68.3 from last year. Mo hands out assists at a slightly lower rate than Maynor did, but turns the ball over less. He’s also a better rebounder than Maynor was. I wouldn’t argue that the Blazers would be better off with Maynor, but if Williams continues to hover around just 40 percent from the field, it’s not hard to see why there hasn’t been a substantial upgrade in bench production. Luckily for Mo, he sees most of his time with 4 other starters and so the lineup data is in his favor: the top 3 lineups that include at least 1 bench player have positive net ratings.

Joel Freeland (last year: Meyers Leonard)

Injuries to both Freeland and Leonard make this somewhat of a wash, but Joel took over Meyers’ minutes from the jump this year. In fact, Meyers is down to just 9.6 minutes per game in 23 appearances. Freeland is a better offensive rebounder than Leonard and also moves the ball a little better, with a pleasant 14.6 assist rate for a big man. However, Freeland has been terrible in the restricted area, shooting just 50.6 percent. Meyers shot 64.1 percent from that same spot last year. Freeland is a slightly more stout defender, but no better at protecting the rim than Meyers. The sooner Freeland is back the better, but neither has been a revelation.

Dorell Wright (last year: Luke Babbitt)

Excuse me, 6th Man of the Year vote-getter Luke Babbitt (look it up, I’ll wait…I KNOW, RIGHT?!). But seriously, anybody would be better than Babbitt. Wright is just as much of a specialist as Babbitt, with 72.6 percent of his shots coming from 3-point range, but only a slightly better shooter this year (Wright is shooting 35.5 percent as compared to Babbitt’s 34.8 percent). The good news is that the top two Blazer lineups in net rating that have played at least 25 minutes feature Wright. The bad news is that so do the bottom three.

Thomas Robinson (last year: Victor Claver)

This one is a bit of a stretch, but they had to be paired for the purpose of this exercise. Robinson has been a tremendously exciting player to watch with put back dunks and insane transition blocks. He knows his role in that he almost never shoots outside of the restricted area and finishes at an acceptable rate (52.8 percent). He’s also a beastly rebounder and has held opposing power forwards to a 15.7 PER (per 82games.com). Not bad for a reclamation project. Claver has been dusted off recently due to injuries, but was a pretty terrible shooter last year and nowhere near the rebounder Robinson is. Again, this may be a little unfair to Claver, but he did see a decent amount of time at the 4 last year and Robinson is a much better option at that position.

C.J. McCollum (last year: Will Barton)

Apologies to our editor, but thank goodness for C.J. [Ed.’s note: YOU’RE DEAD TO ME, GRADY!] He’s shooting much better than Barton did last year with a 43.5/42.6/72.2 line. That 3-point percentage is especially helpful with the emphasis the Blazers system puts on spacing. McCollum isn’t the athlete Barton is, but he’s much better equipped to carry a 2nd unit. In fact, C.J. has almost exclusively seen action in lineups with at least two other bench players and has mustered positive net ratings when he does. I think it’s safe for Portland fans to get excited about this kid’s future.

 

Was that little experiment ridiculous? Maybe so, but the bottom line is that whenever two or more bench players take the floor for the Blazers, the drop in quality is precipitous. This is why the Blazers starters have played a full 1,117 minutes together, more than any other starting lineup (only Indiana comes close). Perhaps some of this is self-fulfilling. If the bench seems bad, it plays less, and if it plays less, it seems bad. But while there are a few encouraging spots, it doesn’t appear that Portland’s backups have done enough to shake the reputation of worst bench in the league.

All stats courtesy nba.com unless otherwise indicated.

 

AND HERE WE MEET AGAIN: C. J. MCCOLLUM IN THE D-LEAGUE

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C.J. McCollum and I have a history. I went to Duke University and McCollum was the main culprit in delivering my school one of its most embarrassing postseason losses. So, to me, McCollum is more than just the guy from the little school in Pennsylvania. He’s an old foe. Familiarity breeds something or another.

However, I like to consider myself an objective observer of basketball and not a raging partisan. So I figured I’d check my feelings at the door and write a tempered review of McCollum’s D-League debut.

 

Good God, this kid is going to be awesome.

Ok, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. This was one D-League game, of which McCollum only played 17 minutes and none in the fourth quarter. But I couldn’t help but be encouraged by his performance, not only because he’s a rookie, but because he’s coming off a foot injury that has kept him out of action this season (and a prior foot injury that kept him out of action for almost all of his last collegiate season).

McCollum entered the game off the bench, as Terry Stotts wants the Idaho Stampede to utilize McCollum in the D-League in the role in which Stotts will eventually use him with the Blazers. So with 6:31 left in the first quarter, McCollum checked in and went to work. His first sequence was as follows: assist on his first offensive possession after driving baseline and finding a teammate in the corner for an open three; good defensive anticipation that ended in a steal that would lead to a transition dunk by teammate Pierre Jackson; canning his first pull-up jumper. He could do no wrong.

McCollum soon proved himself human, however, as he missed his first 3-point attempt, but there was a lot to be excited about. He found Pierre Jackson in transition two other times in the first quarter, one on a perfectly placed outlet pass after a rebound. He closed the first quarter with an isolation play where he scored on a step-through after getting his defender off his feet with a pump fake.

Two other plays stood out throughout the game. McCollum opened his second quarter action with a behind-the-back dribble that allowed him to get in the lane and score while getting fouled for an and-1. Later, in the third quarter, McCollum got the ball in a “flow” set which allowed him to drive and set a teammate up with a drop-off pass when he ran into the interior defense.

In the end, McCollum finished with 13 points on 6 of 13 shooting, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, and 3 turnovers.

McCollum is obviously still a very talented offensive player. He may not be an overwhelming athlete, but he’s able to use his handle and hesitation moves to attack the rim. He looked particularly good using the motion of the “flow” offense to get towards the bucket. McCollum struggled from 3-point range (he was 0-4), but the stroke will come. He may not be a Lillard-level shooter, but he did hit 51.6 percent from deep in college last year before an injury ended his senior season.

McCollum also showed a good willingness and ability to distribute. While he will likely be playing off the ball next to Mo Williams, he certainly seems comfortable and capable of having the ball in his hands as a playmaker for bench units.

Defensively, there’s still a lot to learn about him. He gave good effort in getting through screens and kept his hands active. It will be interesting to see if there are any lasting effects of his broken foot as he adjusts to NBA-level game tempo and competition.

Overall, I think any excitement in Portland over McCollum potentially getting called up is warranted. The Blazers’ bench, while better than last year’s bunch, does not have a player who averages more than 10 minutes per game with a PER over league average (Thomas Robinson is close at 14.9, and he doesn’t really play anymore). So hopefully McCollum will be heading to Portland soon to provide some depth. As long as he’s done breaking my heart, I look forward to watching.

SPORTVU AND U

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star-gazing

Listen, you guys. I get it. I’m a nerd. I played Starcraft in high school and own more than one They Might Be Giants album. I’ve come to terms with it.

So you can only imagine how I felt when NBA.com unleashed its “player tracking” section of the stats page. For those who might not know yet, player tracking is the product of the league’s new SportVU technology. This advancement consists of six cameras installed in each NBA arena (only half of league had them last year) that track every single movement made by the players and the ball. Naturally with this tracking system comes heaps of data, the kind for which nerds like me thirst.

Since this player tracking data likely will start creeping its way into the NBA internet parlance, I thought it might be nice to do a quick survey of what we’re dealing with and how it relates to the Blazers.

As a note, I filtered results to include players who have averaged at least 15 minutes per game in at least 5 total games as to avoid crazy small samples. Still, this information is from a very limited number of games and thus will still be fluky.

 

Speed and Distance

This section tells us fun things like how far guys are running during a game and how quickly they do it. For soccer fans, think of the mid-game television graphics that pop up to say that Ashley Cole has run 4.5 km or whatever — it’s a pretty identical function here. Interesting, sure, but as far as real applications or what it can add to the understanding of the game, I’m uncertain. Also, the raw numbers appear to be heavily influenced by minutes played and team pace. For example, nine of the top fifteen players in total distance traveled play on the seven teams with the highest pace.

That being said, Chandler Parsons leads the league in total miles traveled at 22.4. Nic Batum has traveled the farthest for the Blazers, running 18.4 total miles, an average of 2.6 per game. Patty Mills of the Spurs is the league’s speed demon, averaging a speed of 4.9 mile per hour.

 

Touches and Possession

The data on touches and possessions should be useful in supplementing current stats like usage rate. Here, SportVU measures things like how many times a player touches the ball, how long they possess the ball during a game, and where their touches come from. Many of these categories are predictably dominated by point guards (and thus extra-dominated by Chris Paul), but Kevin Love has supplanted himself in the top 10 for “touches per game,” even ahead of teammate Ricky Rubio.

In unsurprising Blazer news, LaMarcus Aldridge is fourth in “elbow touches per game,” which is defined by a 5-foot radius nearing the edge of the lane and free-throw line inside of the 3-point line. LMA gets 10.9 of these touches per game (league leader Marc Gasol actually averages 16.4!).

One of the best early small-sample SportVU revelations is Michael Beasley leading the league in “points per touch.” At first it seems like maybe Beas has turned around his efficiency issues. But it could also mean that the only thing he attempts to do when possessing the ball is score. Points per touch will be a category to watch.

 

Passing

This is the category I was most interested to see. I’m not alone in questioning the true value of the assist stat. Yes, usually the good point guards are the ones who rack up the assists. But what of all the great passes that lead to missed shots or free throw attempts when a teammate is fouled? What of the “hockey assists” where the brilliance of a pass needs one more step to be fully realized? We needn’t fret any longer as these things are all now being recorded.

“Free throw assists” account for plays in which a pass leads to free throw attempts (where at least 1 attempt is converted) and “secondary assists” account for a pass that leads to the true assist (as long as the next pass is made within 2 seconds or 1 dribble). Russell Westbrook leads the league in free throw assists, which makes sense as he plays alongside of the foul-drawing nightmare that is Kevin Durant. The league leader in “secondary assists” is Nate Wolters and I’ll use the rest of this sentence to give you time to figure out who that is.

The last interesting part of this category is “points created by assists per game,” which accounts for the entire value of the assists a player makes by factoring in 3-pointers and free-throws. Now we can get a feel for which players’ assists actually create the most value. Nic Batum actually leads the Blazers in this category, further illustrating the visible strides he’s made as a playmaker.

 

Defensive Impact

Remember that time Kirk Goldsberry wrote a fascinating Sloan Sports Conference paper about why Larry Sanders was awesome at defense and David Lee probably wasn’t? Well this page is the embodiment of that article. It keeps track of the basic counting stats like steals and blocks, but it also tracks effectiveness at the rim. This is where we find out that of the 3.8 shot attempts per game that opponents take against Taj Gibson at the rim, only 21.7 percent go in, which isn’t great. Stop shooting at the rim against Taj Gibson, NBA opponents. This is also where we find out that the Blazers aren’t defending the rim particularly well. Robin Lopez sees 10.1 attempts at the rim per game and gives up 49.3 percent shooting on those chances. And he’s the best Blazer big on the list.

 

Rebounding Opportunities

For a long time, raw rebound totals were the measure of a player’s rebounding ability. But simple totals are very reliant on pace and opponent shooting percentage. Then rebound rate came along, which made significant improvements by adjusting for the number of rebounds available to player and pace. Now we can see how many times an individual player has the opportunity to get a rebound and whether the rebound is being contested. This will now allow us to judge who is the best at positioning themselves to be available for a board and how well they battle in traffic.

LaMarcus Aldridge sees the most rebounding chances per game for Portland at 14.4 per game. However, Joel Freeland has the highest contested rebound percentage of any Blazer, grabbing 56.5 percent of all contested rebounds he’s a part of.

 

Drives

This one seems pretty simple. It lets us know who is attacking the basket and how effective they are when they do so. A “drive” is defined when a touch starts out 20 feet or more from the hoop and is dribbled to within 10 feet. It does not include fast break opportunities as drives, so apologies to last year’s Denver Nuggets.

The stat I like most from this section is “team points per game on drives” which encompasses all the points a team scores from a players’ drives by factoring in assists as well. Ty Lawson leads the league with 14.8 per game. Number two is the oft-disparaged Monta Ellis. Damian Lillard does the most driving for the Blazers, but has shot a woeful 28.6 percent on his drives this year

 

Shooting Efficiency

The last few categories can basically be rolled into one. They measure the effectiveness of a shooter based on whether the shot was a catch-and-shoot or a pull-up opportunity. The value of this distinction is fairly self-explanatory, but nonetheless crucial. Now we can objectively know whether all those Nick Young shots are worth it (they are not).

The league leader in effective field goal percentage on pull-up shots (min. 20 such points) is rookie Ben McLemore at 80.8 percent. The leader in catch and shoot effective field goal percentage (min. 20 such points) is Mario “Rio” Chalmers at a scorching 95.5 percent. For Portland, Wes Matthews stands out in both categories, with an effective field goal percentage of 75 percent on catch-and-shoot attempts (12th best in the league) and 55 percent on pull-ups (8th best in the league).

 

So what have we learned?

Maybe not much yet. All this data and information is so new that it’s hard to tell how it can and should be used. Needless to say, analytics departments, scholars, serious journalists, serious bloggers, and dudes like me will spend a lot of time trying to figure it out. First, and most simply, SportVU probably will be used to enhance the understanding of traditional measurements and more clearly define the visual understanding of what’s happening on the floor. But with the amount of intelligent people inside and outside of NBA teams working deeper into its potential, it could eventually reshape the entire frame of reference for understanding the game of basketball.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go blast “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and build more Supply Depots.

TRAIL BLAZERS 96 – KINGS 85: LET’S PLAY TWO, GENTS

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1915-May-Day-Garden-Party

There is something inherently friendly about the home-and-home back-to-back in the NBA. Like something that should only happen in cricket, or fencing, it feels downright gentlemanly. It makes you wonder whether the players themselves suggested to just “run it back.” Hell, the occasion even warranted a special video package from the Kings’ TV broadcast. But of course, it’s really just a quirk of the NBA schedule and while Saturday’s version started out in a friendly manner, it ended with the same cruel inevitability of a normal game.

The centers were at work early, with DeMarcus Cousins scoring the Kings’ first four points before Robin Lopez matched with four of his own. Then some of the other bigs pitched in with LaMarcus Aldridge and Jason Thompson each splashing jumpers. Even Joel Freeland joined in the long-range lovefest with a jumper of his own. All this positive energy must have made Kings coach Mike Malone feel especially generous because he decided to play Jimmer Fredette and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, both of whom had received DNPs on Friday. The good nature even extended to the defense (or lack thereof), with only 10 total free throws in the first half.

But the second half put an end to the geniality. Portland worked the ball around in the perpetual motion of the “Flow” offense to open up Wes Matthews and Dorrell Wright for some threes. Add in the continual brilliance of Aldridge on the pick-and-pop, and soon the Blazers had opened up a 22-point lead. It certainly didn’t help for Sacramento that John Salmons and Marcus Thornton continued their prolific bricklaying (they finished a combined 2 for 11). The Kings sideline reporter attributed this to the fact that all players go through slumps, as if Salmons has been an effective player sometime in the last five years.

However, the Kings weren’t about to roll over. Or rather, DeMarcus Cousins wasn’t about to roll over. He led two very impressive one-man fast breaks en route to 33 total points and 11 free-throw attempts. In the half court, he plowed his way through double teams to loft up deft hook shots. Unfortunately for the Kings, this was not enough to overcome Portland’s 45 percent shooting from three-point range, as well as the Blazers’ 19 offensive rebounds.

The Blazers and Kings will meet again in January, when this autumn weekend rendezvous will exist only as a distant memory. And perhaps in the throes of the long, hard NBA season, the two teams will look back wistfully at these contests as an example of a more genteel time in their lives. Or maybe they’ll just play an early-January NBA basketball game. After all, chivalry is dead.

A FEW BASICS OF THE TRAIL BLAZER OFFENSE

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henryschool

First of all, it’s good to be back. I know the collective Internet was worrying its pretty little head about where I went, but worry no more (ed. note: I cried every night.). Now, on to business. To get back into gear for the season I’m going to bring you some posts about the workings of last season’s offense and defense. This will be a refresher course of what the Blazers looked like a year ago (good and bad) and how that might translate to this season. This isn’t necessarily meant to be absolutely comprehensive. These were just some of the notable highlights.

 

1. LaMarcus and the left block

Assuming you didn’t just start caring about the Blazers yesterday, you know that LaMarcus Aldridge functions as a hub of activity for the Blazers’ offense. And his favorite spot? The left block. Almost 15 percent of all Aldridge’s shots come from the left side, 8-16 feet from the basket. From there, he shoots 44.7 percent, which is 5.6 percent better than the league average.

However, Aldridge doesn’t simply run to the block on every possession. To get there, he uses screens to create misdirection before receiving the entry pass.

Here, Aldridge is going to get a cross screen from Wes Matthews in order to get into position.

The screen helps Aldridge gain a clean seal and space around him for Lillard to enter the ball. A couple of dribbles, and the seemingly effortless turnaround over his right shoulder results in an easy bucket. There’s no doubt that this will continue to be a go-to set for the Blazers throughout the upcoming season.

 

2. Lillard, the attacker

Reigning Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard impressed a lot of people in his first season in the league. He was a prolific 3-point shooter with a polished game and rare poise for a young player. But what I liked most was how fearless he was in attacking the basket. Lillard was able to use his strong frame and hesitation dribbles to make his way to the hoop a lot last season. In fact, his 4.2 shots per game at the rim placed him in the top 15 for point guards last year. Though he only converted those attempts at an average rate, his close-range ability with both hands is a good sign going forward.

But Lillard didn’t just wantonly crash towards the hoop. Employing that aforementioned polish and poise, he often used his penetration to kick the ball out or dish inside at the last second.

The following play starts late in the shot clock after Lillard has shown patience in not forcing offense that wasn’t there. Fellow rookie Meyers Leonard then sets a high screen in order to get something going with 9 seconds to shoot.

The Jazz fumble with the pick and roll defense and the lane opens up for Lillard. Utah’s weakside defenders rotate into the paint enough that Lillard would either be forced into a mid-range pull-up or a contested attempt at the rim. But Lillard sees J.J. Hickson creeping along the baseline for an alley-oop finish. Bigs trolling the baseline, or even out of bounds, will likely be something the Blazers do more frequently this season, after George Karl effectively utilized the tactic like a mad man last year in Denver. With an ideal pick-and-pop partner like LaMarcus Aldridge and a big roll-man like Robin Lopez, these high screen looks will continue to allow Lillard to use his precocious savvy to create good shots for himself or his teammates.

 

3. Batum in the “Flow”

Of course, we can’t talk about Portland’s offense without discussing Stotts’ “Flow” system. The constant motion of wings around off-ball screens from bigs leads to a lot of beautiful cuts and open shots, as defenders lose their marks in the perpetual movement.

Here, Nicolas Batum will take two elbow screens off the ball from J.J. Hickson and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Batum takes the pass from Lillard, but immediately flips it back, shifting the defense’s focus off of him. But as he takes the second screen, Jared Dudley (who is already trailing too far behind Batum) gets caught up. Luis Scola makes a lazy hedge and Batum ends up wide open for a dunk. Variations of these sets can include crashing down the lane after the first screen or fading along the three-point line, all depending on how the defense reacts.

 

While the Blazers’ glaring issues last season on defense became more of a lightning rod for conversation, their versatility and varied skill-sets should have led to more than just league average production on offense. Now entering the second year under Stotts, the players’ greater familiarity with the “flow” system and their ability to better utilize and streamline the actions outlined above should go a long way to create a more dynamic, efficient attack.