Why do we do the things we do? Why do men challenge one another to fights after a fender bender, when the war is between insurance companies? Why do friends go out one night and wake up in New York the next morning, when they have work in Boston the very same day? Why would we revisit a Blazers-Wizards game that very well be the spawn of a late 90’s Heat-Knicks series and Gary Oldman in “Hannibal”?
Who knows? But there’s always something more to learn, and an 85 possession game is a book of reasonable length to pick apart.
What we did here, essentially, was track every offensive play the Blazers ran in that game. The total number of plays will not match up to the 85 possessions, because sometimes more than one set, or one look, was run during the course of a 24-second shotclock. We aren’t looking at effectiveness, either, just intent. If the Blazers ran a pick-and-roll that goes nowhere and does nothing, we still chart it, because they were trying to run their offense through a pick-and-roll. We’ve lost our copy of Portland’s playbook, so I can’t tell you how many times they ran “Delta Force Ohio”, hence we’ll be sticking to general terminology.
I’ve divided Portland’s offense over a full game into different sections: Pick and Rolls, Isolations, Post-Ups, Transition Offense, Off-Ball Movement and Miscellaneous.
Pick and Roll Offense: This constitutes any play in which the intent was for a ballhandler to use a screen on the perimeter, whether to get to the rim or find the roll/popper with a pass.
Surprising nobody, Aldridge was the primary screener for the Blazers, involved in 14 such plays. Howard’s picks come with Aldridge sitting on the bench, so any PnR’s with him you can chalk up to sets using the power forward. What was unexpected, though, was how often Bayless was used as the ballhandler, using nine picks, the most of any Blazer, with Miller and Roy each using six. Considering Bayless only played 21 minutes, his usage of picks might speak to where Nate McMillan is most comfortable using Jerryd, or simply how the young point guard likes to attack the paint, using picks to create mismatches and switch situations rather than break down his man alone. As with the rest of this post, the sample size is too small to draw conclusions, especially since the data is taken against one specific team with a specific set of defenders.
The Blazers hardly utilized the PnR at all in the bookend quarters, with Bayless using the majority of second quarter picks from Aldridge, and Roy using more of the two-man game with Aldridge in the third. It’s worth noting that the Blazers didn’t run a single Roy-Aldridge PnR until early on the in third period, considering many people would say that this is Portland’s most definitive play.
Isolation Offense: This constitutes any offensive play designed to set up a perimeter player in an isolation situation with space, while also including disrupted plays in which the perimeter player creates the isolation situation and take creative responsibilities upon themselves. This does not include post-ups.
This is pretty much as expected. Roy got the vast majority of plays either designed for him to get the ball in space or, as in a couple but not too many cases, his one-on-one play acted the safety valve. The notable absence here is Rudy Fernandez, but he only played 14 minutes — and even if he had played 30 I doubt he would have had more such opportunities as Bayless. While we think of Bayless as someone who excels at breaking down his man and getting into the paint, only two of the eleven possessions used by him that we have listed did not involve a perimeter screen for him to use.
This may not be the clearest chart, but you can still see how isolations were distributed over the course of the game. While we’re all used to seeing Roy with the ball up top and the other four players spread wide, most of his touches up top came in the first and third quarters, with the notable exception being the final play of the game. Roy had 10 one-on-one situations total in the third quarter, many of which came off plays designed to get him the ball, but we can credit many of those calls to the Blazers simply trying to get their best player the ball with absolutely nothing working on offense at that point.
In the last four of his isolations in the third period, Roy pulled up for a jumper, in some form, on all of them, hitting none. By the end of the third, the Wizards were only down four.
Post-Up Offense: Pretty self-explanatory, here we’ll look at plays designed to get a particular player the ball in a back-to-the-basket situation, or a play in which a player turns his back and creates a post-up by himself. Sometimes post-ups developed out of a two-man game, which was often the case with Roy.
That’s 10 post-ups — with two more efforts to get him the ball with no entry pass — for LaMarcus Aldridge in the post, in a game with low possessions. That sounds about right, especially since four of those came in the fourth quarter, when Portland had otherwise abandoned the back-to-the-basket game. Since we’ve already seen how the third quarter was heavily isolation-oriented with Roy, the counter effect is the post-up opportunities plummeted.
Roy’s post-ups also started further out than anyone else, and developed out of back-and-forth passing with Miller. In other words, in arguably only one occasion did Roy specifically have a post-up called for him. Looking ahead, Roy and Greg Oden are easily the most likely players to join Aldridge on this chart.
Running Offense: This was a slow game already, and we already know Portland plays at the slowest pace in the league at 87.7 possessions per game. And the Blazers only scored five fast-break points in the entire game. We don’t need a colorful chart here, as only four possessions can legitimately be called fast-break opportunities.
What is encouraging is that the Blazers did have what we can call push-ball situations, where the point guard either sprinted the ball up court, put pressure on the defense and created easy offense despite not having typical fast-break numbers, or another player sent an outlet pass ahead that caught a defense off-guard despite, again, the numbers being in Washington’s favor. In total, Portland pushed the ball up-court 15 times.
Off-Ball Movement: This category, the loosest of the bunch, covers two sorts of plays. The first are simply shots created from excellent ball movement, typically plays involving two or more passes around the perimeter that created a jumper or hitting a moving player for a score. We count these plays because the shot is not only created by the passing, but by the shooter freeing himself and moving to an open space.
The second is a play you should be familiar with, when a player — most often Rudy Fernandez — runs back and forth along the baseline, using a number of screens to free himself for a shot as he catches the ball on either three-point extended elbow. The success rate of this play has been, to the naked eye, fairly low this season, due both to the inconsistencies of shooters like Rudy and Martell and poor downscreens that allow the runner little freedom.
This is a tough game to judge Portland’s passing and off-ball movement simply because there was so little data to gather and use. The Blazers only had 10 assists in the game, and were without their primary baseline runner in Fernandez for most of the second half. Webster benefited the most from Rudy’s absence, getting three of his four opportunities to use picks in the final quarter. As for Batum, this sort of offense is the primary source of his offense, as his looks via off-ball movement have skyrocketed every so often, coinciding with a scoring spike.
In none of these 13 possessions, though, did Portland get a quality shot immediately after the final pass. It needs further investigating, but Portland’s sets where they spend time trying to deliberately free a perimeter player with screens — rather than simply moving the ball around and finding open shooters — do appear to be among the least efficient plays Nate McMillan calls for.
Miscellaneous: A couple quick notes here. The Blazers scored once hitting the trailer in the secondary break. They ran one give-and-go between Andre Miller and Nic Batum. And only three possessions resulted in desperation shots, two of them in the fourth quarter (not the final shot) and one of them because Webster didn’t see a shot-clock reset and took what he believed to be a desperation three.
So what did we learn from this exercise? Not a whole lot, really. The Blazers ran as many pick-and-rolls as you might expect, while also giving Brandon Roy a predictable number of isolation possessions with their offense in the tank. They don’t post anyone consistently up other than LaMarcus Aldridge, who did get the ball on the blocks in the fourth quarter.
What was most surprising is how pick-and-roll heavy the offense became when Jerryd Bayless was running things. There wasn’t nearly as much movement as when Miller was controlling the show, and the forwards seemed to know that they are supposed to set a screen for Bayless whenever possible.
For this data to really mean anything, it needs to be over the course of, at least a dozen games, and preferably over an entire season (exactly what Synergy Sports does, for a high fee). There was certainly a flow to the play calling against the Wizards, but it’s impossible to say how consistent that pattern has been in other games, given not only the inconsistent nature of Washington’s defense, but also the inability for Portland to score off called plays, even when executed properly.
What we can take away, in the end, is something we all know: That Portland’s offense is not the most complicated scheme on the earth. They run players through various motions, but they are all designed to free them for an isolation or a post-up, and sometimes they run the same motions multiple times in a couple minutes, like having Roy cut down and then curl around Aldridge on the blocks to clear an entry passing lane by drawing defensive attention. The most complicated plays involved several picks for shooters, but those were rarely effective. Most disappointing of all was the complete lack of high-low post interaction between the big men.
We’ll do this again and compare the results to the ones found here, and maybe that will tell us more. But even then, we shouldn’t expect to discover any grand secrets in an offense that relies more on Portland’s talented players — much like many other teams in the league — and less on forcing them to interact in complicated manners.