One of the sentiments that has been thrown around in the wake of the Blazers’ additions of Mo Williams, CJ McCollum, and Dorell Wright is “Man, this team’s gonna be stacked with three-point shooting next year!” Is it that simple?
Three-point shooting doesn’t just require that a three be taken–it needs to be created first. While the value of shot creation is still a matter of debate, it’s obvious that you can’t just hand the ball to any lights-out shooter and tell him to go nuts. A lineup of Matt Bonner, Kyle Korver, Steve Novak, Shane Battier and Danny Green won’t shoot well. There’s no one there to draw defenders, no one who can blow by his man and kick it to an open teammate.
All the shooting talent in the world won’t equate to efficiency if there’s always a hand in the shooter’s face. Most of the best shooters in the NBA need a little help. This can be provided in lots of ways. Transition opportunities, creative off-ball movement, drive and kicks, post and kicks, and pick and pops can all work.
Last year’s team had Wesley Matthews, Nic Batum, Luke Babbitt, and Damian Lillard, all very talented shooters. But the team ranked 20th in the league in three-point percentage, because their offense, by and large, relied on Lillard penetrating and LaMarcus Aldridge posting up. Most of the shots taken were created by the danger that those two pose to the structure of a defense.
Compare their offense to Miami’s. The Heat could rely on the gravitational pull of LeBron James, the penetration of Wade and Chalmers, and Erik Spoelstra’s intricate system of cuts and screens. They also had a swarming, aggressive defense that created plenty of turnovers and transition opportunities. They had shooters in Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Mike Miller, and Rashard Lewis. But just as important is capitalizing on that talent by giving your shooters wide-open opportunities.
So what about this season’s additions? Will they create the shots they take, or will they need to be created for?
Dorell Wright took 359 threes last year, and 223 of them (62%) were spot-ups. 95% of them were assisted on, per Synergy and Basketball-Reference. Although that tells us nothing about his off-ball initiative and quickness coming off of screens, it’s clear that Wright will be taking shots that his teammates generate. That’s a valuable thing for a team that can generate those looks. In fact, it’s essential. But it’s not the most immediate need.
Mo Williams should help generate three-point looks. 75% of his threes were assisted on last year, compared to a league average of 82. He’s also a point guard not named Nolan Smith or Ronnie Price. Calling him “serviceable” or even “good” is missing the point. He’s not Nolan Smith or Ronnie Price. He should create a few looks simply by doing normal point guard things.
CJ McCollum might be a wildcard in all this. Will he play? Will he be any good? As a combo guard, he might be uniquely suited to make, and take, his own threes. We’ll see.
As for the rest of the Blazers roster, it’s a mixed bag. Wes Matthews, like Wright, needs to be set up for the vast majority of his attempts. Kevin Yeung already covered his smart off-ball movement, which mitigates things a bit. On the other hand, Matthews’ handle is an actual NBA handle that’s been Google Translated into Japanese, then Czech, then Latin, then back to English, so we shouldn’t expect much in the way of shot creation from him*.
*(“On the other hand, is optimistic Czech antioxidants, the Latin, Matthew, and the more serious as the very need of the English at that time to create a snapshot of the interpretation of the NBA, not much is to be hoped.” )
Nicolas Batum showed hitherto unsuspected ability to set up teammates last year, and he might be the one who decides if Terry Stotts’ offense is a well-oiled machine or a game of Mouse Trap whose pieces have been gnawed on by a teething infant. Although 92% of his threes were assisted last year, he was sixth among forwards in assist rate last year and has excellent vision curling around screens. If he’s the capable second ball-handler/distributor he showed flashes of before the wrist injury, then the Portland offense could be special. If not, they might have too much shooting talent without enough shot creation.
Outside of Batum and Lillard, the rest of the rotation was pretty brutal in that respect. Wes Matthews doesn’t scare anyone in isolation. JJ Hickson always needed to be set in motion. Luke Babbitt, Meyers Leonard, Victor Claver, Joel Freeland…shot takers, shot makers, maybe, but not shot creators.
If Batum plays like he did in the first half of last season and CJ McCollum can get off the bench and penetrate, the Blazers will have no problem. If not, Terry Stotts will have to get pretty creative to avoid stagnation. Whatever the case, the Blazers’ three-point shooting picture is more complicated than “we have a bunch of guys who can shoot, so we’ll collectively shoot the lights out.” Stotts’ main concern this season will be improving the team’s defense, and rightly so. But his second-biggest challenge might be maximizing the considerable shooting talent on this roster.