Moving Help Needed! The Blazers’ Stagnating Offense


Nov. 10, 2012; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard Wesley Matthews (2) is fouled by San Antonio Spurs shooting guard Manu Ginobili (20) as he goes to the basket on power forward Tim Duncan (21) during the fourth quarter of the game at the Rose Garden. The Spurs won the game 112-109. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

While watching the film for my recent pieces on Damian Lillard, I saw something noticeable with the Blazers offense: stagnation. I could only observe it in passing then, because I was focusing on Lillard so much, but the offense seemed incredibly stale.

So, today, I sat down and and quickly flipped through a couple of old games, and 1) I was correct in my earlier assessment and 2) the problem was worse than I thought. In fact, once I started watching specifically for this stagnation, it became almost painful to watch.

In this context, I would loosely define it as “a lack of movement,” primarily during half-court sets (fast breaks occur so quickly that movement becomes a moot point). I had originally tried to chart and record specific numbers (which I so dearly love), but that quickly proved impractical and time-consuming. Instead I went with the time tested eyeball test, and here are the observations:

Nearly every, and I mean every, play that the Blazers ran in their half court sets ended up with three players close to each other in a triangle on the strong side and two on the weak side. Of the three on the strong side, normally two were “actively” involved in the play, with the third sometimes becoming involved (either via a pass or screen). The other two players? Honestly, they almost always did nothing.

Really – the two players on the weak side routinely just watched the play on the opposite side of the court develop, and even when the shot went up, there was a disheartening lack of hustle to attack the boards. When I recognized this trend, it felt like I was watching a whole new game – namely a game with three players involved on offense.

Now. Before blowing this completely out of proportion, I reined in my disappointment and remembered that looking at only one team’s trend is meaningless without a comparison to other teams. So, I quelched my disappointed and fired up some games of the Spurs during the playoffs. I chose them because they are a team known for their excellent movement.

The results were both more disappointing and better than I thought. In the Spurs’ offense, there was significantly more movement, but not as much as I thought there was based on my memories. Every player wasn’t flying around the court at warp speed all the time, but there was a good deal more movement than displayed by the Blazers.

In almost every single play the Spurs ran, at some point four out of their five players were moving with a purpose. This was not normally sustained for the duration of a play, but happened almost always at least once each set. Otherwise, at any given time they almost always had three players completely, actively engaged in the play. The other two players, however, were almost always spotting up for a juicy three (typically Danny Green) or posting up (typically Tiago Splitter).

Contrast this with the Blazers. Like I said above, they usually had only two players completely involved in a play, with a third somewhat tagging along. The other two generally contributed little, and I often saw them standing straight up (not in an athletic stance), a sure sign they weren’t expecting to be involved. During my film session (albeit an abbreviated one), I think I only saw such an instance of a four player burst of movement once from the Blazers.

May 3, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jeff Green (8) drives to the basket while guarded by New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) during the third quarter in game six of the first round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

This is the Spurs, though, one of the best teams in the league. I wanted more examples, so I pulled up some games (you can tell I’m going to miss League Pass) of the Celtics’ improbable stretch they reeled off directly after Rajon Rondo tore his ACL. I chose them because Doc Rivers is considered one of the best coaches in the league, and I wanted to see how he dragged a starting lineup of Avery Bradley (playing out of position), Courtney Lee (probably not starter material), Paul Pierce (aged 35), Kevin Garnett (aged 36) and Brandon Bass (a quality role player) to a stretch during which they won 14 out of 18 games.

As I expected, their movement was better than the Blazers’, but not up to the Spurs standards. There were periods when they did exactly what the Blazers did (two or three players completely removed from the play), but these occurrences were far, far less common than with the Blazers. This was coupled with many more periods when four, or sometimes even five players were buzzing around the court with a purpose.

So. What does all this mean? That’s always the question worth asking. In the simplest of terms, it means the Blazers are wasting a lot of potential opportunities. When 40% of your players are not involved in a play, 40% of the things that your team could do are not an option. This is an enormous disadvantage for a team; really, when this happens they are pretty much playing a three man game.

It gets worse than that, though. When you get into the X’s and O’s of strategy, it becomes a lot more like three against four or five, because the two defenders on the weak side can sag so far over to the strong side to help the defenders near the ball. This was definitely apparent on the film – those two weak side defenders were often cheating over quite a bit towards the side with the ball, which just jams things up for the players trying to run a play. When an offense gets too predictable like this, the defense can easily take advantage.

I truly think that any more movement of any kind would significantly help the Blazers. I’m not advocating we become the Spurs, because frankly, if that were possible, I think every team over the last decade would have done so. I would just like to see more movement from the Blazers.

The benefits are almost endless. The floor seems to become bigger, because more options are available. There are more passing lanes available. All of your players’ talents can be used. But most importantly, by far, is that it makes it harder for the defense. That should always be the goal of an offense – cause trouble for the defense. When you can force a defense into one minor mistake, even if they recover to fix that particular problem, it means they’ve opened themselves up to being exposed somewhere else.

I talked about “bending” the defense in my previous article. Sadly, with such a stagnant offense, the Blazers were doing very, very little of this to opposing defenses. In fact, it was almost as if defenders on the weak side had a 24 second vacation, unless they came crashing into the paint to snuff out a Lillard or Wesley Matthews layup attempt.

I always try to see the positive though: this was head coach Terry Stott’s first year with the Blazers. While I have not been impressed with him yet, it is hard to make any judgments after only one season. He has to have time to implement his system, and I desperately hope that it includes more movement next season.

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