Doubling Down on Triples


Feb 29, 2012; Denver, CO, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Wesley Matthews (2) reacts after hitting a three point shot during the third quarter of the game against the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. The Nuggets defeated the Trail Blazers 104-95. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

While the main focus of Neil Olshey’s fabulous offseason has been depth, and rightly so, it is readily apparent that he also carefully stocked up on three point shooters. Those who can hit the three are readily becoming one of today’s hottest NBA commodities.

One of the biggest ways in which three point shooters, or more accurately, players who can at least make three point shots, impact the game is via spacing. NBA players are so big and so fast nowadays that space comes at a premium. You saw it in this year’s Finals – if a team decides to pack the paint, like the Spurs did, it makes life difficult for even the best drivers and slashers such as LeBron to get to the rim.

And it is a lack of fear of retribution from the outside that allows teams to so grossly pack the paint. If a team does not fear the other team’s outside shooting, then they are freer to move closer to the hoop to hinder drives. It’s a simple cause and effect, but it’s one of the oldest song and dances of the game.

This is where Olshey’s new acquisitions come in, particularly among the perimeter positions (which we’ll call the point guard, the shooting guard, and the small forward). While starters Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, and Nicolas Batum are firmly entrenched in their roles, it appears as if all three will have a new primary backup this season. We will likely see (although nothing is ever for sure) Mo Williams back up Lillard, CJ McCollum back up Matthews, and Dorell Wright back up Batum.

Guess what? All three shot over 37% from the three-point line last season. Williams was good for 38.3% last year and Wright drilled his threes at a 37.4% clip. McCollum’s case is a little harder to classify, because he only played 12 games at the NCAA level before a broken foot sidelined him. With that being said, before the injury, he shot an absolutely blistering 51.6% on three point shots. It must be noted, though, that 12 games is a relatively small sample size, and the NCAA three point arc is a full three feet closer than that of the NBA’s.

Even with these stipulations, there is no way that McCollum will become anything less than competent from range. Shooters are shooters, and I expect him to maintain his high level of accuracy, although there will likely be some growing pains as he adjusts to life in the big leagues.

Where does this leave the Blazers? In a very, very nice position. When you factor in Lillard (36.8%), Mathews (39.8%) and Batum’s (37.2%) three point shooting, all of a sudden a vivid picture emerges: every single one of Portland’s perimeter players that is expected to play meaningful minutes is now a three point threat. All six, from top to bottom, can knock down the trey. The picture gets even rosier, though, when you account for the fact that Lillard, now with a year of experience, will most likely improve, and Batum’s wrist will hopefully be healed.

But wait, there’s more! The Blazers’ frontcourt can even get in on the long range action, albeit not quite from three point range. The two projected starting big men, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez are both more than serviceable from the long jump shot (16ft to the three point line) department. Aldridge shot nearly 42% from this area last year, and Lopez hit a surprising 54.8% himself (albeit on fewer, but not insignificant, attempts). The bottom line is that defenders will have to think long and hard about leaving either of them to help in another area of the court.

As the picture starts to emerge, it becomes clearer and clearer that this squad (at least on the proverbial paper) can shoot. And if they can shoot, then a whole host of things become easier. The lane is much clearer for drivers and slashers to work their magic (I’m hoping Lillard is a primary beneficiary). Passing lanes open up. The defense starts to break down more, as they have more to think about and defend. The defense also becomes more tired, as they have to run (or try to run) three point shooter after three point shooter off the line. Open looks start to become more frequent, while at the same time, these open looks mean more since the team now has the personnel to capitalize on them.

Improving the threat of the three-ball was clearly a secondary goal for Olshey, and again, he fulfilled it. I, for one, am exceedingly pleased by this development. Having a floor filled with competent shooters makes decision making miserable for the defense, and truly makes things easier for everyone on offense. I am even happier that all six of the likely impact perimeter players can drill the three. It only takes one weak link in the metaphorical chain for the defense to be able to send an extra man on a double team or to pack the paint.

With no non-shooter available for them to do this, the defense is really put in a bind, a trend that I hope continues all season long.

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