Have the Portland Trail Blazers gone too small?
The Portland Trail Blazers made a strange piece of NBA history last season, when they set an NBA record for fewest post-ups in one season.
Well, at least, supposedly that is true. This stat comes from ESPN’s Zach Lowe, who has made a career from simply never being wrong. That said, there is no indication of how far “NBA history” goes back in this context. It would be a surprise if there was any accurate data on that prior to 2004, the start of Synergy Sports’s (Lowe’s cited authority) data. Nevertheless, whatever validity the statement carries, it speaks to the wider point – as a team, the Portland Trail Blazers lack for post offense.
This is not to say that they do not try and find some options. The Blazers under Terry Stotts had a variety of plays in their book designed to get the ball to LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the best post options in the league, and although he was not replaced by strong post offense options (Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Mason Plumlee, Noah Vonleh, Mo Harkless) after he left as a free agent last summer, the Blazers kept the plays anyway, and instead ran them for guards. They also ran them for Harkless, briefly, but this did not go especially well and was soon stopped
Running Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum down into the post is a long way from ideal. Partly because they’re a combined eight foot tall, and partly because of how good they are as a backcourt pairing, the only time either of those two should be in the post is after they have driven there. Lillard and McCollum are a fantastically explosive backcourt court duo, and should be the ones being complemented with front court post help. They didn’t run very many such plays for guards, and nor should they.
It is also definitely not to say that they lack for offense. Even before this summer’s additions, Portland posted the sixth best Offensive Rating in the league last season of 108.8, and while they have dropped to eighth thus far this season, their current rating of 108.9 is just as good. For as long as this team has Lillard, McCollum and Stotts, the Blazers will never be a poor offensive team.
Gone are the days that teams were told they had to had post-up offense. Remember back to not so long ago, when this was considered to be the Achilles heel of Chicago Bulls teams for half a decade, and the signing of Carlos Boozer was supposed to stop the rot and take them up a tier to true competitiveness. It didn't, because Boozer was only over a good-to-decent post option, and at this point in the NBA's evolution, post offense is so inefficient of an option that it is only worth doing regularly by the very greats. Inside scoring matters, but inside scoring is attainable via cuts, rolls, finishing off feeds and the sealing off of defenders, plus some put-backs. Scoring via post catches and moves matters much less.
That said, there is always some value to be found in diversifying the offensive talent. The Blazers run a large amount of drive-and-kick offense, as should any team with two guards so adept at getting to the rim, and bad post options would just clog the lane in such a way as to negatively affect this drive-and-kick game. But good post options would open up a new way to expand the floor for those shooters. A player who can catch in the post, find shooters, yet be good enough to score two points with the occasional and-one if faced only with a double team, is still a valuable weapon.
In this sense, Plumlee is some help, albeit some limited help. He takes touches in the post, but when he does so, he almost always looks to pass. This gives the offense some degree of balance – you have to guard against any seven footer getting the ball in the post, even if you know it is more than likely going back out again – yet in being a limited threat to score, Plumlee does not shift a defense all that much. Plumlee is good at these kickouts and quickly becoming very good at them, suddenly a half court offensive focal point with a genuinely surprising yet genuinely impressive 4.6 assists per game. But his own ability to turn and score, drop a shoulder or whatever else has not developed in the same way.
Elsewhere, the always underrated Ed Davis is off to by far the worst start of his career, and although his rebounding and defensive numbers will surely come around back to their career norms soon (along with his currently astronomical foul rates returning to Earth), even the best ever version of Ed Davis is still a very limited post scorer. Davis has started to get the occasional touch there, but he has one shot, the lefty hook, with no real moves and certainly no counter moves. Davis is much better when on the run, catching the ball on the move, and when operating in space, when his athletic advantages can pay dividends. But giving him the ball in the post without that space rarely works.
Meyers Leonard, meanwhile, has given up with the post on offense. Always somewhat soft and definitely favouring the jump shot, Leonard has gone from taking mid-range twos, to taking occasional threes, to taking almost nothing but threes. He does so while almost always being the biggest player on the court. This in isolation is fine, but doing increasingly little else while on the court and hitting only 34% with a jump shot release that takes about three weeks from start to finish is less fine. Indeed, having a centre who wants to stand 25 feet away speaks to the decline of the post offense in general.
There is nonetheless some value in running some post-option plays. With this in mind, Evan Turner's extremely expensive addition makes some kind of sense. Much as Turner likes to try and make plays from the perimeter, he never has been good enough of a shot-maker; his snatchy release on outside shots lacks much rhythm, and as nice as his moves off the dribble can look, they don't often go in. What Turner can however do, in conjunction with his passing vision and good handle for his size, is take smaller or similarly sized opponents in the post. And although he will never justify the price tag (the sub-40% shooting and 10.2 PER thus far are more fitting of a $7.2 million contract than a $72 million one), if this can be made into more of a thing alongside his off-the-dribble game, there are some benefits to be had.
This is not just an offensive issue, though. Indeed, it is an everything issue.
Playing so much small ball, and/or with big men who either can't handle the physical play on the interior or who don't want to, has had a big impact on the team's rebounding numbers. Grabbing only 47.8% of available rebounds in games is the fifth worst mark in the league, while being outrebounded by 4.0 rebounds per game is the fourth worst. Davis and the limited contributions of Noah Vonleh are the only average to slightly-above-average rebounders on the team - Plumlee is mediocre, Leonard is increasingly poor, and no one else is making up for them.
Far more pressing is the defense. The Blazers rank stone cold last in the NBA right now in Defensive Rating with a worrying score of 112.3, down from 108.8 and 20th the previous year. The Blazers knew interior defense was a problem last year, and plans to remedy it have not been helped by new signing Festus Ezeli having not yet taken the court; however, due in part to Davis's slow start, the Blazers are giving up more shots at the basket than before while contesting them less effectively.
Plumlee's impact around the basket defensively is OK - he certainly tries - but Leonard's isn't (his man to man post defense is pretty good, but who needs that so much any more?). Without anyone with the length and agility to contest lane drivers, switch on pick-and-rolls with the ability to also recover, or provide quick and helpful rotations on the interior, getting by the first line of the Blazers's defense is all too often proving to be enough. Al Farouq-Aminu's rather free-roamy, help-heavy, board-crashy style is also missed - without him acting as the glue, the whole unit has fallen apart. The Blazers's big men neither contest the perimeter, the mid-range nor the basket well, and when they do get stops, they don't clear the glass anyway. Lillard and McCollum (especially Lillard) give so much offensively, but when Mason Plumlee is the best big man, a lot of it is given back.
The Blazers need Ezeli to get healthy, and for Davis to rediscover his form. That much is obvious. But with Leonard's continued skill set regression, even getting those two plus Aminu back will not alleviate the problems Portland faces. The team built around the dynamic backcourt, the average wings and the shaky interior is a team that has gone too small.
All of which is to say, the Portland Trail Blazers need Taj Gibson.
Not likely via trade. The Chicago Bulls would likely ask for at least a first round pick (if they cannot get more than that, they might as well keep him, which by all accounts they intend to do anyway), and the last time the Blazers traded a first round pick for a rental of a veteran, the player involved, Arron Afflalo, walked four months later. That is only ever worth it if a team is on the cusp of true contendership, and at 9-9 (and a rather underwhelming 9-9 at that, with some big losses and bad losses to poor opposition), the Blazers are a long way from this.
However, Gibson is a free agent this summer, and although he will be 32 by then, he still has a lot of offer. Gibson is a legitimate and efficient post option, a player who can defend both bigger interior players and perimeter bigs on switches, while helping with the scoring load and the offensive versatility. He is solid and fits into both conventional and small-ball profiles. He is not a star, never will be, and never was. He also won't solve the "Mason Plumlee as the best big man" problem. But in providing a bit of everything up front, Gibson is everything the Blazers need.