There is perhaps no more valuable commodity in the NBA at the moment than space. The best offenses go all out to manufacture it, flooding the floor with as many shooters and playmakers as possible in an effort to stretch point-prevention units to their limits. Top defenses, meanwhile, do everything in their power to erase it, employing a diverse range of schemes in an effort to throw scorers off their respective games.
This season, no offense has compelled opposing defenses to ramp up their aggression more than that of the Portland Trail Blazers. Using the Aggression+ metric that Krishna Narsu and I created last season, we can see that the Blazers’ 2020-21 opponents have collectively used the fourth-most-aggressive defensive schemes of the Second Spectrum era, which spans eight years and 240 team-seasons.
It’s not at all difficult to surmise exactly why opponents feel so threatened by the Blazers’ scoring potential that they employ more and more aggressive tactics. Portland’s offense is spearheaded by six-time All-Star point guard Damian Lillard, an MVP candidate working on his second consecutive season averaging about 30 points and eight assists a night.
In the modern NBA, few discrete actions are as threatening as a Lillard pick and roll. The Blazers have scored an average of 1.253 points per possession on trips that include a Lillard ball screen, per Second Spectrum’s tracking, the third-best mark among the 63 players who have worked off at least 500 screens so far this year.1 It’s no wonder, then, that Lillard and the Blazers have faced the most aggressive pick-and-roll defenses in the NBA, with opponents using coverages that are generally 5 percent more aggressive than the average team in the league this season.
Specifically, Blazers opponents have blitzed pick and rolls2 13 percent of the time this year, more often than opponents have blitzed any other team’s ball screens during the player-tracking era. It’s the culmination of a long-running trend that’s seen the Blazers register three of the mere six seasons on record in which opponents have blitzed at least one-tenth of an offense’s pick-and-roll plays.
How, then, have the Blazers — and Lillard specifically — managed to find such success running the pick and roll when opponents have been so hell-bent on shutting it down? And how did they manage to maintain that efficiency even with their second- and third-best players (CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkić) sidelined for two months apiece?
Mostly, they have counteracted these defenses by moving Lillard’s pick and rolls higher out on the floor than ever before. According to Second Spectrum data provided to FiveThirtyEight, the average ball screen set for Lillard during the 2020-21 season to date3 has come 28.9 feet away from the rim. That’s farther away from the basket than the screens set for any player with at least 500 picks received in a given season — not just this season, but at any time during the player-tracking era.
|2020-21||Damian Lillard||Trail Blazers||28.9 ft|
|2019-20||Damian Lillard||Trail Blazers||28.0|
|2018-19||Damian Lillard||Trail Blazers||27.7|
|2017-18||Damian Lillard||Trail Blazers||27.2|
To get an even clearer idea of just how rare it is for a player’s screens to be set this high on the floor, it’s helpful to look at how far away from the rim the average Lillard screen has been set compared with the average screen for the entire league, throughout the eight-year period during which the league has used the optical tracking cameras. The Blazers have always set Lillard’s screens farther from the basket than the average ball screen leaguewide, but the rate at which they have moved Lillard farther out has rapidly exceeded the rate at which the league as a whole has moved its screens away from the rim. (More than three times as quickly, in fact.)
While it may seem counterintuitive to move the action farther from the basket in order to create better scoring opportunities, it actually makes sense for the Blazers — and specifically for Lillard. Very few players attempt deeper threes than Lillard, and nobody is better at making the deepest of those shots. Per Second Spectrum’s tracking, only 10 players have attempted at least 300 shots at least 28 feet away from the rim during the player-tracking era. Not only has Lillard attempted by far the most of any such player,4 he’s also the only one with an effective field-goal percentage better than 50 on those attempts.
Lillard’s dynamism from deep is largely why defenses feel so compelled to blitz his pick and rolls — even all the way out on the floor. When Dame can be merely a step or two over half-court and stick a dagger in a dropped-back defender’s eye, what other choice do opponents have?
But Lillard isn’t solely a pull-up artist. No matter what coverage opponents throw at him, Dame has an answer. He sports a delightful array of maneuvers — hesitation dribbles, crossovers, step-backs, snakes, dime-stops, up-fakes, rescreens, in-and-outs and a whole lot more — that allow him access to every inch of available hardwood, each of which he is uniquely dangerous from because he can create every kind of shot under the sun, whether for himself or a teammate.
He’s deadly with a midrange pull-up and a dynamic finisher at the rim, whether over, around or through contact. He’ll reliably draw the attention of all five opposing defenders and snap a pass to an open shooter in the corner (nearside or far) or on the wing; and he’s just about as willing to drop it off to a short-rolling big man, kickstarting a sequence of passes that ends with someone else earning the assist.
All of this makes Lillard — and by extension, the Blazers — damn near impossible to stop. The mere threat of Lillard sniping from long range so warps opposing defenses that even across 25 games with both of his stellar sidekicks sidelined, the Blazers sautéed those units to the tune of a 118.5 offensive rating — a per-possession scoring rate as good as what the league-best L.A. Clippers offense has posted on the season as a whole.
That searing offense is what kept the Blazers afloat with McCollum and Nurkić out. It’s what has them occupying the sixth seed in the Western Conference, 3.5 games clear of having to once again try their luck in the play-in tournament when the playoffs roll around. It’s what they’ll once again need to rely on when they actually get to the postseason, given their significant defensive deficiencies. As constructed, the best way for the Blazers to win games is to simply outscore teams. Luckily for them, they have Lillard leading the way.
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