After a disappointing start to their season, the Portland Trail Blazers caught fire after the All-Star Break. Resembling their old selves, when they were one of the NBA’s more enjoyable teams to watch during a surprising 2015-16 campaign, they finished this season on an 18-8 run, just enough to get them into the playoffs.
Then the Golden State Warriors happened, and now, four games later, Portland finds itself on vacation.
The Warriors, with or without Kevin Durant, can bring any team to its knees. But the nature of the sweep also underscored the problem the Blazers need to address: Their offense — led by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum — too often looks like a modern-day version of NBA Jam, where two players are scoring in dazzling fashion but aren’t doing much else.
The notion of two guys taking over an offense isn’t unusual; especially in the playoffs. Everyone knows Lillard and McCollum can score. They combined for 50 points per game during the regular season, and exceeded that output against Golden State in the first round. Lillard and McCollum exit ranked ninth and 13th in usage rate this postseason, respectively, and make up one of four duos whose players are both among the top 20.
But the other pairings who have this big a combined role in their offenses (LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland; John Wall and Bradley Beal in Washington; and Dennis Schröder and Paul Millsap in Atlanta) are more versatile. With McCollum and Lillard each standing only 6 feet 3 inches tall, defending is often a challenge, regardless of how much effort they put forth. And perhaps their most eye-opening problem was on display against the Warriors, when Lillard and McCollum struggled to find ways to involve their teammates.
They combined for just 4.3 assists a game this series, an alarmingly low total for players who combined to take 58 percent of the team’s shots when they were on the court together. McCollum’s one assist per game in the series is the lowest rate in NBA postseason history by a guard who averaged at least 20 points per game,1 according to Basketball-Reference.com’s Play Index.
Lillard had more success sharing the ball but could also end up making history. Prior to this postseason, no pure point guard2 had ever averaged 20 points per game in the playoffs while finishing with so few assists.3
Some of this stems from Portland’s style of play. Whereas many teams have sought to replicate Golden State’s and San Antonio’s quick-ball-movement styles, the Blazers’ guards are often content to dribble the air out of the ball. As such, opponents are able to load up on Portland’s star scorers and try hounding them into poor shots or hurried passes4 without fear of the other players hurting them.
All things considered, Portland was solid offensively in one-on-one situations during the Golden State series. But the frequency with which they relied on isolations — a whopping 49 percent of Lillard’s shot attempts came after he’d possessed the ball for more than 6 seconds, up from 39 percent during the regular season — wasn’t ideal and made for too much standing around.
This isn’t to say that Portland’s cornerstones deserve all the blame. Jusuf Nurkic’s injury, which happened right before the playoffs, largely prevented them from taking advantage of another option on offense, one who also would’ve protected the rim for their 21st-ranked defense5. And forward Evan Turner was signed to help relieve the ballhandling burden Lillard and McCollum face, yet he can’t adequately draw help defenders and get teammates open by shooting 36 percent, like he did in the first round.
Yet Turner is part of the team’s biggest issue: Portland may be stuck with this roster for the time being, given how much money it committed to free agents last season. Aside from Turner’s shocking $70 million deal, the team also agreed to a $75 million pact with wing Allen Crabbe and a $41 million one with big Meyers Leonard — deals that may ultimately prove to be too rich for the production the club is getting in return6. The Blazers now own the third-biggest payroll in the league, without a clear way to join the West’s elite.7
As for Lillard, he said on Monday that he’d love for his team to be able to play with the same sort of belief Golden State does. “For us, we look at them and you don’t want to say, ‘Do what they do,’ but you want to have that cohesiveness and that understanding and that effortless flow to the game,” Lillard told reporters shortly after his club was eliminated. “You want to have that and that trust that they have with each other. You want to have that with your team.”
Trust or not, the issues in Portland are clear: Lillard and McCollum are extremely talented but have gaps in their game, and Portland has too much salary on the books to easily retool the way its roster looks. Without resolving one of those things, it’s hard to see how the Blazers join the Western Conference’s elite, let alone become the next version of the Warriors.