Lillard, Aldridge and Blazers defiantly winning with their brand of basketball

AldridgeLillardSH1Portland is a unique, interesting and unconventional city to say the least. That unique and unconventional nature extends to their basketball team, where the Portland Trail Blazers are winning games at a high rate doing things their own way.

While the league is trending toward discouraging players from long two-point shots, Portland embraces it. Portland plays their starters more than anyone else, hit more threes than anyone else and lead the league in free throw shooting. Is their defense lacking? Sure, but the surprising Blazers have the fifth best record in the league at the 50-game point in the season. And they’re not here to apologize for the way they play.

The Blazers shoot the 6th most shots between 15 and 19 feet, with the 5th best field goal percentage, and the most shots between 20 and 24 feet, with the 6th best field goal percentage from that distance. But Portland wants to be considered a championship contender, so we’re going to compare them to Indiana, Miami, Oklahoma City and San Antonio, the only four teams with better records than the Blazers. Do other teams take as many long two-point shots as Portland?

In short, no.

16-24 feet (NBA rank)AttemptsFG %% of shots
Pacers789 (13)43.9 (2)20.34
Heat633 (25)41.7 (8)17.15
Thunder711 (21)43 (4)16.9
Spurs758 (15)40.2 (13)18.44
Blazers941 (2)43.6 (3)21.85

 

To this point in the season, Portland took more than 150 shots from between 16 and 24 feet than any other legitimate championship contender. They hit the shot at the second best rate in the league, which shows what they’re doing is working, but drives and shots closer to the basket, or further away for a 3-point shots, could lead to more efficient and better results. Nearly 22 percent of Portland’s shots are from the range, a really high percentage that is more than 4.5 percent more frequently than Miami takes its shots and nearly 5 percent more than the division rival Thunder.

So can the Blazers consistently win and make a deep playoff run with this kind of shot selection?

“The short answer is yes,” said Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “I think we’ve taken advantage of the skill-sets we have, and we have very good shooters, mid-range and 3-point shooters. I think it’s very hard in this league to get quality shots, and if we can get open 15-to-18-foot jump shots I think that’s a great shot for most of the guys on our team.”

One guy who embraces the long two more than anyone else in the league is LaMarcus Aldridge. The Blazers forward is having a great season that has him in the MVP discussion, and the 16-to-24 footer is his signature shot. Aldridge has taken 427 shots from between 16 and 24 feet this season, according to NBA.com. The next highest attempt total from that distance belongs to Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, who has taken 297, an astounding 130 shot differential between one and two.

Aldridge Chart 2/7/14

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Our best player, that’s one of his favorite shots,” Portland All-Star guard Damian Lillard told Sheridan Hoops, referring to Aldridge, who almost never shoots threes. “And he makes it at a high rate, so we’re happy with that.”

Portland leads the NBA in scoring at 107.7 points per game, so they must be doing something right. They’re one of the most unique teams in the league statistically, as evidenced by the following chart comparing them to the aforementioned contending quartet of Indiana, Miami, Oklahoma City and San Antonio.

Top 5 Teams (NBA rank)FT AttemptsFT %3-pointers made3 FG %Bench MinutesBench Points
Pacers23.3 (15)78 (6)6.9 (21)35.1 (18)15.6 (24)25.8 (27)
Heat23.7 (12)75.8 (17)8.1 (11)37.1 (9)18.5 (8)30.9 (18)
Thunder24.4 (9)80 (2)7.2 (18)35.4 (15)18.6 (7)32 (16)
Spurs19.8 (30)77 (11)8.1 (11)39.3 (1)21.4 (1)44.6 (1)
Blazers23 (17)82 (1)9.4 (1)38.2 (2)13.5 (30)22.8 (30)

 

The first two columns show the teams’ number of free throw attempts and their free throw percentages. Portland has the best free throw percentage in the league, but are in the middle of the pack in attempts. This is, in part, due to all those long jumpers the Blazers take instead of driving to the basket. Interestingly, only OKC is in the top 10 in free throw attempts among contenders.

Damian LillardHitting threes don’t seem to be an enormous priority of any other contender but Portland, who hit the most threes while knocking down treys at the highest rate in the league, save for the Spurs.

Lillard and backcourt mate Wesley Matthews are both in the top 10 in the league in attempted threes per game and both players convert on over 40 percent of their 3-point tries, which is the benchmark for efficiency from beyond the arc.

Then we get to the prickly, touchy subject of the bench scoring. With so many older players in San Antonio, Gregg Popovich liberally uses his bench. And for all the stars the Heat and Thunder have, they’re still in the top 10 in bench minutes. Portland plays its starters for nearly 35 minutes a game without any reservations. Lillard, Aldridge and forward Nicolas Batum are all in the top-13 in total minutes played this season.

It could explain why Portland’s bench production is so poor – they seldom play, and the starters average nearly 85 points per game. And so the bench players are getting a little tired of people telling them how they’re not scoring enough.

“We’re averaging over 100 points, the starters are averaging 87 to 90 points per game,” Blazers reserve forward Thomas Robinson said. “That’s still top of the league in scoring, right? So if we start scoring, we’re gonna break some records, huh?”

Robinson’s point is that Portland’s bench isn’t brought in to score, but “to maintain the game,” as the former Kansas standout said. “We just try to go in and do what’s best for our team. And that’s rebounding, defending, if that’s what coach wants us to do, that’s what we’re going to do. I think the bench production has been very good, very complementary to our starters and we maintain the game and do our jobs. Our job is not to score.”

Then there’s the problem with the defense, which Lillard said needed to be more consistent. Backup guard Will Barton admitted to SheridanHoops on Wednesday that the teams that usually win championships aren’t the teams that score the most points during the regular season, but ones who can defend at a high level.

LaMarcusAldridgeSH1So can Portland’s high scoring, 3-ball and free throw making, low-percentage-shot-taking, defensively lacking brand of basketball be sustained for the rest of the season and for a deep playoff run?

Lillard was sure that Portland could make a deep playoff run the way they played. “We don’t look at the stats and say ‘we shoot a lot of these shots,’” he said.

“It’s been sustainable for 50 games,” Stotts said. “So I think the most important thing on offense, no matter what team you are, is taking advantage of the strengths that you have. And our strength is that we have very good shooters.”

The Blazers remain confidently defiant that they can win with what it’s doing, a style of play as unique and bold as the city of Portland itself.

Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for Sheridan Hoops who loves advanced statistics and the way they explain what happens on the court. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. His website is SprungOnSports.com. You should follow him on Twitter.

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