August 13, 2018, 12:59 pm
During a sprawling, at times self-serving interview with team reporter Brooke Olzendam late last month, Neil Olshey justified the willful departure of Ed Davis by recalling the Portland Trail Blazers’ widespread struggles in first round of the playoffs. To be clear, no single player shoulders more of the blame for Portland’s embarrassing sweep at hand of the New Orleans Pelicans than any other. Its failure was the result of a bad matchup – created by the season-ending injury to DeMarcus Cousins and the Pelicans’ subsequent trade for Nikola Mirotic, completely changing their team-wide dynamic on both ends – that maximized existing weaknesses of Olshey’s roster while minimizing its strengths.
If there’s an on-court takeaway from that series that deserves to loom largest going forward, it’s the Blazers inability to open up the the floor for Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Facing a defense that readily committed two to the ball in pick-and-roll situations while help defenders sagged off awaiting shooters to protect the paint, Portland lacked the collective skill level necessary not only to take advantage, but also force New Orleans to change its approach. Case in point: Not including Lillard, the Blazers shot an ugly 32.2 percent on 3-point attempts taken without a defender within four feet, according to NBA.com/stats.
Time and again, there was no where for Lillard to go when he turned the corner around a pick. When they weren’t forcing the issue, splitting traps at the point of attack or pulling up for three several feet behind it, the only option available to Portland’s playmakers was finding a perimeter release valve – normally the likes of Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, Moe Harkless or Pat Connaughton, players the Pelicans welcomed launching away from deep, especially compared to the imminent prospect Lillard and McCollum finding a groove. New Orleans mostly refused to give either of the Blazers’ star guards breathing room away from the ball, too.
In the clip below, from the early stages of Game 2, Jrue Holiday face-guards Lillard on the strong-side wing as McCollum operates a high ball screen with Davis. After Ian Clak=rk recovers to the ball in rear-view pursuit and Mirotic retreats back to a rolling Davis, keeping the defensive string taut, McCollum’s only outlet is a pass to Aminu, who lifts from the corner above the break in hopes of avoiding the endless reach of Anthony Davis.
The shot goes in, but that successful result belies the fickle nature of its process. Even after a career year from three, opponents will be happy to concede a contested triple from Aminu at the right wing if it means slowing down Lillard and McCollum. Portland needs its role players to knock down jumpers, obviously, but won’t go anywhere meaningful this season or beyond should the difference between winning and losing boil down to that proposition more than any other – even after bringing in true marksmen Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas.
There’s only one Anthony Davis, of course, and Holiday is one of the most disruptive defenders of opposing guards in basketball. It would be remiss to discount the contributions of Mirotic, too, who fared far better corralling Lillard and McCollum as a ball-screen helper than anyone could have anticipated. But New Orleans gave the rest of the league a replicable blueprint for how to defend the Blazers regardless, a factor that could prove the difference between them making the playoffs for a fifth straight season and sitting at home come playoff time in a laughably loaded Western Conference.
The splashy free-agency addition many Portland fans expected never materialized. Portland used its first-round pick on a teenager, and let a massive trade exception – championed by Olshey as a viable vessel of player acquisition as recently as June – expire without anything to show for it. Any prospective team-wide improvement in 2018-19, then, will inherently stem from additional continuity and individual strides taken by incumbents.
Zach Collins probably isn’t ready to take on the latter responsibility all by himself. The 20 pounds he’s added since the beginning of last season are indeed a step in the right direction, but didn’t make much of a difference at Summer League, where he averaged just 8.0 points per game on 40.8 percent shooting. He was pushed off the block by bigger defenders, couldn’t find much traction attacking off the dribble and took just four 3-pointers in six games. Collins’ defense was typically stellar, with effective verticality at the rim, consistently early off-ball help and impressive switching ability, but any notion that he’d be a panacea for what plagued the Blazers against the Pelicans on the other end vanished in Las Vegas.
That’s the thing about bigs with Collins’ emerging offensive skill set, though: They don’t necessarily need to put up big numbers to make a big impact. The same can’t be said, at least to a similar extent, for Davis or Jusuf Nurkic. The former attempted just eight shots outside the paint last season, while the latter, despite taking an easy career-high 19.1 percent of his field goals from mid-range, connected on a middling 37.9 percent of those attempts. Nurkic missed all seven of his long-range tries, too.
Collins’ 3-point shooting ability, at least based on last season, is more theoretical than functional. He shot 31.0 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie, 17th-worst among the 206 players who hoisted at least 3.5 triples per-36 minutes, per NBA.com/stats. Making just 64.3 percent at the free-throw line doesn’t inspire much confidence in his jumper, either. Still, Collins has natural touch, good footwork and a quick, repeatable stroke. Olshey has talked a lot this summer about Collins re-distributing his shot selection to put a greater emphasis on the interior, but doing so wouldn’t just make Collins – and by proxy, the Blazers – easier for the opposition to stop; it would also mean a lion’s share of his minutes come at center, at the expense of Nurkic, who won’t exactly be happy sitting on the bench after inking a new $48 million contract in July.
Despite re-committing to Nurkic, Olshey, thankfully, hardly seems married to the idea that Portland will reach its ceiling with him manning the middle. In fact, the Blazers’ head decision-maker is embracing the possibility his team will be at its best with Collins standing tallest in a more modern look up front – the same one New Orleans has adopted long-term after playing its best basketball of the season with Davis at center.
“When you watched what Zach Collins did in Summer League, when you watch some of the issues in the playoffs we faced in terms of spacing, in terms of floor balance,” Olshey explained in July, “because of the style of play Ed plays, it put us in a position where you watched Dame get blitzed in pick-and-rolls when he shares the floor with guys. And we needed to add more shooting, more floor spacing, more playmaking out of that position. So, Ed was great, and we talked about it. During the regular season it was phenomenal. We ran into a really tough matchup in the playoffs. They blitzed every pick-and-roll; it essentially took Nurk out of a lot of the series as well. And we really felt like we needed to move on and get guys that can play a style where they can attack switches better in the low post, they can stretch the floor and shoot the ball when Dame’s blitzed if guys aren’t going to rotate to the rolling or popping or fading big.”
Nurkic can only pop so far, and, as fans know all too well, lacks the vertical oomph necessary to finish through a crowd while diving to the rim. Davis’ offensive utility was essentially limited to crashing the glass, setting good screens and occasionally hitting the weak-side shooter after catching on the roll. Collins, meanwhile, has the length, athleticism and all-around ball skills to be among the league’s most dangerous ball-screen partners…eventually. He must continue tightening his jumper and filling out his body to make good on just a sliver of that potential, let alone all of it.
The Blazers understand that Collins’ won’t develop into such a force overnight. Nurkic would already be playing elsewhere if that wasn’t the case. For now, though, Terry Stotts can take comfort from the knowledge that juicing a stagnant offense might be as simple as inserting Collins in Nurkic’s place alongside his incumbent starters. During the regular season, opponents are far more likely to defend a player based on his longstanding reputation than recent results, and Collins has “stretch five” written all over him. Even if his jumper isn’t falling at first, basically, it’ll be awhile before defenses adjust. The big-picture pitfalls that plagued Portland offensively against New Orleans won’t in 2018-19 with Collins at center, assuming marginal improvement since last season.
Look at all the extra floor space playing him next to four capable shooters provides.
None of this is to suggest that Nurkic becomes a bit player; odds are he notches far more time at center than any of his teammates. When the opponent downsizes, Stotts might often opt to put Aminu and Harkless up front while leaving Collins on the bench, affording him an easier opportunity to play three guards, best utilizing the construction of his roster. Collins, after all, played 27 total minutes at center across the regular season and playoffs in 2017-18. Earmarking even just 10 minutes a game for that lineup configuration would be a major, major departure from the norm.
But it’s not like Portland has much to lose, either. This team was exposed in the playoffs, and unfortunately, not by an outlier; the entire league is trending the direction the Pelicans found themselves heading after Cousins’ injury. The Blazers’ status quo, it should be obvious by now, won’t be anywhere close to good enough. Does that mean making Collins a full-time five is the answer? Hardly. There isn’t one that will fix all of the issues facing Portland ahead of its most important season in years, but the speed and extent of Collins’ development at center might be its next best thing.