For years under former Head Coach Terry Stotts, the Portland Trail Blazers were perceived as a potent offensive team and their regular season offensive ratings consistently ranked towards the top of the league. Due to their offensive stability and consistency throughout numerous regular seasons, Terry Stotts gained the reputation of being a great offensive mind. Although Portland’s offensive system contained many flaws that would often come back to bite them, its deficiencies were masked by their offensive ratings and sometimes commendable regular season records. Despite a stagnant style of play that didn’t emphasize unselfishness through passing and ball movement like a lot of elite offenses do, Portland was still able to produce at high rates offensively, mainly due to the tough shot making abilities of several players and the brilliance of superstar guard Damian Lillard. Unfortunately for Portland, Stotts’ offensive system, which was commonly referred to as “Stottsfense”, had its limitations and these flaws were exposed annually once postseason time came around.
Throughout the tenure of Stotts, Portland was notoriously one of the worst teams in the league when it came to ball movement. Over time, their style of play became extremely pick and roll dependent and isolation heavy. Along with a lack of ball movement, player movement and cutting were also rarely featured in the offense, which made it very predictable at times. Many of Portland’s offensive sets and actions were also stagnant and weren’t doing much to catch defenses off guard. In each of the last 6 seasons under Stotts, Portland finished 24th or lower in passes per game and rather than improving in this regard, the issue continued to get worse. In the past 2 seasons (2019-20 and 2020-21), Portland ranked last in the league (according to NBA.com) in total passes, assists per game, and potential assists per game. When it came to isolation possessions Portland was first in frequency this past season and second the season prior. In the 2020-21 season, they also took the most contested shots out of any team, had the least amount of paint touches, the least number of dunks, and were towards the bottom of the league at creating corner three-point shots.
Why did these flaws in the offense matter if their regular season offensive ratings remained good to great every season? That’s a question that many people bring up, and a common counter argument that supporters of Terry Stotts made for years. In the past 7 seasons, Portland ranked 2nd, 9th, 6th, 11th, 15th, 3rd, 3rd, and 2nd in regular season offensive rating. This led many to believe that Stotts should be praised for his offensive system. The reality is that teams with elite shot makers who can hit difficult shots on a consistent basis can get away with that style of play in the regular season, but the playoffs are often a completely different story.
Offensive systems and gameplans that lack variety, diversity, and creativity usually won’t be exploited throughout an 82-game regular season for various reasons. These reasons include the fact that many rebuilding/non-playoff teams have no real motive to employ detail oriented defensive gameplans for a regular season game, teams don’t have extended periods of time available to them in the regular season to specify gameplans for a certain team on their schedule, and regular season defenses are simply much more forgiving than playoff defenses. Once playoff time comes around, a predictable style of play, such as the case under Terry Stotts becomes unsustainable. As defensive pressure ramps up, the intensity is on a different level, defensive schemes/gameplans are more specific with the intent of stopping a particular team or player, and game to game adjustments are being made. When the ball isn’t moving and players within an offense are stationary, the defense doesn’t have to make many rotations and their job becomes easier.
For years, Stotts relied on players such as Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and LaMarcus Aldridge to spearhead offenses by taking and making tough shots. To a lesser extent, he also needed role players such as Carmelo Anthony, Anfernee Simons, and Nicolas Batum to do the same thing. Very often, players were forced to make something out of nothing to bail out the lack of structure within the offense. Running a system that relies on tough shot making, doesn’t involve unpredictable wrinkles such as player movement and cutting, and puts significant pressure on Lillard to make nearly everything happen out of pick and roll and isolation when playoff defenses are keying in on him. This is not a recipe for sustainable success in the postseason and Portland learned that the hard way over the years.
The set of data above is a statistical depiction of how Portland’s offense fared in the regular season compared to the postseason for each of the past 8 seasons. Based on this data, it’s very apparent that their offense took a step back in almost every postseason relative to how they performed in the regular season. Most of the time that step back was a significant one. It’s important to note that regular season offensive rating is ranked out of 30 teams, while playoff offensive rating is ranked out of 16 teams. The only postseason where Portland improved offensively from the regular season was in the 2020-21 season, when a historic series performance from Damian Lillard propelled their 2nd ranked offense in the regular season to 1st in the postseason.
The 2020-21 postseason was only a 6-game sample size for Portland and the offensive rating was more indicative of the individual brilliance of Lillard rather than the effectiveness of the system. Lillard performed at historic levels from a standpoint of scoring and playmaking while carrying the offense on his back. On top of that, Denver’s playoff defense wasn’t impressive. They didn’t have the personnel to contain Portland’s guards, especially Lillard. If Portland had matched up with a better defensive team with more capable defensive personnel, their offensive system would have likely been exposed once again. Outside of this outlier, the postseason results of Portland’s offenses under Stotts were consistently unimpressive and clearly indicated that his system did not provide a sustainable means of offense for playoff success.
The playoff series that really epitomized the flaws in the offensive system and the way the team was coached, took place in April of 2018 when Portland took on the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round of the playoffs. Portland was the 3rd seed with home court advantage, going up against 6th seeded New Orleans and were viewed as the favorite to win the series. Unfortunately, their offense that season ranked in the bottom three in passes, last in assists, and essentially prioritized a one-on-one play style. Just a month prior to the series, Trail Blazers GM Neil Olshey told Scott Cacciola of the New York Times that Terry Stotts firmly believes that the first good shot on a possession is the best shot. Ultimately, their play style came back to haunt them as they got swept by New Orleans in humiliating fashion and had no answer to the defensive intensity and pressure that New Orleans presented them with. New Orleans smothered Lillard with extremely high levels of defensive attention, gave him little space to work with, and forced the ball out of his hands by making him navigate through traps and multiple layers of defense. Portland was unable to devise a game plan to produce quality shots and offensive production. The predictable nature of the offense allowed New Orleans to dedicate all their attention towards Lillard and sometimes CJ McCollum and shut down the offense as a result. This series should have served as a wake-up call to make sweeping changes to the offense in future seasons, but unfortunately this never occurred. The same issues continued to plague Portland for several years afterward.
For Trail Blazers fans in hopes of change as it relates to the offensive system, the arrival of new head coach Chauncey Billups should lead to some renewed optimism. During his lone season as assistant coach of the Los Angeles Clippers and his time in Portland so far, Billups has preached the importance of ball movement, player movement, and turning good shots into great shots. In an interview during a summer league game, Billups expressed his desire for Portland to create more corner three-point shots (the best 3-point shot in basketball), by playing with great pace and space, driving, kicking, and getting more paint touches to break down the defense. Billups also said previously that the only way to turn good shots into great shots is through ball movement and unselfishness. His comments about looking to fully utilize the playmaking ability of Jusuf Nurkic, spreading the playmaking duties around to several players to take some pressure off Lillard, and running Lillard and McCollum off the ball, are all causes for optimism. Based on all indications so far, it seems like Billups is set on implementing an offensive system that is sustainable, effective against upper echelon defenses, able to maximize the talent on the roster, and translatable to postseason success. For a team that has been plagued by many of the same issues for years, it seems like Chauncey Billups could be the right man for the job and has the potential to help turn things around.