How Lillard and the Blazers found a brand-new ceiling

As the calendar flipped to 2018, the Portland Trail Blazers found themselves facing an existential crisis. They were barely over .500, the same place they had been stuck ever since Wesley Matthews' Achilles tendon ripped and LaMarcus Aldridge bolted. Their once-flowing offense had sunk to 27th in points per possession.

Something elemental was off, something beyond numbers. The veterans knew what it felt like when the offense hummed. It didn't feel that way anymore. It forced the level-headed among them to contemplate a worst-case scenario: What if the Blazers were just mediocre? What if they had capped themselves into oblivion to win 44 games every season?

Around that time, Terry Stotts, the team's head coach, gave his staff an assignment: Find out why the Blazers couldn't score anymore, and don't be afraid to come back with uncomfortable answers. "You don't want to just say, 'Oh, we are not making shots,'" Stotts says. "You can't give into that. You want to feel like you can make changes."

He wanted to investigate everything, he says: "Are certain passes not being made? Are teams guarding us differently?" Or worst of all: "Are we growing stale?"

That is the downside to roster continuity. The style that catches opponents off-guard in Year 1 -- as Portland did in rampaging over the second half of the 2015-16 season, its first without Aldridge -- is old hat two years later. The league changes fast. Staying the same is falling behind.

One discovery: When the Blazers arrived in Oklahoma City late on Jan. 8, about 27.5 percent of their shots had come from 3-point range, per Cleaning The Glass. Two seasons ago, that would have been acceptable -- below what Portland wanted, but around league average. That night, it ranked 24th, snug with the league's willfully retrograde franchises -- not enough for a team shooting a tidy 37 percent from deep to that point.

As the Blazers gathered for a team meeting at their hotel the next morning, Stotts mentioned the issue to the group almost off-hand: "We shoot 3s well," Stotts told them. "But we don't take enough. Let's take more." C.J. McCollum smiled and nodded at the thought of a greener light. "Oh, I have no problem with that," he recalls thinking. He glanced around to see if teammates had the same reaction. Stotts must have sensed the glee. "Good 3s, guys," he said. "Take more good 3s."

Since that morning, 33 percent of Portland's shots have come from deep -- the 10th-highest share in the league. Most of the jump has come via catch-and-shoot 3s, per NBA.com. A disproportionate number of those have come from the corners. Portland has effectively traded five or six mid-range 2-pointers per game for five or six 3-pointers.

That has been the biggest driver in Portland rediscovering its flow -- well, that and the very much intertwined development of Lillard going scorched earth. Portland ranks fifth in points per possession since early January. Only four teams -- Houston, Toronto, Utah and Philadelphia -- have a better scoring margin over that stretch. They have been a top-10 defense all season. They rarely lose at home. After a 13-game winning streak, they have solidified themselves as the third seed in the Western Conference. There have been whispers that the Blazers could push the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors in the playoffs -- or even upend the Warriors in the second round if Golden State is still banged up. That's a little much, but Portland's surge has real, long-term meaning.

Swapping five long 2s for five 3s on its own is not enough to vault any offense from the bottom of the league toward the top. The basic structure of Portland's offense is the same, but with some tweaks.

It started with finding ways to crack open a little more breathing space for Lillard. Stotts sprinkled in more "screen-the-screener" action; instead of a rote Lillard-Jusuf Nurkic pick-and-roll, a third Blazer picks off Nurkic's man in the paint, while the big fella is lumbering toward Lillard. If that screen hits, Nurkic's defender is stuck behind the play:

"We wanted to get a little more movement leading into our pick-and-rolls," Stotts says.

Here's Shabazz Napier nailing Montrezl Harrell ahead of a McCollum pick-and-roll:

They also started setting more double-screens for Lillard as he crossed midcourt -- a way to catch the defenders backpedaling early in the shot clock. Smush Lillard's man, and it's over:

Aminu has gotten good at idling in the shadows, and suddenly veering toward Lillard for a blindside pick in semi-transition:

Switch those plays, and Lillard goes to work against big guys. This is where you see Lillard's evolution into a different, meaner, more complete player. He has seen every defensive scheme, and run enough pick-and-rolls -- probably something approaching 10,000 -- to anticipate how all nine other guys will shift in response to what he does. He has mastered more dribble moves.

That combination of skill and knowledge transforms a player from reactor to manipulator. When Lillard finds a plodder in front him, he already knows what passes will be available after he blows by that sucker.

Since early January, Portland has poured in 1.2 points per possession anytime Lillard shoots after a switch on a pick-and-roll -- or passes to a teammate who shoots right away, per Second Spectrum tracking data. That ranks second, behind only Tony Parker, among all high-volume ball-handlers.

Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq-Aminu and Evan Turner -- yes, Evan Turner -- are feasting on drive-and-kick 3s. Aminu, long the team's bellwether, is up to 40 percent from deep. Turner is 24-of-60 since mid-December. Harkless has been even hotter.

Lillard and McCollum still control everything. That isn't changing. Even during their win streak, the Blazers assisted on only 52 percent of their baskets -- a mark that ranked 28th over that span. Only two teams toss fewer passes per game, and Portland's passing numbers actually dipped during their streak, per NBA.com. They are not becoming the Warriors.

But when they do pass, it is with more purpose and direction. Their offense had an aimlessness to it over the first 40 games. Everyone just kind of jogged around. "We were a little off," McCollum says. Missed shots bred frustration, and frustrated stars sometimes go it alone.

Portland is hunting particular shots instead of going through the motions. McCollum and Lillard are finding teammates in places where it is easy for them to attack. "We started delivering the ball more often," McCollum says, "and guys stopped second-guessing and pump-faking."

Catching the ball in an optimal situation empowers lower-rung guys to do more than shoot. Aminu and Harkless are driving with confidence again -- keeping the machine moving:

Before Portland's early January win over the Hawks, 252 players had finished at least 30 drives with a shot, drawn foul, turnover, or dish to a teammate who attempted an immediate shot, per Second Spectrum. Aminu and Harkless ranked 251st and 252nd in points per possession on their drives. It was as if they had no clue what to do. They have stabilized since.

Harkless is back to bullying little guys on the block when opponents hide weak defenders on him. More than that, teammates are looking for Harkless:

If there's a play that epitomizes Portland's resurgence, perhaps it is this bit of Lillardian insanity from his evisceration of the Lakers two weeks ago:

Lillard dusts Lonzo Ball with one righty dribble designed specifically to get Ball teetering away from Nurkic's pick, torches Brook Lopez with his pet lefty hesitation move, and ignites a drive-and-kick sequence that ends with him getting the ball back.

"Things just look better," Stotts says.

Even that paltry 52 percent assist rate represented an uptick from Portland's pre-January mark of 48.4 percent -- last by an embarrassing margin. "The assists were concerning," Stotts says.

They're up to 10 fast-break points per game in 2018, 26th in the league. That doesn't sound like much until you realize they were averaging 5.5 per game before Jan. 1, on pace for the lowest total in recorded league history. They are pushing the pace selectively, especially off steals, and finishing in transition.

They don't turn the ball over. They're getting one or two more shots at the rim, even if they still can't finish there. (Damn those Nurkic flip shots.)

Sometimes, improving from "last by a mile" to "below-average" in a bunch of categories is all it takes. Some luck helps, too.

Harkless was lost until Turner, then starting in Harkless' old spot, missed a few games. Stotts resurrected Harkless, and that has normalized Portland's rotation. The Harkless-Aminu pairing gives Portland its highest two-way ceiling. Turner is more useful as a ball-handler playing with one of Lillard and McCollum instead of both. Portland doesn't have to lean on its super-small Lillard-McCollum-Napier trio -- a look that has blitzed opponents, but might have a hard time sustaining against good teams.

Portland with Harkless starting is bigger and switchier on defense, and more balanced. The passing of the trade deadline brought Harkless -- and everyone else -- clarity and calm.

Ed Davis is playing like he did two seasons ago. Zach Collins is contributing more on both ends than anyone in Portland's brain trust imagined he would as a rookie. He looks like a future stretch center, though not soon enough for Portland to feel comfortable letting Nurkic walk in free agency this summer.

Nurkic is the keystone of their conservative, drop-back defense. His teams have always defended better -- and fouled less, a Blazers bugaboo before Nurkic arrived -- when he plays. With Nurkic lording over the paint, everyone else stays home on shooters; only three teams have allowed fewer 3s as a share of total shot attempts.

There is some regression coming. The Blazers have fattened up at home. Turner, Harkless and Aminu will start missing again. Portland is not in the same stratosphere as Houston or Golden State, and it doesn't project to be in the next two or three seasons -- Lillard's apex.

But that doesn't mean we should dismiss Portland as a cute mediocrity that got hot for a while. Before this streak, the Blazers' ceiling looked to be something like 45-win, first-round fodder. You don't pay the luxury tax for that. You don't even keep that kind of nucleus together long.

We can probably bump that ceiling up to a second-round playoff team that wins 48 to 52 games. Settle there, and you put yourself in position to do bigger things if one player pops, or a juggernaut postseason opponent takes an injury at the wrong time. That should be enough to quiet calls to trade McCollum -- calls the Blazers have never taken seriously.

That's probably still not worth paying the luxury tax. It's not enough for the championship-or-bust crowd. But it represents a damned good NBA team, one move away from developing into something more.

Portland with Aldridge almost randomly arrived at that "something more" stage in 2014 and 2015 -- an accidental, cobbled-together semi-contender. (It took a miracle heist of the pick that became Lillard, but still.) It never advanced to the conference finals, but it wasn't outlandish to envision it getting there and pushing someone.

Nail one more move -- or coax out some unexpected bit of internal development -- and maybe it won't be so outlandish in 2019 or 2020, either.