When you win 49 games, claim a Northwest Division championship, feature one of the NBA’s most dynamic backcourts and boast one of the top 10 defenses in the NBA, it doesn’t make sense to reinvent the wheel – no matter how badly things unraveled in the playoffs.
But as the Blazers opened training camp Tuesday afternoon at their practice facility in Tualatin, their coach and franchise cornerstones also pledged to unveil a series of new wrinkles and schematic adjustments this season designed to boost their success.
“I think (Stotts) has got a lot of stuff up his sleeve this season …” CJ McCollum said, grinning.
Stotts and his players were tight-lipped about the details of their pending changes – Stotts said the casual fan might not even notice them — but they will impact both offense and defense and affect player rotations.
On offense, the Blazers are expected to use fewer post-ups, shoot more three-pointers and try to create more fast break chances.
On defense, they will stick to their core principles, focusing on protecting the rim and swarming the three-point line, as part of a system that is conservative by design. But they also hope to mix in more switching and apply more ball pressure to force turnovers and disrupt defenses lulled to sleep by their risk-averse system.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in mind thinking about how the season ended and what we have to do going forward, what my message is going to be for the team, how much we’re going to change,” Stotts said. “How much do you change and how much do you keep things the same? You’ve had success, you want to keep things fresh, but you don’t want to reinvent the wheel. That’s one of the things that I’ve kind of – I don’t want to say struggled with – but at least had in my mind. I do want to keep things fresh with our team.”
So how much will be fresh? Stotts estimates that roughly 20 percent of the Blazers’ system will be new. As part of the purge, he’s retiring one of his favorite and longest-used plays, a set he didn’t name that was the first he installed after being named coach in 2012.
“I probably should have done it a couple years before,” he said, chuckling. “I held on to it.”
Many of the looming tweaks will involve rotations and personnel. The Blazers’ bench, of course, will feature a new core, thanks to the departures of Ed Davis, Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton. So Stotts’ rotation will look significantly different as he incorporates Seth Curry, carves out a larger role for Zach Collins, expands the responsibilities of Evan Turner and ponders playing time for the rest of a group that includes Wade Baldwin, Meyers Leonard, Nik Stauskas, Caleb Swanigan and Gary Trent Jr.
But there also will be tweaks for All-Star point guard Damian Lillard and backcourt mate McCollum. The last three years, McCollum has served as the Blazers’ de facto backup point guard, taking the reins on the second unit when Lillard rested. But on Monday, Stotts said McCollum will initiate the second-team offense less and run around screens more this season. Similarly, Lillard said Tuesday that he expects to play off the ball more than he has in recent seasons, a tactic that not only will offer a different look but also spare the All-NBA performer from the mental and physical wear and tear that comes from directing the offense.
“I think it’s something that I want to do,” Lillard said. “It’s really hard for 82 games to have the ball, making plays and scoring against five people. Having all the eyes on you; it’s hard and it takes a toll on your body. It wears you down. Not that I’m not up for that challenge if that needs to happen. But if there’s other ways for me to be affective and other things that I can do to take that pressure off myself and also possibly be more productive, more efficient, then I’m open for that.”
In one scenario, Lillard and McCollum would both play off the ball and let Turner run the offense, a move that would lessen the burden on the Blazers’ stars and offer a new look in a new set.
“It’s small things — stuff like that — that could really help,” Lillard said.
So why make changes? And why now?
Well, there of course was that playoff sweep against the New Orleans Pelicans that exposed many of the Blazers’ warts. Also, there are those 12 consecutive playoff defeats. But, Stotts insists, these adjustments have little to do with playoff failure.
The Blazers finished last in the NBA in both assists (19.5 per game) and fast break points (8.4 per game) last season. Some of the changes are designed to shore up those weaknesses, others to stimulate new creativity and fresh flow.
“I don’t want to overreact to the New Orleans series,” Stotts said. “I think we have to look at it objectively with what we did throughout the whole year and go from there.”
This is merely part of the organic evolution of a team and a staff that has spent years together. Stotts said he and his coaches regularly collaborate on adjustments, both big and small, and Lillard said it’s common for he and other players to suggest tweaks. Some of the new changes, in fact, stemmed from impromptu conversations at the practice facility over the summer, when Stotts, Lillard and McCollum would shoot the breeze following individual workouts.
Sitting in courtside seats, the trio would talk about sets or situations and debate tweaks and counters, with Lillard suggesting one thing, McCollum suggesting another, and Stotts, eventually, inviting them to his office to watch film and expand their talks.
“It’s like the old stories of being at a bar and getting a napkin out and drawing plays on napkins,” he said. “That’s part of the fun of coaching, whether it’s with players or coaches.”
As for his coaches, in addition to ideas stemming from coaching meetings, Stotts and his staff spent time this summer watching video of opposing NBA teams and even European clubs, looking for concepts and actions to steal and cater to their personnel.
Change is coming to the Blazers, even if you don’t recognize it.
“You go into every season analyzing what you did the previous year, what worked, what didn’t work,” Stotts said. “You look at some of the things that we did well or didn’t do well and try and figure out if we can get better at it.”
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