When it's really clicking, few offenses look prettier than that of the Portland Trail Blazers. Head coach Terry Stotts' "flow" system requires all five guys on the floor to be in near-constant motion, with the smalls running off an unceasing wave of screens both on and off the ball and the team's bigs transitioning seamlessly from setting flares to operating in pick-and-rolls. The ball swings from side to side, shooters slide from one passing lane to another, and then, provided everything is in its right place, things come together to produce an open catch-and-shoot jumper or a dump-off to a dunker or an easy pull-up.
"I'd like to think that, when we run a set that has some movement, every option is a live action," Stotts says. "You set a flare and a re-screen and a pin-down, and any one of those things may come open. But you also have the opportunity, if something else comes open, to take advantage of that."
The system revolves around the twin talents of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, the NBA's splashiest backcourt duo outside of Oakland. (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson finished first and second in threes made last season; Dame and C.J. were fourth and ninth. They're seventh and fourth, respectively, as of Wednesday morning.) Either Lillard or McCollum can be the point guard on any given possession, while the other flits around off the ball seeking an opening, or just enough attention from a help defender to create one for someone else. On the Blazers' best possessions, the ball starts with one of them and eventually winds up in the hands of the other, who has room to attack a defense in crisis because it's suddenly had to shift its focus from one premier scoring threat to another almost 50 feet across the floor.
The man primarily responsible for connecting one side of the offense to the other—and one star guard to the other—is center Mason Plumlee. He's one of just eight big men in the league to have run at least 75 pick-and-roll plays with two different partners so far this season, per privately provided SportVU data, and he ranks third on the team in touches per game. One of the most common sights in any Blazers game is Plumlee receiving a pocket pass from one of the two guards while moving toward the rim, then navigating a four-on-three against the defense, Draymond Green–style. It's a situation Stotts implicitly trusts his center to handle.
"He can be [a connector]. There have been a lot of games where we play through him out on the perimeter," the Blazers coach says. "Because generally he has a center guarding him, so him being involved in pick-and-rolls where they trap Dame or C.J., now he becomes a facilitator also. If we have him with the ball, we have off-ball screens, he can make passing plays and passing decisions. We've got a lot of good shooters. If you can pull a big man away from the basket—sometimes you do it with shooting ability, but with his passing ability I think that opens up as well."
Fans who watched Plumlee play for the Nets between 2013 and 2015 could be forgiven for not seeing this coming. "In Brooklyn, when I picked I always rolled hard. And then I would play along the baseline a lot. I was more of a finisher, whereas now I'm more of a facilitator," Plumlee says. "It's just different—catching the ball in different spots on the floor. I'm definitely being utilized more to make decisions in this offense, for sure."
Stotts, who says he didn't get to see much of Plumlee while he played for the Nets, didn't know the center had this kind of skill in him, either, until he arrived in Portland prior to last season. The Blazers were scrimmaging during training camp, and Plumlee pulled down a board, brought the ball from end to end, put it behind his back, and dished to a teammate for a basket. The team was transitioning from one era to another and needed players to step up and try new things in order to have a functional offense. Plumlee suddenly looked like someone who could do just that. "Last year, obviously, was a season where we wanted to expand players' roles and see what they were able to do and not limit them," Stotts says. "And so that was something that we saw right away."
Being put in those positions paid off in big ways. Plumlee had the single largest increase in assist rate from the 2014-15 to 2015-16 seasons, and this year he's taken it a step further. Among NBA big men, only Draymond Green is averaging more assists per game than Plumlee's 4.5. Plumlee also joins Green as the only bigs averaging at least six assists per 36 minutes or assisting on at least 25 percent of their teammates' baskets while on the floor. (This fact perplexes even Plumlee himself. "Is that right? I didn't know that," he says when I tell him he now ranks among the best passing bigs in the league.) The only forwards averaging more assist opportunities per game, per the SportVU data on NBA.com, are LeBron James, Green, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Al Horford, and Jimmy Butler.
Add it up and, after a first act in which he was asked mostly to dunk, Plumlee has shown that he's capable of making all the passes anyone could want from a contemporary big man, even in the space of one game. The back door, the dump-off, the kickout—everything.
This would be a huge boost to the Blazers if Plumlee was just a skilled passer, but he's not. He thinks his way through all this stuff, right down to the way he sets his screens, which he says he does differently for Lillard and McCollum.
"Because Dame comes off with a little more speed. And then also depending on the time of the game you set the screen different. Or based on the coverage. It's a lot of things that go into it. Like if they've been dropping the whole game and we just need to get a shot off late in the clock, I might just hold the screen and not even roll—just to make sure there's no rearview contest. If it's early in the game and the guard's fighting over, I might hit and go. You've just got to keep 'em guessing and have different reads."
That attention to detail has taken Plumlee's screen-and-roll game to a new level this year. Per the SportVU data, there have been 55 two-man combinations across the league involved in at least 75 pick-and-rolls so far this season. The Lillard-Plumlee pick-and-roll has generated the third most team points per play out of those 55 combinations; the McCollum-Plumlee pick-and-roll is 26th and just 0.07 points per play away from cracking the top 15. How big an improvement is that over last year? In 2015-16, there were 51 two-man combinations that were involved in at least 400 pick-and-roll plays; Lillard-Plumlee ranked 25th in team points per play and McCollum-Plumlee ranked 32nd. So yeah, it's a sizable jump.
Plumlee has a simple explanation for the increased efficiency. "I have improved," he says. "But more so [it's been] opportunity. The best way to improve is through opportunity. It's been there, and it's made me a better passer."
With defenses keying so much of their attention on the Blazers' star guards, the opportunity certainly has been there for Plumlee to blossom. He has, and as a result he has become as much a foundational piece of Portland's offense as anyone not named Lillard or McCollum. And considering the Blazers' general defensive deficiencies—with the exception of a hot stretch in February, they've been dreadful since the start of last year—having the offense humming at peak efficiency is of paramount importance.
That makes Plumlee a key cog in the machine, both now and in the future. With the Blazers having in excess of $129 million in committed salary already on the books for next season and Plumlee set to hit restricted free agency at the end of this year, keeping him in town could get a little tricky. Paul Allen and Neil Olshey already paid Meyers Leonard; Ed Davis is under contract through next year, Noah Vonleh is still on his rookie deal, and they have Festus Ezeli on a non-guaranteed pact for next season as well. Plumlee isn't worried about what may happen over the summer. "They've just put me in a good position out here," he says. "As to a contract, I can't speak to that. I just know that we are improving together."
The key part of that improvement, arguably, is that it's happening "together." The Blazers will likely have to make some changes to get where they want to go; there's simply not enough defense on the roster, as currently constructed. Until that happens, they're going to need to outscore teams while playing enough D just to get by. To do that, their offense will need to operate at peak flow. There will need to be waves of screens and sliding shooters and flares and pick-and-rolls. The ball will need to swing quickly and easily from side to side. And in order for all the moving parts to lock into place, the Blazers are going to need their connector.
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