Apr 15

In McMillan's System, Possession Is Nine-Tenths Of The Law

By caseyholdahl Posted in: BrandonRoy, Mavericks, Suns, Blazers, AndreMiller, MarcusCamby
There’s a difference of opinion regarding the worth of particular statistics that seems to manifest itself more frequently as what many refer to as “advanced statistics” find their way into the mainstream. The back-and-forth goes something like this:

“Old school” broadcasters or journalists use an “old school” statistic to support a particular notion, e.g. Mike Breen says the Portland Trail Blazers are a good defensive team because their allow the fewest points against in the league.

This prompts a “new school” journalist or blogger to chide said “old schooler” for drawing a conclusion that, according to the “new schooler”, is specious based on the information given, e.g. John Schuhmann of notes on twitter after Breen’s comment that points allowed, in the case of the Trail Blazers, is irrelevant regarding whether Portland is in fact a good defensive team. He goes on to suggest that points per 100 possessions, an advanced statistic, is a better indicator.

In this case, Schuhmann has a point. The Trail Blazers play at the slowest pace in the league, as in, games featuring the Blazers result in the fewest possessions per game on average, which leads to Portland being ranked first in per game statistics like opponent points and opponent rebounds or near the top of the league in other statistical categories like turnovers per game.

But there’s also something Schuhmann (and possibly Breen for that matter) might be missing. While it’s true that the Trail Blazers do play at a slow pace which results in their per game statistics being skewed, that ability to play at a deliberate pace is in and of itself a significant achievement and, in Portland’s case, an important element of both their offensive and defensive game plan.

The concept that drives Nate McMillan’s offense is not difficult to grasp. Also doesn’t mean it’s easy to implement or execute or that it’s guaranteed to always work. It remains a work on progress to this day. But when it comes to distilling the ethos of what McMillan has been preaching to his players during his five years in Portland, only five words are necessary to get the point across: play early or play late.

“We say play early or play late,” said McMillan, “and what we mean by that is we want to play early in the shot clock. If we can get the ball up the floor in two to three second and go inside to a penetration or postup, that's what we want. If we don't have that, then we want to set and run our offense and play from the inside out.”

As of games played on March 28, the Trail Blazers ranked last out of 30 teams at 90.2 possessions per game. To compare, the Golden State Warriors use 102.8 possessions per game, the fastest pace in the league. Despite their slow place, the Trail Blazers rank 20th in scoring at 98.2 points per game, hardly what one might describe as a high-powered offense, but still notable when you consider they’re scoring more than ten other teams in the league despite playing fewer possessions. And what’s more impressive is their +3.4 point per game differential, good for 11th in the league. What does this all mean? Even though they play slow, the Blazers still manage to put up points and, most importantly, more than their opponents. Those who follow the NBA closely know these things about the Trail Blazers, but what gets lost in the numbers is just how difficult it is to implement a system that values possessions above all else.

It’s tricky playing early or late when your opponent refuses to do the same, as many of them do. Teams like the Suns, Nuggets, Warriors and Kings like nothing more than to get teams playing at their pace, which is something the Trail Blazers have had difficulty with in past season.  

“You get drawn in as opposed to sticking with what you do,” said McMillan. “You get caught up in playing their style of basketball because you're going to get some open looks. It's an easy game to play, as opposed to attacking the basket and putting pressure on their defense. If you work a little longer, set a few more screens, you'll get an even better shot than maybe that first shot you get.”

But in 2009-10, the Trail Blazers, more often than not, have imposed their pace on the opposing team, and with positive results.

Getting teams to play at their pace is one of the Trail Blazers’ keys to winning ball games. In games played through the month of March, the Trail Blazers averaged 89.4 possessions per game in victories, which is 0.8 possessions less than their season average. In losses, however, the Trail Blazers average 92 possessions per game, which flies in the face of the notion that Portland would be better off playing at a faster tempo.

One of the greatest challenges for McMillan as it pertains to his system is fighting some of the basketball instincts of his players while still utilizing their talents. From a young age, players learn that scoring is good. Scoring fast is even better. But when you’re trying to run a possession-valuing system, you sometimes have to reprogram the way your players think about their place in the offense and the importance of every defensive series.

“These guys got here because most of them can put the ball in the basket, not because they were defending the ball,” said McMillan. “They normally had somebody on their team who was defending for them. Most of the NBA is made up like that, so you need a guy like a (Marcus) Camby that guys can feed off of who is defensive minded, who plays and takes that end of the floor very serious just as most of the NBA take the offensive floor pretty serious.”

The addition of Camby has dramatically improved the Trail Blazers’ defense, though the number of possessions per game in the 21 games Portland has played with Camby in the lineup is slightly higher than their season average. But there is another way to look at it: In the 19 games that were played between Camby’s first game as a Trail Blazer on Feb. 19 to the March 31 game against the Knicks, Portland has forced opponents to play fewer possessions than their possessions per game average all but once (e.g. when the Blazers beat the Mavericks 101-89 on March 27, the game ended with 90 possessions per team, well below Dallas’ season average of 94.8 possessions per game). The one outlier was an overtime game against the Bulls, which makes sense considering there were an extra five minutes worth of possessions.

While McMillan picked Camby out as one of the reasons for Portland’s improved ability to control pace, Brandon Roy credited both Camby and Andre Miller with being able to calm the team both emotionally and strategically.

“Teams make runs and we look around and nobody even panics,” said Roy. “I'm looking at Camby and Dre and it's like, let's settle down, let's continue to stay tight defensively. On offense, let's run when we can and then let's set up in the half court. A lot of that has to do with Dre, the point guard, because he's kinda going to be the guy who dictates the tempo. He does a good job.”

Having veteran players who understand the importance of pace gets you ahead of the game in Portland’s system, but it’s not necessarily a prerequisite for success playing for McMillan. Simply having guys who are willing to execute their role on both ends of the floor, whether or not they fully understand the implications, will do.

“Regardless of the players you have out there, if you execute (the system) then you can accomplish that goal with the five guys that are out there,” said McMillan. “So I think we've been more disciplined in sticking with the game plan as opposed to getting away from it and just jacking up quick shots.”

That discipline doesn’t always come easy. And at time this season, it hasn’t. But through ridiculous adversity, the Trail Blazers have stuck to the game plan. Play early or play late. Value every possession. Avoid turnovers like grim death. The adherence to these basic tenets is one of the driving factors in Portland’s 50-win season and a first round matchup with the Phoenix Suns, the fourth fastest team in the league in regards to pace.

Getting a team to play disciplined, slow paced basketball is not easy. It’s not a brand of basketball that is particularly exciting. Players are often times reluctant to accept it, which can be damning in a league where players often wield more power that their coaches. It can be hard to get the best athletes in the world to slow down, but that’s what McMillan and his staff have done. That on its own is worthy of praise.

(Thanks to and John Hollinger for the use of their statistics)


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