The Portland Trail Blazers have long had a strong duo in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. But can Larry Nance Jr. be their missing link?
Earlier this offseason, the Trail Blazers acquired Nance in a three-team sign-and-trade deal that sent Derrick Jones Jr. to the Chicago Bulls and Lauri Markkanen to the Cleveland Cavaliers. When most people saw the transaction, they likely first thought about the implications for Markkanen. After all, the Finnish-born 24-year-old was selected in the lottery by the Chicago Bulls just four years and he is a seven-footer who can absolutely stroke from beyond the arc.
But the addition of Nance for Portland may end up having a bigger impact than anything else that happened in the trade. Nance was one of the most impactful and most versatile defensive big men in the league. Almost no player at his position records steals more often and he is also constantly among the league’s leaders in hustle stats like deflections.
However, it is his passing that stands out as the biggest addition for Portland.
As noted by Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes, Nance is the only active big man with a career steal rate above 2.5 percent and a career assist rate above 11.0 percent. Here is what John Hollinger said of the transaction at the time (via The Athletic):
“He makes a great offensive partner with Lillard in particular, as Nance is a top-notch passer who excels making plays out of traps and “short rolls” – something that happens often with bigs playing with Lillard.”
Under former head coach Terry Stotts, the Trail Blazers ranked last overall in total passes per game both last season and the season prior. They finished with the worst overall mark in assist percentage in 2020-21 and in the year before as well.
Chauncey Billups, who will take over for Stotts as head coach, has stressed that Portland will increase its ball movement next season.
Nance, whose assist percentage has ranked in the 80th percentile or better among players at his position in each of the past three seasons (per Cleaning the Glass), can play a huge role in that mission. Dan Devine offered some context (via The Ringer):
“Nance is a canny passer, dishing assists on just over 15 percent of his teammates’ baskets in that three-season span; only a dozen bigs have boasted a higher assist rate in that stretch. He’s a ball mover with good touch and vision, capable of finding shooters in transition, making high-low feeds to the paint, feeding the post, operating as a dribble-handoff hub from the elbows, and acting as a release-valve option on the short roll in the screen game.”
The big man is someone who can provide a ton of value as a playmaker in pinch post actions. His passer rating ranked as one of the three best on the Cavaliers. But he was never able to truly maximize that role during his time in Cleveland due to the personnel that surrounded him.
For example, during the past couple of seasons, Collin Sexton was the player who most frequently finished possessions playing the two-man game, often running dribble handoffs with Nance.
Unfortunately, however, Sexton averaged 0.62 points per possession on dribble handoffs in 2019-20. That actually ranked as the worst overall mark in the NBA among the 79 players who finished at least 35 opportunities on these actions, per Synergy.
Larry Nance Jr. told me that he hopes to "play the Draymond Green role" on the Blazers.@Larrydn22: "There’s only one Draymond Green. He's ridiculously talented, and I think the world of him and his game. I try to model myself in that mold." https://t.co/dfep3mKlYQ
— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) September 27, 2021
Nance set Sexton up, sure, but the guard was unable to knock them down.
But that likely won’t be as big a problem on Portland. He recently told Alex Kennedy why he thinks he will take another step forward as a playmaker next season (via Basketball News):
“I’m thinking more so about playing hand-off ball in Cleveland and I got to do a lot of that with the guys I played with there, but it’s just a whole different layer of difficulty to guard when you’ve got Dame and CJ flying off that thing. I’m just really excited to see how we work together. … I’m excited for the DHOs, the handoffs and just being able to impact the game without being required to have the ball so much. Everybody has a skill set and that is not mine, so it’s great to be around guys that do have that in their skill set.”
Even before Nance’s arrival, Portland had no trouble scoring on their dribble handoff actions. McCollum (2.2 ppg), Lillard (2.1 ppg) and Norman Powell (2.0 ppg) each finished among the six most prolific scorers on handoffs in the West, via Synergy.
Similarly, among all teams in the Western Conference, only the Golden State Warriors were more efficient on all handoffs than the Trail Blazers were (1.00 PPP) in 2020-21. Golden State’s appearance atop that particular leaderboard is no coincidence considering that three-time NBA champion Draymond Green anchors the handoff actions for the Warriors.
Even as far back as during his rookie campaign in 2016, Nance declared himself a point forward and he has consistently compared himself to Green.
Watch what Lillard was able to do when he played alongside Green for Team USA at the Olympics this past summer:
— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) July 11, 2021
Nance’s comparison to Green is not just entirely self-serving, though.
As recently as earlier this year, for example, coach JB Bickerstaff (who worked with Nance on the Cavaliers) told Cleveland.com that he believed the former Wyoming standout could “help facilitate more” and that he “has the same skill set” that allows Green to become a playmaker in broken floors.
Nance can make similar reads whenever he catches the ball on the perimeter. Whenever his sharpshooting teammates Lillard and McCollum to sprint his direction before he can dump it off.
The big man has legitimately impressive court vision for his position and should be a legitimate asset for an offense that has historically struggled with ball movement. His presence should be an overwhelmingly positive one for Portland so long as he stays healthy.