By Andrew Cutler
The Portland Trail Blazers’ huge offseason spending quickly changed the tone of discourse surrounding the 2015-2016 surprising upstarts. Ignoring the limited roster turnover and choosing to focus on the bloated salaries, expectations were irrationally raised for a flawed roster with the cap figure of a win-now team.
Despite sitting eighth in a downtrodden Western Conference playoff race, Portland retains a negative net rating and a record below .500. While the offense has taken a slight step forward, Portland’s defense has been a historically bad debacle through 30 games. The league’s worst defense doesn’t get any better upon adjusting for the quality of the offenses they’ve played.
For all the fanfare that went with a playoff series victory, last season’s Trail Blazers had a bottom-10 defense. With significant roster holdover, it should be little surprise that they’ve struggled defensively. Perhaps some continuity could have driven internal improvement but Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum remain a small, defensively challenged backcourt and Mason Plumlee has limitations as a defensive anchor. Any of the hoped-for benefits of continuity from last season’s competence hasn’t eventuated despite the similarities in Portland’s scheme.
With the exception of Terry Stotts’ first season in charge, the Trail Blazers have implemented a conservative defensive system throughout his tenure. For the majority of this season, the Blazers continued this method of hanging back against big-small pick-and-rolls, trying to force ball-handlers away from the middle of the floor (or away from their strong-hand in middle ball-screens where you’ll hear the Blazers call ‘WEAK!’). Broadly speaking, such a system is commonplace across today’s NBA. The aim is to concede midrange jump-shots in exchange for limiting the need to make flying weak-side rotations and give up juicy 3-pointers. By keeping your biggest players near the basket, rim-protection should be enhanced too.
Glance quickly at some Blazers data and the scheme would appear to be functioning reasonably well. Although the Blazers have forced few turnovers (another long-term trend under Stotts), they’ve managed to restrict opponent 3-point attempts at a top-10 rate and gifted very few corner-threes in the process. Teams have shot poorly in the restricted area, with Portland registering a top-5 mark that sits amongst the likes of the Utah Jazz and Miami Heat, both sporting behemoth defensive centerpieces. To Mason Plumlee’s credit, although he remains a poor defensive rebounder and not an enormous deterrent, he has done a reasonable job when contesting shots within 6 feet.
Dig a bit deeper though, and you’ll find a few skeletons in the closet. Portland is allowing more field goal attempts in the restricted area than last season, regardless of how poorly teams are shooting when they get there. Moreover, teams aren’t settling for as many mid-range jumpers and are continuing the early season trend of feasting on non-restricted area in-the-paint shots. Generally, such efficiency on those attempts is reserved for only the league’s craftiest scorers, yet opponents are making a preposterous percentage of these dead-zone looks.
This bizarrely persistent trend is indicative of some of the deeper ill that is crippling the Blazer defense. Whilst the bigs drop back, helping to corral pick-and-roll ball-handlers, it remains the job of the guards to continue chasing so as to keep the action contained as close to two-on-two as possible.
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As offenses have become increasingly familiar with this type of coverage, they’ve developed common strategies to counter. Big men flipping screens at the last second so as to drill the on-ball defender attempting to keep the ball on one side of the floor is one example. Where previously on-ball defenders were free to force ball-handlers in one direction and not have to negotiate a screen, they are increasingly encumbered by a flipped or angled ball-screen. Still, the best defensive guards in the league don’t get screened, getting into the ball-handler and winning the foot race around and over the screen.
Portland’s small guards, particularly Lillard, struggle in this regard. While Lillard carries an enormous offensive burden, he shouldn’t be immune from criticism for his defensive woes. His compliance with the defensive scheme is inconsistent. Here, Lillard’s job is to keep Teague out of the middle of the floor in accordance with Plumlee screaming ‘BLUE’ (Portland’s call for their conservative ‘ICE’ coverage) but that falls by the wayside:
Few guards smash into as many screens as Lillard does on and off the ball. He has a tendency to die on screens or take wildly adventurous paths in an attempt to avoid contact altogether. Although hiding places can be found, Lillard is too regularly beaten back door off the ball, where he can be spacy and out-of-stance:
While there is room for debate as to the value of point-guard defense relative to other positions, the point-guard remains one of five players involved in a defensive integration. In this example, Lillard’s job (guarding Emmanuel Mudiay) is to tag Nikola Jokic as rolls down the lane, yet he offers only an arm after Moe Harkless and Plumlee deal with the initial action. Although not always necessary or ideal, committing a third man to the pick-and-roll in this situation is required, particularly when guarding a non-shooter like Mudiay:
McCollum does a better job getting up and into the ball-handler and complying with the scheme but he’s still undersized as a two-guard. The overpriced and so far disastrously paired combination (Stotts subs them in together ritualistically) of Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner aren’t defensive aces either. Tinkering with the rotation has not generated many answers either.
When you’re over a third of the way into the season, significant schematic changes on the fly, without practice time, is akin to clutching at straws. Some exchanges between Blazers’ big men and the coaching staff has seen some subtle stylistic changes in recent games. In response Stotts has, on occasion, had his bigs more freely blitz or hedge against pick-and-rolls.
The slight change in strategy has bared little fruit with the Blazers continuing to defend at about their season mark during this period. There’s a reason teams have generally shifted away from these sorts of styles, as they tend to induce rotations, leaving defenses vulnerable to unveiling the most efficient shots. Smart teams will recognize that two-players have committed to the ball-handler, throw the ball ahead of the trap (also known as ‘shorting’) and take advantage of the ensuing 4-3:
Worse still, attempting to implement a scheme that requires sophisticated off-the-ball rotations can be tricky and requires perfect execution. Miami’s championship teams of the early part of this decade honed their aggressive defense over a number of seasons with a team of exquisite athletes. This Blazers team doesn’t have those luxuries.
Step one to blitzing a pick-and-roll is to force the ball-handler to use the screen. There is no help if he is able to reject it. Another example of Lillard’s failure to execute and the Blazers’ general defensive malaise:
Although never a complete shift, the brief toying with a more aggressive pick-and-roll strategy has tempered in recent games. Sometimes the best solution is to continue with the plan and just execute better. This may particularly be the case for the Blazers.
Prior to the season, Portland anticipated starting Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward. Aminu has appeared in just 12 games and the Blazers’ preferred line-up of Lillard-McCollum-Harkless-Aminu-Plumlee has played just 127 minutes thus far. That unit crushed in its brief showing last season, and although the sample is small, has defended at a level commensurate with a top-10 defense this season.
Aminu, the victim of early season calf and back injuries, gives the Blazers greater flexibility, and presents more options for Stotts in terms of hiding places for Lillard. The Harkless-Aminu pairing in particular generates a great deal of switchability. With that pairing, the Blazers still struggle on the glass but temper their foul rate whilst conceding a more palatable shot profile. The increased freedom to switch (something Stotts has not be afraid to do in a variety of circumstances) should help to alleviate some of the issues the Blazers have had guarding stretchier big men. Given the awkward roster construction, featuring a multitude of bigs who are ostensibly best deployed at center, Aminu is quite comfortably Portland’s best option at the four. A high degree of tick-tac-toe, seamless switching is unlocked with Aminu in the line-up:
There’s more room for optimism when looking at the numbers too. Portland opponents are on fire from three. This (along with the non-restricted area paint attempts) might be expected to regress somewhat over the course of the regular season. The best form of 3-point defense is prevention of attempts and the Blazers do a solid job in this regard. The inclusion of Aminu should solidify Portland’s perimeter shell and lessen the frequency of frantic and misguided rotations that give up some tasty looks:
Some have posited that the Blazers will seek a trade in an effort to sure up their defense. This is tricky on a number of levels. Firstly, many of their potential trade pieces, including Crabbe, Harkless, and Meyers Leonard, won’t become trade eligible until Jan. 15. Similarly, McCollum isn’t tradeable until Jan. 27. Secondly, there’s the question of how many teams around the league would view many of the Blazers players, at their salaries, as assets worth acquiring. Turner and Crabbe both appear overpriced and Leonard has been inconsistent since returning from shoulder surgery. Harkless has been a lone, shiny bright spot in an otherwise expensive offseason. Trading him to cure other ills would be unpalatable. Others have written about the interesting case of trading McCollum but with the quality of the mooted names available, he doesn’t make much since either.
A monster defensive center would certainly help the Blazers but is there anything out there that really makes sense? Perhaps more realistically, Portland should sit tight, hope to tread water in a debilitated bottom-half of the Western Conference (although Denver is closing with a new and improved line-up) and await Aminu’s return where a truer reflection of their standing might start to show.
There’s little doubt that the road to relevance for this team involves improving the defense to pair with the already sparkling offense, but at this stage that path isn’t quite clear.
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