The peak-and-valley weekend of the Portland Trail Blazers is indicative of the current state of the team. The Blazers have enough potential to not only beat one of the premier teams in the league like the Spurs, but to really pile it on in the process. Unfortunately, this goes hand in hand with their ability to drop a game to the 22-42 Hornets on a Ryan Anderson and-1.
Grady O'Brien | Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 10:30AM
The constant this weekend (and throughout the season, for that matter) was a sub-par defense. The Blazers rank 25th in defensive efficiency, giving up 105.6 points per 100 possessions. Even in the 30-point crushing of the Spurs, they had a defensive rating of 110.9. Post that number while Wes Matthews is lighting up the corners and Damian Lillard is showing off his Rookie of the Year credentials and you’re a hero. Average that over a season, however, and they call you the Bobcats.
While Coach Stotts will use zone on certain possessions and out-of-bounds plays, the Blazers main defensive scheme is a strict man-to-man. The term “strict” applies in the sense that very little switching is ever planned and help during on-ball screens is quick, aggressive, and then abandoned. This, however, tends to leave the on-ball defender vulnerable if he does not take the right path through the screen and can be even more troubling off the ball where very little hedging happens and defenders can get lost in multiple screens while a big sags back off his man.
Take this play from the Spurs game on Friday night. Below, Kawhi Leonard has caught the ball for what ends up being an isolation.
Notice how three Portland defenders are across the lane and the closest, Lillard, is in the worst position for help. If Leonard were to drive left and beat Batum, it is unlikely that any Blazer would be able to contest in time without committing a foul. Leonard pulled up and hit a jumper, though an argument could be made of that shot being the best outcome.
Breakdowns on pick-and-rolls were more evident against New Orleans on Sunday. Here, Greivis Vasquez is running the second pick-and-roll action of the possession.
The position J.J. Hickson holds in the photo is the farthest point out he came to hedge, which proves a problem. As Matthews follows his defender, committed to getting over the screen and staying with his original man,he runs into Hickson.
You don’t need me to tell you that this is a problem. Vasquez would get into the lane and pull up uncontested as both Batum and Lillard looked on.
Better rotations and help defense could have potentially caused the ball to be kicked out and reversed back in Anthony Davis’ direction.
Another troubling aspect of Portland’s defense is how many opponent shots come at the basket. Portland has ceded the third most shots in the restricted area to its opponents this seasons. The Blazers have held them to a slightly below average shooting mark from that area, but this is still a 60 percent shot that opponents are getting more than a third of the time. We can also break this down individually. Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard have given up the third and fourth most shots in the league in the restricted area to their opponents, respectively. For perspective, first and second on that list are Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis of the esteemed Bucks backcourt.
Sifting through this information and drawing conclusions can be difficult. Can we attribute all the blame for these shots solely to Batum and Lillard? Maybe not. As the screencaps show, and as most season-long observers have witnessed first-hand, the Blazers defense can bleed at the back line when Hickson plays. Though he has relatively quick feet, he’s not much of a shot blocker and his hedging and rotating abilities are severely lacking. In a defensive system which places a premium on a strong hedge and recovery, Hickson’s efforts amount to laying down a red carpet to the semi-circle.
There are certain bright spots to how the Blazers have defended thus far, mainly in their ability to limit other high-value shots. They have kept their opponents from launching corner threes, giving up the fourth fewest attempts in the league. They also are contesting the ones they do concede, holding opponents to 35.7 percent, well below the median of 39 percent. Add in that they’ve kept their opponents off the line (0.25 opponent Free Throw Rate, 0.27 is average) and the Blazers appear to have a solid grasp of efficient defensive strategy. Hopefully going forward they can execute more effectively in pushing opponents away from the rim and improve their defensive ranking in the process.All stats courtesy NBA.com