Editor’s Note: We are happy to have Seth Partnow contribute this incredible analysis to BBALLBREAKDOWN. Seth will contribute regularly here, so make sure to follow him @WhrOffnsHppns and on his own website: Where Offense HappensThe Portland Trailblazers have been one of the pleasant surprises of this season. With an all-NBA level season from LaMarcus Aldridge, second-year improvement from Damian Lillard and a fortified bench, Portland’s offense has been all kinds of spectacular. However, despite their gaudy early season record, the Blazers cannot yet be considered a true contender because of their defense.
After starting the season with a below average but not terrible defense, Portland’s D has slumped to 24th in defensive efficiency rating for the season, per NBA.COM. In fact, since mid-December, Portland is the 2nd worst defense in the league on a per possession basis. When searching for why this could be, the answer that makes the most sense is their perimeter defense. Certainly, their defense falls off when their bench comes into the game (especially their backup bigs – Portland is approximately 14 points/100 possessions stingier on defense when Lopez and Aldridge share the court than when one or both are sitting, per NBAwowy.com)
In terms of scheme, Portland is applying (and perhaps misapplying) analytics data to their defensive scheme this season. Head Coach Terry Stotts has talked about cutting down on opponent’s three point attempts and especially corner 3′s by rarely doubling the post and aggressively running guys off the three point line. Unsurprisingly, opposing post players do well, as Robin Lopez is often left on an island versus the Dwight Howards and DeMarcus Cousins of the world (Cousins in particular has feasted on Lopez in the post this season). This scheme also forces Lopez to contend with a constant stream of guards and wings driving the lane past aggressive closeouts. While he is very proficient at providing this help (he is among the better centers in the league in terms of protecting the rim according to NBA.COM’s sportVU data), it often leaves his man open for layups or other perimeter players wide open for threes.
Of course the benefits of this strategy were supposed to be apparent in preventing and defending the 3. Early in the season, Portland saw some of this benefit – they led the league in fewest 3 point attempts allowed. Further, they allowed the fewest higher percentage corner 3s, and for the first quarter of the season either through luck or good defensive execution, they were extremely good at defending the 3’s opponents did take. Through December 15th, they were 7th in the league, allowing 33.8% shooting from deep on a league low 16.4 attempt per game.
However, since that time, the Blazers have fallen apart as opponents are shooting just over 18 threes per game at just under 40%. Over the last 6 weeks, the Blazers have been the worst three point defending team in the league. At the same time, they’ve allowed the most shots at the rim of any team in the league.
They basically turn every opponent into a version of the “threes and drives only” Houston Rockets. And these problems all come down to one thing: their guards can’t stay in front of anyone. It’s not a question of effort, as their guys are playing hard, but through some combination of scheme and lack of lateral quickness, they have been turnstiles of late. The defensive failings fall into several basic categories:
CAN’T STAY IN FRONT OF ANYONE
The most obvious answer is often correct. In the case of the Blazers, their guards simply can’t keep their men from getting to the basket. Both Lillard and Williams are easy to put on skates, and neither is especially adept at recovering once beat, almost always sliding instead of turning and running.
Given the trouble both Lillard and Williams have containing the dribbler, Wes Matthews is often forced to check opposing point guards. While Wes is game for the challenge, he doesn’t have the lateral quickness to stay in front of the better PG’s in the game. Here, Denver Point Guard Ty Lawson crosses him over badly, and despite good help from Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge, JJ Hickson gets a layup:
The Blazers are dead last in the NBA in steals and their defense forces the fewest total turnovers in the league by a decent margin. Nobody on the team averages more than 1.0 steals per game, with only Nic Batum accumulating even that many. Despite this lack of pilfering skill, the guards often attempt to gamble for steals in pretty poor spots. For example, here Damian Lillard tries to pick the dribble of Randy Foye late in a one point game, and never gets back in front, allowing Foye a floater in the paint.
Note that once beat, Lillard never turns and runs to get back in position, instead trying to slide back in front, and in fact reaches AGAIN:
And while that was at least an attempt to make a big play in the backcourt, Lillard is also prone to the old “Olé!” as he demonstrates here against Norris Cole (especially bad because Portland had a foul to give at the end of the quarter):
CLOSING TOO HARD ON THE DOMINANT HAND
Making a right-handed player go left is often the best defensive strategy, but it can be taken too far. These guys are professionals, so they can still get to the bucket with their “weak” hand if you show them a straight line. Here, Wes Matthews overplays Wilson Chandler’s dominant hand so much that Chandler has a straight-line drive to the basket with his off hand:
While Wes tried to turn and run to recover, he’s beaten too badly to do anything but desperately attempt to strip Chandler on the way up as he elevates.
Here, Lillard does the same thing while trying to guard Reggie Jackson. It’s almost like he’s expecting to Ice a pick-and-roll but there is no possible help as the side of the floor is completely cleared out for Jackson:
PICK AND ROLL
Coach Nick is an evangelist for playing no middle defense on the pick-and-roll, and some of Portland’s struggles to contain the ball in this action demonstrate why. The Blazers almost never high hedge in the pick and roll, instead either having the screener’s man drop towards the elbow, or occasionally Ice side pick-and-rolls. This “vanilla” coverage puts a big onus on the man guarding the ball to fight over the screen and recover as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, Portland’s guards have a tendency to “cheat” towards the screen, allowing easy drives with no help possible, much like when they overcommit to the dominant hand. Here, Lillard sells out to try to beat Ty Lawson over the top of the ball screen, allowing Lawson to decline the screen and motor to the rim for an and-1:
Not all of Portland’s deficiencies against the PnR are caused by poor defending from the guards. Especially when Lopez sits, Joel Freeland is susceptible to defensive breakdowns. Here, Lillard properly forces Lawson away from the screen in Ice defense, but Freeland drops too low and allows Lawson to build up a head of steam and blow by him to the bucket:
For Ice to work the screen defender has to slow down the ball-handler. Freeland’s drop is so low to the basket he allows Lawson to attack him at a full sprint and gives Lawson the option of “snaking” under the screen. If you’re Joel Freeland, Ty Lawson is going to beat you to the basket if he has two possible paths of getting there.
NOT HELPING THE HELPER
Per 82games.com, Portland is being outproduced at only one position: Center. Despite Lillard’s play, the point guard edge in production is narrow. Much of the surprising lack of advantage in PG play is tied to Mo Williams (every bit as bad as Lillard on D, and not nearly as productive on O). But the problems at Center are not really Lopez’s fault. Some of it is by design as the Blazers are willing to let post players get off to some degree. A lot has to do with how much ground Lopez is forced to roam to cover for perimeter breakdowns. However, the help isn’t reciprocated. Here, Portland perfectly Ice’s a side pick-and-roll until Lillard gives up on the play and gives Lopez’s man a free run to the rim.
Here, Portland plays straight up on a side PnR (Portland only tends to Ice if there is a player in the strong side corner), Freeland actually contains the dribble very well, but Mo Williams simply stops, allowing Jeff Ayres a free roll to the hoop:
Here Williams and Thomas Robinson botch Ice coverage – Robinson allows Jack to drive and Williams reaches instead of recovering. Lillard is very late dropping off his man to pick up Lopez’s man at the rim when Robin steps up to contest Jarrett Jack’s drive:
And even when Portland does make a first rotation, this leads to the avalanche of high quality 3 point looks opponents have been getting of late – in their last 5 games heading into Wednesday’s contest with New York, Portland’s opponents are making over 9 threes per game, while shooting 44% from deep. That’s not good (3rd and 2nd worst in the league over that period). Some examples from that stretch:
Williams and CJ McColum botch a switch leaving Anthony Randolph a wide open corner 3 when Aldridge has to help at the rim:
Nic Batum gets beat off the dribble leaving Donatas Montejunas a corner 3:
Mo Williams gambles for a steal on pass away leaving Patrick Beverley and open corner 3:
And finally, Williams gets blown by on the baseline, and though the rest of the Blazers hustle hard to recover the ball swings to James Harden for the open 3.
So while Portland’s offense remains a thing of beauty, without substantial improvement in their ability to guard on the perimeter, they cannot be considered legitimate contenders for the title.