Defensive Questions

Over the last few weeks my inbox has gotten crowded with people asking various version of the same question:

What's going on with the Blazers' defense?  Why isn't it better?

Let's get into that a little.

First, some perspective...  I don't know a single person with any credibility who predicted the Blazers would be excellent in every aspect of the game this year.  The Blazers are scoring 99 points per game and rank second in the league behind the L*kers in offensive efficiency (points generated per 100 possessions).  They're really quite good on the offensive end considering their collective age and circumstances.  That means most nights defending well enough to win is good enough.  The 35-20 record matters far more than any misgivings about the defense right now.  It's working so far and that's the bottom line.

The issue comes when you start to project into the playoffs and then into subsequent seasons.  If the Blazers' defensive issues aren't resolved they aren't going to achieve sustained greatness.  I can't imagine a more dominant offensive power than the Phoenix Suns were in the middle of this decade.  They showed that you can't do it with offense alone. 

So then...let's look at the defense.

Painting with broad strokes, you can say that six factors determine defensive success:  anticipation, familiarity, the ability to impede, communication, commitment, and cohesiveness.  We'll run through each here.

Anticipation

Several attributes could fit under this category:  basketball IQ, court vision and perception, being a student of the game...whatever you call it, good defenders can't just react to their opponent, they have to anticipate.  A defender is at a serious disadvantage in every person-on-person sport because they don't control the means of attack.  The other guy has the ball.  He knows what he's going to do with it before you do.  You have to understand and anticipate what he wants to do in order to have any hope of stopping him.

The more basic the game the easier it is to anticipate the best course of action to take against your opponent.  In a schoolyard or rec league game the idea is usually to defend easier inside shots and take your chances with the opponent shooting from range.  If you get into organized ball you'll find yourself taking away an opponent's dominant hand or learning to read from his eyes or body motion whether he's going to shoot or pass, drive or pull up.  Most of the time you'll face opponents with dominant tendencies and limited skills, making it easy to read the situation.

The range of options open to a professional player based on their skills alone dwarfs any comparison to the above situations.  Factor in the complexity of professional offenses and you're literally playing a whole new ballgame.  Most of the volume scorers in the league can go right or left, pull up or drive, pass or shoot, and have a variety of hesitation moves, trick dribbles, feints, and disguises to mask their intentions.  Their teammates are also poised to support most or all of those eventualities and to take advantage of the opportunities they create.

Unless you've got one of the other attributes mentioned in spades--overwhelming athleticism compared to your opponent or great familiarity with him, for instance--you're probably going to look lost out there, guessing what he'll do instead of knowing or worse, reacting to what he's already done instead of being ahead of the play.

One of the first steps of good defense is learning to overcome the guessing game.  You have to know your craft, be mentally sharp, focus, remember what you've been taught, and apply it in unusual circumstances on short notice.

One of the problems the Blazers have right now is that some of their key rotation players either lack these attributes or don't come by them naturally.  Some were drafted incredibly young and never picked up fundamentals of defensive reading.  Some appear to lack the ability to focus or remember while under pressure.  For many defense was just never an issue. 

Look at the number of current Blazers who are former lottery picks and/or were drafted at a time when the franchise was suffering from a severe lack of talent and production.  What makes a lottery pick a lottery pick?  Hint:  it usually isn't defense first.  When you're drafting in the teens or higher you're looking at 20 ppg guys.  It's far easier to shore up a team that way.  A 20 ppg guy can still score 20 even if his teammates are lost causes.  A great defensive guy can defend his heart out all day but if the four guys beside him are schleps than his effort is completely wasted.  Simply put, you don't have a lot of guys on this team who made the league based on their defense.  They haven't exercised these mental muscles.

Some of the more alert, practiced, complete players compensate better than others but in general you're looking at a bunch of guys who are still thinking about what to do out there and reacting instead of anticipating and acting. Veteran, skilled offensive players will take advantage of that all night long, and they do.

At least half of defense happens in the head.  It takes time to wrap your head around the situation and then condition your body to follow.  Most of the Blazers aren't there yet so they don't defend well yet.

Familiarity

This is the second half of the mental equation.  Human beings perform better and more efficiently when they are in a comfortable environment, familiar with the task at hand, and practiced in accomplishing it.  Think of any time in your life where one of those three conditions was lacking.  How well did you perform?

Familiarity takes many forms.  We've already mention fundamentals of individual defense but there's also familiarity with the team's defensive concepts, teammates, opponents, referees, and the league as a whole.  How long do you suppose it takes even a great player, let alone an average one or one lacking in defensive credentials, to get accustomed in all of those six areas?  Even if you have the basic physical tools, have the mental capacity, the desire, and have excellent coaching it could easily take you a couple of seasons before you start learning how to face a Baron Davis or Chris Bosh...what they're going to do at what time of the game, what a foul looks like against them, and just how darn good and quick and big and deadly they are compared to anyone you've ever seen.

It's important to note how many of those six areas of familiarity can be coached and learned through practice.  Fundamentals of individual defense can be covered and the team's defensive concepts are presumably beaten into players' heads on a daily basis.  You might also gain some familiarity with teammates but it's not likely that everybody is playing in true game mode in practice, nor are you defending a real opponent in practice.

This is one of the great roadblocks to acquiring defensive familiarity:  you cannot pick it up outside of real games.  Offensive moves depend on you.  You can get in the post and practice a baby hook 6,000 times and that's going to at least roughly translate to what it looks like in a game.  Defense depends on other people.  The coaches can drill you in theory but they can't actually show you what it's like to defend a Kobe Bryant.  If they could they'd be making seven figures scoring 30 per night and not teaching knuckleheads.  Even if you draw your team's star every day in practice how hard is he going at you, especially since he's a vet who makes his bones (and needs his energy for) playing under the lights for real stakes?  And even if he does go hard most times, you get good at defending him, not your opponent.  The lessons can translate, but they're not the same.

So what elements are coachable and can be picked up in practice?  Individual fundamentals...yes.  Team concepts...yes.  Teammate familiarity...somewhat.   Opponent familiarity...no.  Referee familiarity...no.  League familiarity...no.  No matter what you do or how well-coached you are, you probably only pick up 35-40% of what you really need to be a good defender outside of real-game situations. 

The obvious conclusion is that in order to become a good defender you're going to have to get in some games, which means the team is going to have to suffer through your defensive learning curve in real games in the meantime.  This is why veterans who have gone through that learning period are valued over youngsters.

Only four of the top ten rotation guys for the Blazers have ever averaged 30+ minutes per game for a season.  Five of those guys have never averaged 15+ minutes per game.  Four of them have never played in this league at all, let alone with each other.  How much of a learning curve do you anticipate there might be for all of those things that only happen in a real-game environment?  What are we suffering through because of that?

The Ability to Impede

Anticipating and being familiar with what the defense should look like are the first steps to good defense but you also have to be able to have a physical effect on the play once you're in the right spot.  You can do this with height, quickness, skill, bulk, or strength depending on the situation.  If you're lacking in any of these areas you may not be able to cope.

Most of the Blazers are lacking in one or more of these areas.  In general the guards have height and some skill but not bulk.  The big men have height and skill as well but not enough quickness, bulk, or strength.  This is why you tend to see three things happening on defense:

  • The player doesn't get there in time (usually bigs)
  • The player gets there but just gets bowled over by the opponent (usually guards)
  • The player gets there but fouls instead of making a good defensive stand (everybody)

These things can be compensated for.  The better your anticipation and experience the quicker you become (in essence).  The older you get the more bulk and strength your body can handle and thus the better you're able to deal with contact.  The more fundamentals you have down the better you will be in getting to the spot and being effective once you're there.  

Once again we see the Blazers aren't there yet though.  Opposing scorers don't fear Portland players because Portland players don't have the physical presence that commands respect and don't have enough tools to compensate.

I think we also have to admit that there are certain players who will just never have the physical attributes to be good defenders.  We can live with a couple of those, but we sure can't compensate for them much at the moment.

Communication

Not all of defense is individual.  Nobody has eyes in the back of their head.  Teammates are responsible for helping each other see what's going on and what kind of defensive execution is necessary.  This requires constant communication.

The first element of that communication is vision.  As we just pointed out, most of our players are too young to have achieved that yet.  Many of them are still trying to figure out what they're supposed to do, let alone what everyone around them is supposed to do.

The second element of communication is familiarity and trust.  You have to have goodwill for your fellow players, understand what they need, give it to them, and know that will be reciprocated.  The Blazers almost certainly have the heart and desire to do that, but they don't yet have the familiarity with each others' needs and tendencies nor the trust in the greater whole.

The third element of communication is the guts to shout out, direct, take charge, and sometimes call to task.  This is the disadvantage of this team being built primarily out of a large group of peers.  You don't have that ultra-strong, smart, vocal presence shouting out what needs to be done or calling people to task when it's not.  You get sullen stares and disbelieving glances out there, but no true generalship.  There's not even a real forward personality among the bunch.

The end result is that too often communication is lacking.  Help isn't called for or the call isn't responded to.  Guards whack into picks that big men should have warned them about.  The strong side takes defensive actions that the weak side doesn't respond to.  One of the great joys of this season is watching a defensive scheme run correctly through multiple layers and rotations.  At this point it's a rare joy, however.

Commitment

To be a good defender you have to want to defend.  Defense takes more energy than offense.  You have to move all the time instead of picking your spots.  You have to be crouched down in uncomfortable positions.  You have to take and deliver blows.  You have to stay laser focused instead of standing in the weak-side corner waiting while other people play.  (Even if you're defending that weak-side corner guy you're probably going to have to run in to help on penetration and then run back out when they dish to your man.  And by the way you'd better run in at the right angle and with your arms in the right position or that pass is going to whizz by you quicker than you can recover and your guy is going to sink an uncontested three.) 

Offense is fun.  Defense is work.  Offense is applauded.  Defense is usually ignored by the masses.  Offense makes you millions.  Defense makes you sore.  You've got to burn to do this in order to do it well.

Usually that burning for defense comes in a couple ways:

  • It's your calling card in the league and that's how you're making a living.
  • You have figured out enough to realize that defense is the key to true team greatness.  You know you can be good with offense but if you want to be great--let alone be a champion--you need to defend.  You burn to be a champion so you give it up on the defensive end.

As stated above the Blazers don't have many guys who made it into this league and have job security by virtue of their defense.  I can think of one.  What's up Joel, my man?  Nicolas Batum may eventually become another.  That's 1.5 out of 15 though.

With only two Blazers with any playoff experience at all (and that very minor) there's no way they've had time to learn the second method.

Basically what we end up with is defense being the most convenient way to get to our next offensive possession.  But we get to that possession whether the ball goes through the net or not, so that's not the best of motivators.  Also when the offense goes south the defense tends to as well.  That's a sure sign of a young team.  Veteran teams often turn games around with their defense first.

We see effort from the Blazers.  We see movement.  But the true, all-out commitment isn't there yet. 

Cohesiveness

Another word for this might be consistency. 

I've used this analogy a few times before but it's the best one I can think of.  Defense is like a dam.  If only 80% of it is standing the whole thing has failed no matter how strong that 80% is.

Good defense has to happen as a unit or it doesn't happen at all.  That means all five guys out there have to sell out for it every possession.  That's five guys who have done their homework, who are focused, who know their fundamentals and the team concepts, who have the physical tools to succeed, who communicate with each other, who are committed to getting the job done, and who do this all with a practiced, fluid ease. 

I can't even tell you how far the Blazers are from that ideal right now.  It's not one or two players falling short either.  Few of the Blazers are grossly negligent and I don't think there's a one of them who has quit trying.  But on most plays there's somebody who's missing a rotation, or not seeing the play, or not calling something out, or taking a play off, or getting overwhelmed by the guy he's assigned to, or getting bumped off by a pick, or getting shoved out of the post, or leaning the wrong way, or playing the wrong angle, or committing a foul.  It's not the same guy all the time but it's somebody most every time.  And that one thing is enough to scuttle the defense because we're not practiced or experienced enough to compensate. 

There's not enough cohesion.  There's not enough consistency.  So there's not enough defense.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Obviously this isn't going to be fixed overnight.  Nor is there a magic scheme you can employ to make this better.  Zone, man-to-man...mix it up all you want, none of it will work without the above elements.  You might be able to mask shortcomings here or there, which the Blazers do, but a skilled, smart offensive opponent is going to find those weaknesses and exploit them.

The first and most obvious step is just to let these players grow into being better defenders.  They need to grow physically, fundamentally, and most importantly in experience.  You can't shortcut that process. 

You may find in the course of that process that there will be some who will never commit to becoming good defenders.  I guess if they're important enough to you offensively you have to find a way to work around that.  That may affect your defensive schemes and also other players you dismiss or acquire.  If those weak defenders aren't important enough to you offensively then you either dump them or minimize their playing time.  And I think you do that without remorse or a second look back. 

As it stands the Blazers have so many players in need of game-time experience that the coaching staff is having to pick and choose who to give it to.  If you scratch a little bit beneath their choices I think we're seeing that defensive potential plays into those choices.  That's probably appropriate.

Second, the team really needs to consider picking up more veterans who can earn respect and playing time and who also have defense as part of their package.  There's no way to shortcut the defensive learning curve but you can compensate for it better with players who know what they're doing surrounding your young apprentices.  Frankly I don't see the Blazers going far in the playoffs until the defensive issue is resolved and I don't see any other way to resolve it in a timely manner other than bringing in some more knowledgeable guys.  The Blazers' window is quite long but it would be a shame to waste the first third of it waiting for us to get our defensive act together.

A Final Note

Running down the issues like this make the Blazer defense seem very negative.  Granted it's not pretty, but remember also that I'm answering the specific question, "What is wrong with the Blazer defense."  When you look at the sum total of the answer here it amounts to "Nothing that shouldn't be given the circumstances."  That's not an entirely negative answer.  And those circumstances won't remain the same forever.

Also we should note that transition defense has generally been better (or at least more active) this year than in years past.   Defense right at the rim has also looked better.  Those are good starting points as they eliminate the easiest of baskets.

Remember the mantra for this year:  "Defend as well as you have to in order to win."  We should all be happy with that for now, while at the same time hoping that this won't have to be the mantra much longer.  "Win because you defended so well" has a much nicer ring.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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