When we did our "What One Thing Do the Blazers Need to Succeed?" survey the other day we got a lot of brilliant answers. Many revolved around Greg Oden. Some mentioned Andre Miller. But the most intricate discussion surrounded the team's defense. I'd like to explore that further, as I tend to agree that this could turn out to be the factor that defines whether the Blazers are darn good or legitimately great this coming season and beyond. Fast or slow, the offense is going to be more than fine with the current cast plus the addition of Andre Miller. Despite fielding some individually mediocre rebounders, as a whole the Blazers will be taken care of on the boards as long as Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla are around. Defense, not a traditional strong suit around these parts, has far more wiggle room. And if you're looking to be great, wiggle room is not the best characteristic to have.
This is not to say the Blazers are poor defensively. To the contrary, they racked up a fairly impressive defensive season last year. They were 11th in defensive rating, 4th in points allowed (thank you, slow pace, but it was part of the +5.3 point differential), 17th in opponent field goal percentage, 18th in opponent three-point percentage, and 4th in free throws allowed (thanks again, slow pace fairy). By the metrics you could easily rate the Blazers in the high average defensive range. How much you think that needs to improve depends on your assessment of the offensive and rebounding strengths. We're not going to be that comprehensive yet. Suffice it to say that the Blazers will need to improve if they are to eke out those difficult-to-get extra wins above 54 and challenge for greatness and defense is the general category with the most room for improvement.
The Blazers were actually quite strong in their paint defense last season. Their design has been basic: deny the easiest shots no matter what the cost and make the opponent subsist on perimeter attempts. Anyone who remembers the halcyon days of Zach Randolph, Theo Ratliff, and Sebastian Telfair when the lane regularly parted with sweet sorrow can attest to the wisdom of such an approach.
The cost of vigilance in the key has been a reliance on scrambling and rotations outside. The oft-mentioned pick and roll schemes are an example. The Blazers put heavy pressure on their big men to get out and shadow opposing dribblers. You also see extra pressure on high-powered opposing penetrators and rotations away from distance shooters. You see a fair amount of zone-man switching and disguised defenses as well. These schemes are hardly unique to Portland, but they require considerable vision, knowledge, and timing...sometimes in rare supply on a team populated by young 20-somethings known for their offense.
The Blazers need to keep their interior defense strong while finding a better rhythm, and perhaps more individual responsibility, on the perimeter. Upon what (or whom) will the Blazers rely in order to achieve such improvement?
Having another year under their belts individually and as a team Portland should see some natural progression in their defensive reliability, if nothing else because of recognition. But aging alone won't make the decisive difference. Defense takes physical repetition. If you've been playing a certain way for years it's going to be hard to change that pattern even if your knowledge of the game improves. You actually have to start playing better in order for better play to get ingrained. Seeing where you should have gone above the screen doesn't help until you actually do and that process becomes instinctive. For that reason it's doubtful the Blazers will have improved leaps and bounds over the summer.
There's some hope that body development will also provide an edge. Nicolas Batum is a prime defender with room to grow physically. Martell Webster has an impressive physique as well. LaMarcus Aldridge may be stronger this season. That's the advantage of being young. You always hope there's more forthcoming.
Beyond that, the two names mentioned most often as providing possible edges are Oden and Miller. (Keep in mind we're not talking best defenders here, we're talking the best chances for providing improvement.)
Oden, assuming he remains healthy, should get a handle on defending the interior this season. That's his stronghold. His strength makes the most difference down low. He looked no more impressive last year than he did against the lumbering behemoth Yao Ming when Yao was playing with his back to the basket in the playoffs. That ought to continue. The obvious rub is that the Blazers have already been strong down there. What they really need from Oden is the mobility and awareness to get outside to impede an opposing wing and then back in when called for. Coupled with that comes the need for better decision making on when to take a foul or let a play go. Not coincidentally, these are the parts of Greg's game that will be the hardest to develop both in a physical and mental sense. Offensive rebounds? Pencil in Oden with an exclamation point. Show and recover? Better put a question mark.
Andre Miller is not a premier defender. He's a well-seasoned veteran who's seen approximately 92 billion screens in his career, which is the great hope. You don't expect him to stop opponents single-handedly. You want him to be able to help instead of getting rubbed off every time someone sneezes. He should be able to handle that. That should make the Blazers at least marginally better, causing a chain reaction by which less pressure is put on rotations, especially those involving Oden. That's the hope anyway.
But this is my point. When you're talking offense the Blazers are walking tall. When you're talking rebounding you can bank on production. When you're talking defense you're still leaning on question marks and hopes. Those question marks could straighten out and hopes could come to fruition, but it's generally true that when you start from that basis you're going to struggle. The Blazers shouldn't be worse, but you can't say definitively they're going to be better defensively next year.
This is the issue, more than any other except Oden's physical condition, that should have us holding our collective breath. In the end defense will probably demarcate the line between the first or second round of the playoffs and something more special. We'll have to see how things shake out.