For all the success the Blazers have had the past couple of seasons one area of their game has remained sub-par: defense. In fact sub-par doesn't do it justice. At times Portland's defense has been downright painful to watch. They've been saved from statistical nightmare status by their glacially slow pace, but low points given numbers can't disguise the weakness. The Blazers seldom if ever win games with their "D". Your heart is always in your throat if the opponent has any kind of coordinated attack. Portland may be able to take the star player out of the equation but somebody else is going to sneak through for a shot or a foul. The only thing the Blazers have done well--and this is both to their credit and a reason to believe in their commitment--is get back down the floor before the opponent preventing easy buckets. Other than that their efforts have gone unrewarded.
For years Portland has tried to disguise the weakness with a variety of schemes. These have been foiled by a number of factors:
- The individual defense in the backcourt hasn't been solid enough to contain any reasonably-skilled opponent.
- Help rotations have been confused, slow, and intermittent.
- The interior defenders haven't been able to handle the increased pressure caused by 1 and 2, leaving the final defensive choice between giving up an easy bucket or fouling.
- Lack of confidence and coordination team-wide has forced individual defenders to play back, preventing disaster, instead of playing up to force turnovers and inhibit opponent possessions before they even start.
The organization has shown that they understand that a surfeit of offensive potential without the matching defensive prowess won't get the job done. The last two major acquisitions--Marcus Camby and Wesley Matthews--are defensive players. Camby's tenure, like Miller's, won't be long enough to make the ultimate difference, but it's a start. Matthews, on the other hand, addresses the first and biggest weakness we just mentioned. The Blazers now have a couple choices for defense on problematic opposing guards in Matthews and Nicolas Batum. It's not a foolproof design. We don't know that either could play 35 minutes per game playing backcourt defense and still scoring, but the options (and thus the situational permutations) just doubled. Once these players mature fully they may indeed be able to play long minutes, at which point the Blazers become a scary defensive team.
Speaking of maturing, Greg Oden also brings interior defense to the table. The Big Backstop has shown himself capable of stopping those pesky drivers who slip by the guards. One of Oden's particular gifts is changing the look of the opposing offense by his presence alone. When he was cranking early last season you'd see two blocked shots in the first six minutes of the game and a gun-shy opponent thereafter. Combined with the guards giving him fewer opportunities to bail them out, his growth should allow him to be one of the most menacing players in the game.
I'm not saying it would be practical, but theoretically the Blazers could throw out a lineup of Oden, Camby, Batum, and Matthews...a menacing thought to be sure. At no time since the Roy-Aldridge era started have the options been that plentiful.
Increased defensive potential plus the recent coaching changes should bring out another development: fewer misdirection schemes (which are only marginally effective against professionals anyway) and a more streamlined, simple, and hard-nosed defensive game plan. It's easy to point to lack of defensive commitment and skill as a cause for Portland's woes. There's been some of that, and will continue to be. The Blazers' best players aren't their best defenders. But they don't have to be if the team can coordinate on the defensive end. Youth and a lack of understanding have inhibited that coordination so far. But these players are getting older, more used to the league and each other. Any coordination that would have developed last season was obliterated when the team was forced to used approximately 6,200 different lineups because of injuries. If that happens again nothing the Blazers do or don't do will matter. But assuming things go normally for once, the Blazers should be primed for a better defensive season already.
Portland should be able to further foster the necessary coordination by making each player's responsibility more focused and consistent. If you can't depend on Player X to stop anybody, if he allows the opponent to do any of a dozen things on a given possession, it doesn't matter if you play a zone, man-to-man, or matchup hybrid. The permutations and possibilities are too great to compensate for. You'll stop two options and leave ten. But if you can depend on your wings to stay in front of their men and you know your big guy can take care of most mistakes you don't scheme against a couple options instead of a dozen. You need 2 zones, not 92. You can spend a lot more time in man coverage. In that environment everybody becomes a better defender simply because they know what their job is. All of a sudden those slow, confused-looking rotations seem quick, devastating, and automatic.
The increased defensive presence inside and out and a simpler game plan should instill more confidence in Portland's defenders. This is the last key to success and an important one. Good defense is like attractiveness. Which guys and gals are the most sexy? What does it really take? Yes, there are physical standards but usually the people with the most charisma are the people who feel sexy themselves and are comfortable in their own skin. I've seen plenty of non-attractive people (in the stereotypical sense) take over a room and have everyone therein chasing them while the more stereotypically attractive people sat on the wall and wondered what the heck just happened. It's all about the confidence. That's defense as well. If you think you're a good defensive team and you get just the barest amount of reinforcement and positive results you'll become a good defensive team. Given the building blocks, I'd expect that to happen to the Blazers within the next couple of years. And once that confidence takes root and becomes part of the culture the team will start to attack rather than react on the defensive end. That's when you'll see guys like Oden and Batum in full flower. That's when you'll see the running game take off. That's when you'll see opponents not wanting to play Portland anytime, anywhere.
A couple individual defensive holes will remain no matter what the Blazers do. But what team doesn't have those? Despite a weak link or two, the Blazers have a legitimate shot to address almost every flaw in their systemic attack on the defensive end. You can't say that of most teams. Typically it's a matter of forfeiting an offensive player in order to get more defense. That's not true in this situation. If they're able to use all of their personnel odds are fantastic that Portland will get at least to acceptable defensive status (at a faster pace and without losing the offense) and odds are decent that Portland could become a formidable defensive team. If they work hard, simplify, trust, and attack everyone will like the results.