Portland Trail Blazers: Defense, Depth, Schedule, and Roster Choices

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Blazersedge Mailbag tackles hot Portland Trail Blazer topics like defense, depth, scheduling, and heartbreaking losses.

Our four Mailbag questions today are linked.  See if you can find the theme!

Dave

After watching the last few games without LA, what I did notice is that our defense was actually a bit more active when we switched on everything which didn't involve ROLO. While creating mismatches, it also seems to allow us to maximize our athleticism (over smarts sometimes) and create turnovers/steals, something we are not very proficient in. That leading to easy offense at the other end. Do you think this is something we will be doing more with LA back (he is athletic enough to do it), or do we go back to the same philosophy?

Blazergold

It's a good observation.  The Blazers have been switching a little more, changing up the defense a little...not just during Aldridge's injury but since.  I don't think we'll see a wholesale change when it comes to switching, though.

Who's the most indispensable member of Portland's defense, the guy the team wilts without?  Robin Lopez, of course.  He provides size and skills that nobody behind or around him can duplicate.  Every time he goes out of the game you're on pins and needles until he returns, knowing the Blazers are three plays from collapse at any given moment.

But Lopez is not an all-situations defender.  in order to make him effective you have to keep him in his wheelhouse, allowing him to play to his strengths.  As soon as you start switching you run the risk of bringing Lopez to the perimeter, an uncomfortable place for him and a disaster for Portland's interior defense.  To protect Lopez and keep him operating at a high level, the Blazers can't employ wholesale switches.  Opponents will sniff out the scheme and start running Robin into screens every which direction.  Instead the Blazers have to switch in particular circumstances, either to throw a wrinkle into the coverage for a play or two or to take advantage of teams without any penetration or interior threats.

I get a fair amount of questions about Portland's defense asking, "Why don't the Blazers just do this thing?"  In the abstract the proposals are sound.  But you have to understand that this team's fortunes are determined as much by personnel decisions as coaching decisions.  To some degree this applies to every team but the Blazers are a special case.  Having exactly one defensive big man with zero reliable back-ups and nearly zero ability to compensate when that guy sits means every defensive scheme must be built around that player.  Depth and versatility at the smaller positions allow Portland to tinker with the perimeter defense, bringing wing players in or out of the lane depending on opponent, for example.  But if they mess with Lopez they lose all their interior defense.  Under those circumstances any gain from the new scheme would be overbalanced by the massive vacancy in the lane.

Dave,

Once again Terry Stotts has run his starters into the ground. Injuries are building up and performance is flagging.  When is he going to get a clue and start playing the bench?  They've shown they can play when given proper minutes.  I don't even want to think what those extra minutes are doing to the career longevity of LaMarcus Aldridge and the other starters.

Kel the Brit

What is Stotts supposed to do?

Your explanation about Portland's reserves playing well could be inverted: when they've played well they've been given more time.  The fact that they haven't seen a ton of time, that Portland's rotation runs 6.5 players deep, should tell you something about the actual performance of those 7-15 spot players, how reliable they are, and how many wins the coaching staff thinks the Blazers would get if they had to rely on them for major minutes.

But once again we're going after the coach for an issue that really has more to do with personnel, how the team is constructed.  When 7 of the 9 players in those 7-15 slots have less than 2 years of NBA experience, what do you think is going to happen?  Everybody outside of C.J. McCollum can be classified as a developmental player too.  It's not like the Blazers thought they were drafting (or trading for) guaranteed stars with all those mid- to low-level picks.  These are projects, guys you hope pan out.  They might have potential but they're not fully cooked yet, let alone ready for the big time.

If you cannot win games playing your lower rotation players you're forced to play the upper rotation more.  Either that or you sacrifice victories.  But would the complaining about Coach Stotts lessen if the rotation were more balanced and the Blazers carried a 33-30 record right now instead of 42-21?  I'm guessing it would intensify, not dim.  As we suggested at the beginning of the season, short of a miracle Coach Stotts can't win the publicity battle here.  He got the miracle start but even comparatively good .500 ball since has been enough to put him right back in the line of fire.  He'll be criticized if he plays the young guys, criticized if he doesn't.  All he can do is play the hand he's been dealt and hope it's enough.

Dave,

I don't think I can take many more losses like the last 2!  [Dallas and Houston]  The heartbreak of coming close is almost worse than a blowout, especially when Houston might be our first-round opponent. What can the team do to reverse this before I go crazy? And what happened to the endgame offense? These used to be wins. I'd like that thrill back.

Sam

You just have to chalk up experiences like this.  Yes, things are going wrong but things tend to go wrong over an 82-game season.  Those thrilling wins you remember came against lesser teams during an easier part of the schedule earlier in the year when players were rested and healthy.  As Kel just mentioned above, minutes and mileage take a toll on a roster.  Road trips and fourth quarter plays get harder as bodies ache and legs go heavy.  The Blazers found open threes against Houston.  They just didn't hit them.  I'm not sure anything would have cured 30 points down against Dallas but Portland came pretty close to securing the win anyway.  That's a positive.

We're seeing more standing around, more sporadic effort in general nowadays than we did at the beginning of the year.  Tougher opponents, a better-prepared league, and fatigue all contribute.  We hoped that the All-Star break might provide respite.  It appears that was temporary.

Here again folks want to land hard on coaching and play-calling.  You can draw up whatever plans you want.  If they're not executed with energy and commitment, none of them will work.  Without trust, confidence, and five players selling to make the play happen, results won't be there.

Right now the Blazers seem to trust and have confidence in three players in fourth-quarter situations: LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, and Wesley Matthews.  Aldridge's shots seem to flag as the game winds down.  That could be fatigue, lack of lift, or simply the defense knowing where the ball is going and compensating.  Lillard was brilliant early in the season but defenders have learned not to overplay his moves.  Don't jump, don't lean, just stick to him and keep a hand in his face, allowing him the shot but keeping it contested.  Every last-second, game-changer I can remember from Lillard involved the defender getting out of position.  Awkward shots and turnovers after long dribbles against steady defenders are more common now.  Matthews is still getting open looks thanks to the two stars but he's not hitting.  I don't know a cure for that besides, "Hit the shot!"  The Blazers can't get him wider open unless they're allowed to run a hockey power play.

Most of the time those late-game shots are there for the taking.  The Blazers either aren't executing quickly enough to take advantage or are getting open shots but not making them.

Answering your "What can they do to reverse it?" question, the obvious solution is to not get into those situations to begin with.  Pulling out the ancient joke:

Patient: Doc, it hurts whenever I do this!

Doctor: Then don't do that.

Not getting down by 30, being able to hold a lead...these would turn close losses into comfortable wins.  But again, what are you gonna do?  The bench isn't reliable, the starters will continue to tire...these things were always going to be a part of Portland's story.  Getting out to an incredible start didn't change the basic makeup--the strengths and weaknesses--of this team.  You can only overcome gravity for so long.

Continuing our drumbeat in hopes of making it clear: if the Blazers wanted to prioritize games and trips like this they could have pursued a trade-deadline move for a veteran or two.  Some of the names mentioned three weeks ago might have turned the tide in these last couple games.  That wasn't the plan.  Fair enough.  But you can't accept the good parts of the approach--keeping young players with potential, keeping salaries low and aligned--without also accepting the more problematic parts: riding the starters hard, gambling with the bench, and likely losing some games like this.

Dave,

Everybody knows our current slump is schedule-related. Playing tough teams is part of it but back to back games and too many games overall don't help. Should the league change its schedule to eliminate back to back situations and so much travel in so little time? It would be fairer to the Blazers. Can you imagine what kind of team this would be with more balanced scheduling?

Lonny

In general I am in favor of more rest for players and fewer physical demands.  As a "corner" team geographically the Blazers get to travel more than most, so I agree that a more relaxed schedule would be a boon.  Owners will never eliminate games and their associated revenue, but I support cutting back on the pre-season and making the regular season start a couple weeks earlier instead, spacing out games more.

The key here is doing this for all teams, though.  I don't think the Blazers should get any special dispensation, nor do I think that this year's performance should sway Portland fans one way or the other on this issue.  All teams have to deal with fatigue and travel.  You have to build that into your game plan if you want to succeed.  Other teams have designed their rosters to help absorb the bumps.  The Blazers are weak in that area.  Wanting to change the schedule because the Blazers are not equipped to deal with it as well as other teams is like spending all of your money on starting pitching and hitting in baseball, skimping on the bullpen, then complaining that 9 innings per game is too much and 6 would be better.  9 innings is too long for the roster you have.  Other teams succeed because they built with the need for a bullpen in mind even though that meant sacrificing other potential advantages.

It's all about choices.  You can make them but you can't expect the game to change to favor the ones you make.  There is no theoretical Blazers squad that's better than this one in a land where benches and depth and fatigue don't matter.  There's only this Blazers squad on this playing field--roughly commensurate with the field the other 29 teams face--and the success or failure they experience based on their talent and approach.

Keep those Mailbag questions coming to the e-mail address below with "Mailbag" in the subject line!

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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