Portland Trail Blazers: Defense, Improved Players, LaMarcus Aldridge at Center

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Blazer's Edge Mailbag tackles multiple questions about defense, considers the merits of LaMarcus Aldridge at center, and talks Most Improved Trail Blazers.

Catching up on even more of your questions.  Enjoy!

Dave-

After watching Ray "Allen" McCallum tear up the Blazers during the Kings game, it made me want an answer to the following question: how many players scored their season and/or career high against the Blazers this year? I can recall a number of performances of no-name players on teams quickly becoming household names after playing against the Blazer's defense.

Brandon

You're not wrong about that.  Forgive me if I give a different answer than expected here.  Somehow the thought of poring through boxscores and cross-checking opponent season highs seems...depressing.  So let's look at the larger point stemming from your question.

Generally speaking the Blazers have 3.5 significant defensive weaknesses:

--They have trouble with athletic centers.

--They have trouble with quick, penetrating guards.

--They have trouble guarding screens.

--Every once in a while they have trouble closing out on deep shooters.  "Every once in a while" becomes "always" if those shooters play center.

Each night the Blazers can be expected to close down one of those weaknesses.  They have to choose.  If they collapse the lane against the center they're going to give up the long ball.  If they're doinking around in the mid-range trying to shut down picks they're going to lose coverage inside.

This is, in part, a function of team build.  The Blazers are long and strong.  They're not quick.  Once they commit to a particular part of the floor they have a hard time recovering.  Robin Lopez provides the most obvious example but even guys like Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum defend better in a 3-foot radius than they do while rotating.

Those career-highs from obscure guards don't happen because the guard is so great.  They happen when that guard is playing alongside a star the Blazers are invested in (or having trouble) shutting down.  If Random Guard B went at the Blazers one-on-one--making like a knight of old and declaring, "Prepare yourselves, varlets!  I intend to storm your castle and emerge with 30 points this evening!"--the Blazers would shut him down without problem.  He would become the one thing the Blazers defended well.  Instead they're defending his teammates well and he's the outlet.

This is one reason the Blazers really, really, really, really need Dwight Howard to be hobbled by his bum ankle if they meet the Rockets in the playoffs.  Houston presents not one, but two difficult matchup problems for the defense.  It's not just what Howard and James Harden can do on their own, either.  Their outlets include Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley, Jeremy Lin.  If the Blazers focus on Howard as the defensive target, they're not just dealing with Harden but with a raft of teammates waiting to be "that guy".   Being able to watch a slowed and injured Howard with Robin Lopez alone would ease Portland's burden immeasurably.

Dave,

As everyone knows the Blazers cannot guard elite centers (and probably not above average centers either). This was on display against the Kings, as you mentioned in the post-game recap. The Blazers a myriad of ways to defend Cousins but nothing worked.

In my opinion, LMA is the Blazers only legit option to guard good centers. Why dont we see LMA guard centers that are too athletic for Lopez more often? Is it because LMA just doesnt like guarding centers? Can the Blazers win a playoff series against the Rockets or Clippers without LMA guarding the opposing teams best big man for at least some extended stretches?

TheBlazers1986

You may see tactics change in the playoffs based on the specific matchup.  In general, though, Portland's small-ball lineups featuring Aldridge at center haven't worked well.  You'd think, for instance that a Lillard-Williams-Matthews-Batum-Aldridge lineup would be packed with potential but they score less, allow more points, and produce less efficiently than the starters or most other lineup combinations that keep Aldridge at the 4.

Part of this may be Aldridge's preference.  He's not billed as an individual defender even against power forwards.  He's an opportunistic rebounder but he's not the guy who will hulk up and grab 10 contested boards over all opposition.  Aldridge is magnificent when he's in his comfort zone but not the most adaptable guy outside it.  Matching up against centers qualifies as "outside".

System factors in as well.  The Blazers are doing less strict play calling this year than at any time in memory.  The players have responsibility for the offense.  They start with a simple screen or post then play options off of it, reading the defense and making moves accordingly.  That works well as long as everybody plays their accustomed role.  When you put the mid-range-posting and play-finishing Aldridge into the pick-setting or weak-side rebounding center role, the offense gets muddled.  Those aren't his strengths, nor can the new power forward replace him.  Aldridge ends up out of the offense, taking face-up jumpers from the weak side, or back in his usual role but now much smaller players are responsible for offensive rebounding.

This brings up another larger theme that's developed over the year: the Blazers should be more interchangeable than they actually are.  Normally when you look at a bunch of guys with height, length, a little athleticism, and the ability to shoot jumpers you think that they could mix up looks and positions like the Showtime Lakers used to.  The closest thing the Blazers have is Mo Williams and Lillard playing on-off ball together or Batum taking over somebody else's defensive assignment.  Outside of that the players are so specialized that they can't take over for each other easily.  Matthews doesn't have Batum's passing ability.  Neither Matthews nor Batum can dribble-drive like Lillard.  Nobody sets picks but Lopez.  Aldridge is the only multiple-threat player from the post.  (Switches on defense don't end up happily either.)  Portland's ball movement and unselfishness should create mass hysteria for the opponent.  Instead you can determine exactly what's going to happen based on who's getting the ball next.  This is one of the subtle issues keeping the Blazers in "pretty good" instead of "breakout" territory.

Hi Dave,

As the season winds down, it's fun to consider which Blazer improved most during the season. Some Blazers have looked better and better as the year has progressed (Robinson and Barton leap to mind), others not so much (sorry, Leonard and Claver). Working on one's approach to the game during the grind of an NBA season must be difficult, so any in-season improvement is laudable. Which Blazer do you think has improved the most so far this season?

-Ralf

This is a hard one.  Sentimentally I want to say Thomas Robinson.  He blends in more now than he did at the start of the year.  He's just so far short of helping outside of dunks, rebounds, and the occasional amazing block that it's hard to credit the improvement as significant yet.  He's leaps and bounds ahead of where he was but that's more a reflection on how far down he started than on how far up he's climbed.  Also the window is short...a chronic issue for all "improvement" discussions on this team.  Guys will look better for a game or two, maybe a week or two, then they'll regress or disappear.  Will Barton, C.J. McCollum, even Mo Williams and Joel Freeland go up and down.  Plus there's no telling what the young guys will show up with in training camp next year.  They could start at the current level plus a few skills added over the summer.  They could also be back to square one.

For all of those reasons, I'm going to go with Robin Lopez.  I'm not sure he's flat-out playing better than he was at the beginning of the year but he's certainly been given a niche and has filled it seamlessly.  He looks comfortable in his own skin and his teammates are more than comfortable with him, plus he can be counted on to affect the game no matter what the scoreboard and his own statistics say.

This seems like a good question to throw out for comments.  Who's your most-improved player on the Blazers this year?  I could see arguments for almost everybody from Aldridge on down.  Give us your thoughts in the comment section and keep those Mailbag questions coming to the address below, marked "Mailbag" in the subject line.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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