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20 Questions

Or three anyway.  All three of these questions came up in the comments today and they were so good I wanted to post them on the main page.  I'll give my thoughts and you can add.
The first question came from Jorga:

I kept seeing guys (Zach in particular) get caught in a double team in a corner.  How does that happen and what can they do when it occurs?

One of the Blazers' main plays involves Zach posting up with his back to the basket about 10-12 feet out on the right hand side of the court.  The guard makes an entry pass and then it's up to Zach to decide what to do.  The play gives him a lot of options.  He can spin down the baseline and try for a layup.  He can spin to the middle and go for a floater across the lane.  He can turn around, step back, and take a jumper. Or if double-teamed he can pass it back out for a re-post pass (or the guards can swing it around to the weak side for an open three in the opposite corner).  With Zach being so multi-talented it becomes a very powerful position.

Here's the thing, though:  In order to make the play work right Zach really has to dig in and fight for that low post position.  If he lets the defender push him out to 15-17 feet away instead of 10-12 feet things start going wrong.  First the guard has a much harder time making the entry pass because there's no angle.  (He and Zach are basically in a straight vertical line from the baseline and the guard has to loop the ball over his defender to get it in.)  This takes more time and allows the defense to prepare.  Then when Zach gets the ball he's much closer to the sideline, which acts like another defender and limits his mobility.  He can still make the same moves if no double team comes but starting farther from the basket makes a jumper harder, and even if he beats his man off the dribble from that far away it's a sure bet somebody else will have time to cut him off.  The situation that you're pointing out--the double team--is probably the worst of all.  He can't drive through or around a double team so his only two options are to step back and shoot over it or to pass the ball.  Stepping out far enough to get a shot up over two defenders when he's already that far away puts Zach in three-point territory or out of bounds.  So he usually opts to pass out.  But just like there was no angle in for the pass, there's no angle out either.  Since he'd have to get the ball past the double team plus whoever is defending the guard that passed it in to him, that pass is simply unavailable.  So what he usually does is leap up in the air and try to throw it over the hands of the double-teaming players clear across to the other side of the court.  The pass is long and slow, and that kind of pass never works in the NBA.  This is where you see his passes get intercepted, often for a fast break.

How can this be prevented?  Zach has to fight a lot harder and not get pushed out to the perimeter.

This kind of thing, by the way, is exactly what coaches and broadcasters mean when they talk about "spacing".  A play can be excellent or downright ruined depending on whether the players are where they're supposed to be or five feet away from that spot.

The second question also came from Jorga:

Our broadcasters commented in the first quarter that we weren't running set plays and I got the impression that this was the plan.  Is this what happens when we have a set starting lineup and they are used to each other?  We got to run a little and it seemed to be effective.  Will we see more of this as the season progresses?

We had a game a while back where Nate let the reins loose a little bit in the halfcourt offense.  I forget which game it was but I mentioned it in the recap.  He let the players call for their own screens and make more of their own decisions.  The offense flowed more freely and the players looked more comfortable, so it's been around in one form or another ever since.  The advantages are everybody being able to play naturally and the young guys not having to remember or think about quite so many things.  The biggest disadvantage is that the plays only involve two or three people at most, which leaves guys (usually the forwards like Martell and Travis) sitting on the weak side of the court doing nothing.  That takes their energy out of the game and also makes everybody easier to defend.  Of course you're also depending on the players communicating and reading the situation right, which sometimes happens and sometimes doesn't.  You can always tell we're running more free-form when you see guys impatiently pointing for the screen, or when you see a guy set a pick on one side of a player, then have to turn around and set another one on his other side.

Many NBA offenses run exactly this way and you're right that it's a sign of getting used to each other.  It also helps to be experienced.  Phoenix runs plays all day and night and I doubt the coach calls 5% of them, but then they've got Steve Nash and a ton of veterans out there.  I think once we get a set rotation and all the personnel we need (which may be a couple years, frankly) you will see it become the staple of our offense.  Right now you'll see it a lot in the middle of each half and Nate will let the players go as long as the offense is producing reasonably well.  As soon as it bogs down he'll start calling plays.  (This is why the camera often catches him looking grumpy as he's yelling out "Four Up!" or whatever...he wants the players to run something set to get them back on track.)  Also notice that on crucial plays (like when we need a bucket in the closing seconds) Nate never, ever lets the players go.  They'll always call time out and he'll set up a play.  In fact I'm sure he saves them for exactly that reason, because sometimes he calls four timeouts on the final four possessions of games.  In other words he's willing to let them play, but that only goes so far...

EngineerScotty offers this:

In your previous blog entry, Dave, you suggest that Zach is a "-10" player--by which I assume you mean that he gives up 10 more points on D than an average NBA player (some players, like Ben Wallace, are + players; and some close to zero).

Nate suggests that Sergio has a high negative factor--giving up a basket for every assist.  How that translates to Dave's scale (such as it is), I don't know.

What about the rest of the team?  Who on the Blazers is a positive contributor on defense?  Joel?  Ime?

LOL...saying I have a "scale" is probably going too far.  I just picked the -10 off the top of my head, but I bet it's close to accurate.  Maybe -8.5 would be more precise though.  And I should say that Jans would point out that I'm picking particularly on Zach here, and he's right.  Again I'm expecting more out of him because he's out "best player" and because when he's getting back in transition and trying hard on help defense it really does give energy to everyone else.  He has an effect beyond his individual skills and it's really evident when that's missing.

If we're going to be fair, we have to point out that nearly every player on this team is a negative contributor on defense right now, which is exactly why our defense is so bad.  For some that's individual ability, but for others it's that they try hard but when everybody doesn't it just doesn't have much effect.  It doesn't matter if 90% of the dam is solid...a 10% hole will still compromise the structure.  At some point even the best players ask, "Why am I standing here when the tidal wave is flowing anyway?  Why not just float down the river?"

Of the players whose body of work we have seen this season, I would make the following hackneyed judgments.  The discussion requires more subtlety in all cases but that would take all day...

Players who are negatives in almost any defensive situation:  Zach, Martell, Sergio

Players who are negatives because they don't quite have the skills but at least know where to put their bodies so they aren't continually embarrassed:  Juan Dixon, Dan Dickau, sometimes Jamaal Magloire (though he tends to go into the above category some games)

Players who are negatives when defending one-on-one but have the skills or athleticism to play some help defense which makes them somewhat more valuable:  Joel Przybilla, Travis Outlaw

Players who have exhibited some defensive skill but are too young to know what to do with it on a consistent basis yet (other than they're all pretty good about sacrificing to get back in transition, which is both easy to do and a good sign):  Jarrett Jack, Brandon Roy, Lamarcus Aldridge

Players who are decent all-around defenders individually and within the team concept, who have both the skills and the knowledge to use them effectively in most situations:  Ime Udoka

Thanks for the questions.  Everybody can feel free to add/comment as they see fit.

--Dave (