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Space Cadets

When we talk about the improvement of the Blazers mostly we talk about offensive potential.  This is pretty natural because as fans we tend to enjoy offense more than defense in general.  Offense is easier to quantify statistically.  It has an immediately-recognizable success measure:  the ball went in the hoop.  Defense is more subtle.  Unless there's a spectacular block or steal (which there isn't most of the time) it's harder to measure success.  Did that shot miss because of the defender or because the guy shooting it just whiffed?  Despite this, I would propose that the most significant evolution of the new Blazers may be defensive.  We have the potential to be a good offensive team but I think we have the potential to become a defensive giant.

The most basic (and seldom understood) principle of defense is simply controlling space.  You want to control more areas of the court than the opposing offense does, especially those areas in which the offense is most proficient at scoring.  If an offensive player can escape your area of control then they get an open look at the basket.  

There are two basic aspects to control:

--Being able to get to a spot on the floor.  (This includes staying in front of your man.)
--Being able to do something once you are there.

The most valuable assets contributing towards the first aspect are lateral footspeed, mental anticipation, and reaction/reflex.  The second asset requires size, athleticism, long arms, and the like.  Governing all of the above is the will and desire to be a good defender, often a task with little tangible reward other than knowledge of a job well done.

The poorest defenders are seriously lacking in many of the above qualities.  They might be too slow, too short, or simply not care about defending.  It's also possible to be very strong in a couple aspects but seriously lacking in others.  Damon Stoudamire had great quickness and the desire to defend.  Though he stayed in front of his man admirably he simply wasn't imposing enough to make a difference.  Everybody in the league shot over him like he wasn't there.  The aging Arvydas Sabonis had generally poor quickness and covered comparatively little space.  However the space he did cover was covered.  (This explains why it was particularly devastating when the refs let Shaq push him out of the lane with a forearm shiver.  It effectively removed all of his defensive presence.)  The most prized defenders can cover enormous amounts of space because of their agility and can disturb offensive players in the area they control.

This is precisely why I am excited about the new-look Blazers.

The frontcourt players will undoubtedly be the stars of our defensive show, assuming they recover (in Oden's case) and mature (in Lamarcus').  Aldridge already covers as much space as any power forward I've ever seen outside of maybe Kevin Garnett.  He can literally take out 1/3 of the potential scoring area all by himself, all the way from the rim out to the three-point line.  He has the quickness to stay in front of smaller players and is developing the bulk and stamina to handle larger ones too.  He has also shown the rudiments of knowing how and when to leave his man on help defense, which again he can prosecute from amazing distances.  Knock on wood, Lamarcus will be lined up beside the behemoth that is Greg Oden.  Oden will probably not cover the same amount of space as Lamarcus, but his range will still be excellent.  And the few feet of space he does give up will be made up for by his dominating presence.  He doesn't just bother opposing players, he obliterates them.  Of course this is contingent on his knee.  The #1 question facing the team in the next few years is how much quickness and lateral mobility Greg Oden will have coming off of the surgery.  If he regains anything close to his natural form you are probably looking at the best defensive big-man tandem in the league.  Nobody will have their combined range and few will be able to match their combined effect.  Given even moderate effort by the rest of the players not to let their men slip by completely unopposed you can effectively control around 60% of the court with just these two guys.

This is going to lessen the burden on the other three defensive players considerably.  None of the guys we have now have shown the ability to match Lamarcus' and Greg's defensive prowess.  But dividing 40% of the court between three players they won't have to.  This is part of why I say that Oden's presence is going to make everybody else look much better on defense than they otherwise seem.

Travis Outlaw has immense leaping ability and decent vertical speed to close for help defense and could be an asset as a secondary defender coming in for the block.  He hasn't shown lateral quickness, understanding of the game, or enough desire to consider him a good individual defender though.  He has the capability of covering space but not necessarily the tools to bother people unless he surprises them.  Martell Webster has not shown the physical tools at all but I will be interested to see how the weight loss affects his ability to move laterally.  Darius Miles has all the tools to be a great defender but as usual it comes down to a matter of desire for him, which so far he hasn't shown.  I haven't seen enough of James Jones to comment.  Small forward may be one of those positions where we give up a little defense in order to boost offensive production.

The backcourt offers the most hope for improvement.  Again they don't have to be brilliant if our two big guys pan out, they just have to be adequate.  Brandon Roy has not been that good of a defender so far.  However because of his precocious offensive abilities it's easy to forget he's still learning the game.  He appears to have the physical tools to be an adequate defender.  He has reasonable height for an off-guard and superior height for the point.  He has good lateral quickness.  His athleticism isn't superior compared to many NBA guards but his smarts will probably allow him to compensate once he gets more experience. It's hard to imagine him not having the desire.  Jarrett Jack showed some slowness of foot last year, though some reports have him looking quicker this year.  He also needs more experience.  However he has the body to be very imposing if he can get into position to bother the opposition.  Since quickness is so vital you'd rate his overall chances as slightly less than Roy's but there's still a decent chance he becomes average at least.  Steve Blake already has the smarts, desire, and enough footspeed to make him an adequate defender.  However he is not imposing enough to really bother the best guards.  Taurean Green has the potential to be great.  He has the kind of will that makes up for other shortcomings.  And he doesn't have many other shortcomings.  He's quick on his feet and has great instincts.  His Achilles Heel, if any, will be his height.  But he is capable of covering as much space on his beat as the big guys do on theirs.  It's hard to tell what Sergio Rodriguez can bring yet because I don't think he knows what to bring.  Speed is obviously not an issue for him but will, stamina, and defensive smarts may be.

That just leaves the back-up big men.  I do not have much hope for Channing Frye on the defensive end.  He won't be horrible but I doubt he'll be great either.  This will be one of the main distinctions between him and Lamarcus.  His lateral speed is not impressive and he's far more imposing offensively than defensively.  Quickness makes all the difference in the world for Joel Przybilla.  Three years ago when the weight was off and his head was in the game he covered a decent amount of ground and blocked a lot of shots when he got there.  In the last year or so he's carried more pounds, experienced more injuries, and gotten correspondingly slower and more ground-bound.  This has killed him as a defender.  Early reports seem to indicate that he has slimmed down and regained his confidence and desire, which could make him a good asset again.  McRoberts and LaFrentz have to play more to get a good feel for what they have and/or what they have left.

Of course we've only talked about halfcourt defense here.  The other key element is transition defense.  Fortunately this doesn't require as much skill as desire.  Most everybody can get down the court without the ball as quickly as the offensive guy who's dribbling it.  Our smaller guys simply have to have the desire and stamina.  I hope the develop both, as this has been a severe weakness in the past couple years.

It's unlikely we'll see a radical defensive revolution this season.  The team is still too young and has too much to learn.  Plus there's a big difference between Lamarcus covering 30% with everybody else covering 70% (Joel, nice though he is, not having Oden's coverage ability) and the Monster Twins covering 60% with everybody else splitting 40%.  However there's reason to hope that in another couple of years you will be looking at one of the better defensive teams in the league.  Combined with a very nice offensive attack, this could be plenty exciting to watch.

--Dave (