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Season Review: Defense, Middle Game, Intangibles

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Here's a semi-detailed look at the non-offense parts of our game this season.

DEFENSE

Interior Defense:  This was supposed to be our big year to take a step forward in interior defense.  We had Joel Przybilla back in the fold, Jamaal Magloire had a big body, Raef LaFrentz was a shot blocker, Zach was so-so, but Lamarcus had a decent reputation as a defender.  Of that group only Jamaal exceeded expectations.  Lamarcus met them, I suppose, though it's hard to say that considering we didn't know entirely what to expect.  Joel spent most of the season injured.  When he was in uniform he was a step slow.  His defense consisted of so many wrap-around hugs that the team considered playing "Kum-Ba-Yah" as his entrance music.  As a result he couldn't stay on the floor much longer than 15 minutes most games.  That punched a big hole in our ship right at the waterline.  Raef spent most of the year injured as well.  That left Magloire, Randolph, and Aldridge as our main guys.  Jamaal picked up his shot blocking and also used his strength to keep most opposing big men from dominating in the lane.  Any team with quicker centers, however, had a field day.  Lamarcus had the opposite problem.  He could run circles around his counterparts but he didn't have the core strength to keep them out of the lane.  Zach was...Zach.  Some nights he was active, using his body and strength to good advantage to muscle people into uncomfortable positions.  Some nights he was indifferent, particularly on the help.  Teams routinely tried to involve him in pick and rolls, often to great success.

One small bright spot in our interior defense this season was that Travis Outlaw began to understand how and when to help in the paint.  Heretofore Travis had gotten credit for being a better help defender than he actually was because when he does get in the right position it often results in a spectacular, memorable block.  But really his defense had been miserable before this year.  The shift to power forward gave him more responsibility for watching the inside and thus more opportunity to shift off his man and create havoc.  He still had trouble stopping people one-on-one, but from a strictly interior (in the paint) perspective, coming off the help, he had an impact.

Grade:  D+

Prognosis:  One of two things has to happen really soon for us to get better.  Either Joel is going to have to come back healthy, in shape, and motivated or we need to draft some solid interior help.  Too many of our guys are one trick ponies on defense.  Raef can still block shots but can't move his feet that well anymore or retain a strong vertical base.  Jamaal has the vertical base and strength down but doesn't move that well either.  Travis is great off the help but not strong or quick enough to stay with his own man.  Zach probably isn't going to get much better than he already is on defense.  Przybilla has the ability and guts to play the position against most opponents but if he can't go we need a big, strong, quick guy with some passion for the defensive end to play alongside Lamarcus.  Aldridge is the other big hope.  If he adds some mass and strength without losing too much of his quickness he will become formidable and will do a lot to improve our defensive game all by himself.  I look for a steep defensive learning curve from him next year and then solid defensive production the year after.

Perimeter Defense:  Much like the interior defense, the perimeter defense was expected to be much improved this year.  Jarrett Jack was supposed to learn to use his body and strength to bully opposing point guards.  Brandon Roy's quickness was supposed to be an asset.  Darius Miles or Travis Outlaw were supposed to create trouble with their athleticism.  Ime was hired specifically for his defense.  But much like the interior defense this didn't exactly pan out either.  Ime was fantastic the first part of the season but his knee and the wear and tear of watching the best opposing player night after night caught up to him.  Good opposing scorers learned to use their height advantage over him to neutralize his mobility and smarts.  Brandon was decent most nights, not so much others, but with all the load he was carrying offensively it isn't fair to criticize him too much yet.  Jack's defense didn't materialize much at all to my eyes.  He had real trouble keeping quicker guards out of the lane.  He also looked impotent defending against picks.  Darius never played.  Travis played a lot of power forward but couldn't keep quicker players in front of him on the perimeter either.  Martell improved his defense this year but that's kind of like saying a catcher is pretty quick on the bases in baseball.  That may be true, but he still ain't no shortstop.  Dickau wasn't good defensively.  Sergio wasn't good defensively.  Juan Dixon wasn't good defensively to start the year and Fred Jones didn't look too much more than decent the second part.  In short, we finished the year with one player to hang our hats on when healthy and maybe another one on the way but not much more than that.  

The biggest evidence of this was the scheme we had to employ to defend pick and rolls.  We switched on everything because nobody had the oomph or the skills to stop anybody out there.  That left us with some atrocious matchups which other teams routinely exploited.  Ironically enough, though, it also revealed a glimmer of hope.  Just as Travis was better than expected rotating inside, Lamarcus showed some incredible skill for a 6'11" guy going outside to defend.  He did some amazing stuff shutting down smaller players.  It makes you think that this guy has the potential to be a defensive superstar someday.  

Despite that, teams still got far too many drives and shot a constant barrage of open jumpers against us.  Fortunately in today's NBA people miss a lot of open jumpers but that doesn't change the fact that we need to contest shots a lot better.  Opposing guards laid the smack down on us on a regular basis this year.

Also it must be said that as dismally as the year turned out in this area, we were still much better than in the two years prior.  That's really, really faint praise, but it's praise for progress nonetheless.

Grade:  D-

Prognosis:  There are so many variables here it's hard to predict.  Who will play small forward?  Darius?  Travis?  Martell?  Ime?   Someone we trade for or draft?  Will Jarrett still be here and if so can he stay in front of anybody or learn to fight through a pick?  Will Brandon's quickness translate to the defensive end?  (My bet is yes on that one and him anchoring that backcourt defensively may be one of the biggest steps we take towards becoming a good team.)  Can we get a backup point guard with some defensive ability, especially if Sergio eventually ends up the starter?  That's way too many questions to be confident at this point.  But until this area becomes more settled we're going to keep hanging our big men out to dry which is going to hamper our game considerably.  We don't necessarily have to be all-world defenders in the backcourt.  Few guard tandems are nowadays.  But we have to be decent at least.

Transition Defense:  Transition defense was a point of emphasis coming into the season.  As it turns out we had mixed results.  Our guards are young and they like to drive.  That's a dangerous combination for transition defensive purposes.  If they don't remember to get back our fannies are exposed and that happened a lot this year.  It did get better as the year went by, however.  At the beginning of the season teams were breaking on us left and right.  When we hit our stride in the middle of the year you'd usually see at least two out of our three small players getting back.  (Martell and Ime were often buried in the corner and couldn't.)  The key was usually how many big guys got back along with them, and this is where the strong contrast between Lamarcus Aldridge and everybody else showed strongest.  When Lamarcus was in the game opponents had a hard time breaking because he'd often be the first guy down the floor both ways.  When Zach or Jamaal were in they'd usually be the last guy down the floor both ways.  This was particularly typical (and frustrating) of Zach, even with him being in better shape this year.  Without Lamarcus teams would be three-on-two.  Aldridge slowed them down enough to make it three-on-four most trips.  Unfortunately Lamarcus didn't play for most of the year, but hopefully that won't be the case next year.

Grade:  C- (for effort and improvement...probably lower if you want to be pragmatic)

Prognosis:  Again a lot will depend on who is playing those smaller positions but I really think this is an area that will improve.  It's unlikely both Zach and Jamaal will be back.  It's very likely Lamarcus will see extended playing time.  That alone will make us more proficient even if we don't make another move.  Getting an athletic small forward who was willing to make the effort would shore us up about as well as we need.

Overall Defense:  As you might expect from the foregoing, the overall defensive picture wasn't too pretty this year.  Our 98.4 points per game allowed put us in a virtual tie for 14th in the NBA...right in the middle of the pack.  That's deceptive though because we played a slow-down, halfcourt game.  Had we been successful defensively we should have been better.  Our 47.08 field goal percentage allowed left us 25th in the league but this, too was deceptive.  Four of the five teams below us play higher tempo, run-and-gun styles where they just don't care that much.  It really mattered to us with our style of play and in essence we performed worse than any team besides injury-riddled Memphis.

Grade:  D

Prognosis:  This is one of those things that is probably going to get better with time.  They say shooting is one of the last things to come for young players but I think it can take a couple years in the league before you not only understand defensive principles, assignments, and positioning but are able to put them into practice instinctively enough to matter.  We have quite a few guys who are still confused on defense and quite a few more who have to think about it too much.  Of the guys who do understand it most are either unmotivated or unable to put their bodies to best use on that end of the floor.  The good news is that our younger guys will learn.  Management seems to be making a commitment to acquiring people who have defense (or at least the potential for defense) as part of the package and to ridding themselves of guys who won't make a go of it.  Within a couple years I expect an upswing.

THE MIDDLE GAME

Offensive Rebounding:   This was an area of relative strength for the team.  We have some nice individual offensive rebounders.  Zach Randolph is one of the best in the league.  Lamarcus Aldridge really showed a knack for it too.  We ended up 14th in the league in offensive rebounds per game and we were tied for 9th in offensive rebounding percentage.  That makes this one of the higher ranking stats our team has.

Grade:  B

Prognosis:  This depends totally on who we lose and who else we acquire.  There's no reason to think Lamarcus won't remain steady but if we lose Zach we lose a lot of offensive boards along with him.  As I've said a couple times before, though, overall I wouldn't be too disappointed to see us concentrate on other areas.  It's fine to have it as a strength but it's not really indicative of success and can indicate that you kind of stink at shooting.

Defensive Rebounding:  This is still an area of concern for the Blazers.  We finished 29th in the league in overall defensive rebounds and tied for 11th by rebounding percentage.  As with many things the low gross number is partially determined by our slow-down game and fewer shots going up but part of it is also that we allow our opponents to shoot too high of a percentage.  Even with the slow-down game 29th is way too low.  If we're going to be a successful halfcourt team we probably need to be in the upper third.

Grade: C

Prognosis:  Our two best rebounders by volume are Zach and Jamaal, and again we're almost sure to lose one of those two.  This will put significant pressure on Lamarcus to step up.  He's shown far more aptitude for offensive rebounds so far and flat out that has to change.  On the bright side, Travis, Martell, and our guards have all shown the ability to help out so there's hope that we could be pretty good as a whole someday.  Most of it is a mindset and how much you value the ball and we need to value it highly.

Overall Rebounding Grade:  C+  (And that's a MAJOR improvement from last year when we were in F territory.)

Turnovers: We became a team this year that neither forced nor committed that many turnovers, which is a balance I think we'll take right now.  At the beginning of the year it looked like we might become a turnover factory and that surely would have killed us.  Instead we learned to take care of the ball and most of our young guys who had issues with the NBA ball-handling rules resolved them quickly.  (It didn't hurt that the refs basically stopped enforcing them after the first month.)  Our inability to force turnovers (13.3 per game, 28th in the league) contributed to our lack of easy buckets but we need to resolve a lot bigger defensive problems before we even think about risking an opportunistic defensive style.  We'd also need a severe shift in personnel, as Jack, Zach, and Jamaal (among others) are wholly unsuited for a gambling style of defense.  Despite making one more turnover per game than we gave up this area didn't kill us, which is all you can ask right now.

Grade:  C-

Prognosis:  This is another area that will improve naturally with age, familiarity with the game, and comfort with each other.  One quick jump-start might be a pressing unit including (perhaps) Lamarcus, Travis, and Brandon.  We tried to press a little bit late in the year and I could see Nate developing that as an occasional strategy.

THE INTANGIBLES:

Size/Speed/Athleticism:  We made a commitment to getting taller this year and I suspect that this aspect alone led to some of the improved play.  We used to be dwarfed in the backcourt.  Now we're fairly tall.  Our frontcourt is adequate as well and many of the players under discussion for acquisition have height as well.  That's a good thing.

Speed is more of a mixed bag for us.  We have some nice quickness in guys like Brandon, Lamarcus, and of course Sergio.  But at other positions we're a lot slower.  We can go undersized with guys like Travis but then we lose some of our height and strength.  I expect the personnel shuffle to show us which way we're going.  It would be nice to get to a place where we didn't have to choose so often and so clearly between speed and talent.

We also upgraded athleticism this year.  Brandon is more of an athlete than most people gave him credit for.  Ditto Lamarcus.  Zach got more fit.  Jamaal is very strong.  Travis is making better use of his gifts.  Fred Jones is amazing for his size.  Jack is still solid.  Despite that we're not able to showcase our athleticism as much as we should.  And again, looking somewhat better than last year is kind of like saying Hudson Hawk was a somewhat better movie than Ishtar.

It seems silly to give a grade or prognosis for things that can't really be changed so let's just say we've come a little ways but we still have quite a long ways to go.  We need to be more unified in what type of style we want to play and get players with the physical attributes and talent necessary to play it.  There were quite a few losses this year where we just got physically dominated by older, stronger, faster players and we need to develop those characteristics ourselves before we can really succeed.

Basketball IQ:  This was clearly one of the areas where we took a major leap this year...in fact it may be the biggest.  Brandon Roy on the court doubles your BBIQ on the spot.  Plus we had a lot more "coachable" players this year.  At least half of Basketball IQ is simply listening to what you're told and then doing it...not breaking plays and confusing your teammates to do your own thing.  We showed the ability to recognize and execute good plays on offense and it's been a while since we've seen that around here.  Since two-thirds of Kevin Pricthard's mantra consists of "Play Smarter" and "Play Together" it's reasonable to assume that our intelligence will continue to grow.  If you were to give a grade to measure progress here you'd say we leapt from somewhere around an F or D- to about a B.

Hustle and Heart:  This is another area where we saw major improvement this year.  There is a caveat though, and let's start with that.  We still play way too much "pretty boy" basketball for our level of talent.  You don't see a lot of guys diving for loose balls.  You don't see guys throwing subtle elbows or making people regret they set a screen.  In some ways we're a night off for the opponent in terms of physical intensity and that has to change if we're going to improve.  That said, for most of the season you could not count us out of any game.  Five down, fifteen down, twenty-five down, it didn't matter.  We seldom gave up and we seldom retreated into the kind of basketball idiocy that was so common a season before.  We didn't always have the tools and talent to play the kind of game we wanted to, but we never really stopped trying to play it anyway.  And I really think we caught a lot of other teams by surprise that way.  Even if we didn't win we made them work harder than they expected to.  For now that's a feather in our cap.  Because we have such a long distance to go in the first part I'd say we get a C+ or B-, but again this is light years ahead of where we started the season.

Next up:  The big picture perspective of the season as a whole:  where we've been, where we are, and where we're going.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)