If you were to describe last year's Blazers in four words or less you might start with "elite offense, average defense". A thrilling and somewhat surprising series victory doesn't change the fact that, historically, "elite offense, average defense" is more typical of a first round exit than a deep playoff run.
As you might expect, the man tasked with getting the Blazers to the promised land is well aware of this. Here's what head coach Terry Stotts had to say when discussing the Blazers' outlook earlier this summer:
"Our improvement has to come at the defensive end ... I'd like to be in the Top 10 in both offense and defense. I think that puts you in a championship mode. I look at our consistency, how we can get better defensively is my biggest concern. A lot of it is going to be getting better in transition defense. Our pick and roll defense was solid. Our weakside defense, I think, is going to be the big area where we are more alert on the weakside."
This quote is telling because Stotts not only identifies the problem but highlights transition and weakside defense as key areas of improvement. With that, the big question of the offseason is broken down into manageable chunks. Namely, how can the Blazers improve in transition and weakside defense, how much improvement can we expect given our personnel, and how big of a difference could that make for the Blazer's overall defense?
But before we get into that, there's another statement in that quote that may have elicited the following response: "Does Stotts really think our pick and roll defense was solid? Has he seen Lillard play? And he knew Mo Williams was on the team last year, right? Uh...coach?"
In basketball, as with most things, everything relates to everything else. It's impossible, or at least incomplete, to discuss one piece without understanding how it affects other parts of the defense. This is especially true with the relationship between pick and roll defense and the weakside defense. In today's NBA, more often than not, the ball is on one side of the floor involved in a pick and roll and the weakside defenders are trying to help while still covering their shooters. A shaky pick and roll defense puts more pressure on weakside defenders and vice versa. If we want to analyze not only how the Blazers can improve their weakside but also how much improvement they need to be a top defensive team, it's necessary to understand the burden the pick and roll defense places on them.
Unfortunately, that visceral response is largely true as both our point guards, and Matthews and Batum for that matter, got caught up in screens too often. I hate to make Blazers fans suffer through even one more of these plays, but for the sake of completeness, here's Lillard getting absolutely buried on a screen against the Spurs.
Notice how much space Parker has after coming off the screen. This not only leaves the mid-range jumper wide open, it also opens up passing lanes and leaves Aldridge trying to defend Parker in space.
One option would be to have Aldridge meet Parker higher up the court. This would challenge the mid-range jumper and impede Parker's ability to cross over and get to the middle of the floor. However, that puts incredible pressure on Aldridge to prevent Parker from getting to the rim, the defense's top priority. In fact, this pressure often had the opposite effect as Blazers bigs were forced to take a step closer to the hoop when facing explosive guards. In some ways, this isn't a big deal as even uncontested jumpers are relatively bad shots. However, it also allows the opposing guard to "snake" the screen. Instead of driving straight to the hoop, the guard cuts across towards the middle of the floor. Once he's there, he can break down the big defender one on one or open up a passing lanes to his teammates - both significant problems for the defense.
The Suns' Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe are particularly fond of this maneuver and it's part of why the Blazers struggled so mightily against them last year.
*Excerpt from youtube user Dawk Ins' highlight video
Notice how Lillard's inability to get over the screen gives Dragic plenty of space to cross over. By doing so, Dragic essentially doubles the distance Lopez has to travel to contest Frye's shot. Lillard gave him an inch and he took a mile. It would have been better if Lillard just switched the screen, conceding the fact that he fell too far behind the play to recover. The Blazers eventually figured this out and switched many pick and rolls during their final meeting against the Suns.
All of this culminated in the Blazers ranking 27th in defending the pick and roll ball handler, according to Synergy statistics. Our neighbors? The Utah Jazz at 26 and the mighty Milwaukee Bucks at 28. Any time you're rubbing elbows with teams that started Richard Jefferson and Khris Middleton there might be a problem.
But that's only half the story. There is also the roll man to deal with, or as is now more often the case, the popping big man spotting up after a pick. I alluded to the Blazer's bigs' lack of mobility earlier and it rears its ugly head yet again. The Blazers were often a step slow recovering to a popping big man giving up uncontested jumper after uncontested jumper.
The one big man with the elite athleticism necessary to contest these kinds of shots is Thomas Robinson. Unfortunately, the discipline isn't quite there yet, as Robinson was often overly aggressive.
It's impossible to overstate how bad that close-out was. He closes out on Scola's left shoulder rather than staying centered and somehow leaves his feet even though Scola isn't preparing to shoot. It's quite sad that the one player with the tools to succeed somehow uses those tools to create a worse result. (Robinson was much better in summer league and his development could make a huge difference for the Blazers in this regard. #TeamTRob)
Put all this together and it's no surprise the Blazers ranked second to last in FG% allowed between 10 feet and the three point line.
This isn't the end of the world, as those shots are still relatively unproductive but it becomes a much bigger problem when the screener steps out to the three point line. Which opponent have we already talked about that likes to keep a three point shooting big man on the floor? It's no wonder the Suns were such a problem when both their ball handler and screener like to do the things we struggle most to defend.
All of this is exacerbated by the Blazers' decision to send minimal weak side help. However, even with that in mind, describing the Blazers pick and roll defense as "solid" seems like quite a stretch if not just completely wrong.
The problem is, given Robin Lopez's physical attributes, this scheme likely maximizes everyone's abilities. Where then could improvement come from?
First off, Blake can't be worse than Williams (right? please tell me I'm right) and Barton and CJ both looked better during summer league. All of them replacing Mo's minutes should help to some degree. Lillard certainly has the physical tools and Dane Carbaugh did a great job explaining how Lillard can fight through screens more effectively with a Playbook Breakdown last year. Here's the excerpt where he discusses the issue.
Essentially, by trying to stay in front, Lillard runs smack into the screen and falls behind the play. George Hill trails from the start and is able to stay connected to his man's hip, working in concert with his big man to corral the dribble and contest the jumper from behind. Notice how Hill stays in-between his man and the middle of the floor making it difficult for the guard to cross over without exposing the ball.
Quick Aside: This is one reason why Chris Paul is so deadly in the pick and roll. If you try to stay in front, he blasts you into the screen. If you try to trail, he uses his butt to protect the ball and dribbles to the middle of the floor effectively creating the same effect as if he "snaked" the pick and roll. It's a lose-lose for the defense.
Our starting bigs did about as well as can be expected given their inherent mobility constraints. However, it would be possible to tighten up their communication with our guards. Occasionally, they were out of position or left the ball handler before our guard could fully recover. I would expect many of these errors to naturally decrease as the Blazers enter their second year with the same scheme.
All of that combined probably doesn't take us from bottom five to top ten in pick and roll defense, but luckily we may not need that kind of improvement. The Charlotte Horn-cats showed you could have an elite defense while defending the pick and roll at a below average rate.
Charlotte had the 5th ranked defense last year despite ranking 22nd in both defending the pick and roll ball handler and mid-range FG% allowed, the same categories the Blazers struggled with. This makes sense, as the Hornets have many of the same physical limitations with Al Jefferson manning the back line and run a similar defensive scheme.
The discussed opportunities for improvement, while modest, can certainly jump the Blazers up five spots. The key difference is all the other things the Hornets do extremely well to make up for their struggles defending the pick and roll. That's where transition and weakside defense come in, which I'll cover in my next piece.
The Blazers will never be solid at defending the pick and roll but they can be solid enough. In the end, that's all that really matters.