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Portland Trail Blazers: Keys to Improving Transition Defense

How can the Blazers tighten up their transition D on their quest for a top ten defense? The final article in a series discussing the Blazers' opportunities for defensive improvement.


ed. Today we're featuring some of the best Blazer's Edge articles of the summer in case you're just joining us and didn't catch them the first time around. Enjoy this submission from Willy Raedy on improving the Blazers' transition defense.


"Get Back!"

These are two of the most common words shouted by basketball coaches from here to Florida, right behind "Let's go!" and "%$*&! #$#%@". The sentiment holds true even at the highest levels but it's the precision of when and how that gets tricky.

In many ways, transition defense has more to do with a team's offensive principles than their defense. It all starts with where your players are when the other team gains possession. This may seem obvious but the implication is that offensive spacing is not only critical to create shots but defend them as well. When a shot goes up, the floor needs to be balanced with at least two players behind the free throw line. This gives those defenders enough of a head start to set up against the fast break, holding the fort until the rest of their teammates catch up.

Here, every single white jersey is below the foul line as Damian Lillard releases his shot. He misses and it's a foot race to the other end of the court. With the occasional Nicolas Batum chase down block aside, the offense wins that footrace every time.

No amount of hustle is ever going to change the result of that play. As soon as the shot went up, the Blazers were gambling, betting everything that it would go in.

Most of the time the Blazers were not this bad. Stotts often positions at least one player at the top of the key with players in each corner. However, if both bigs crash, that can leave the man at the top of the key feeling awfully lonely.

Wesley Matthews does the right thing here. He recognizes the Blazers' unbalanced positioning and starts retreating out of the corner while the ball is still in the air. As a result, he's just past the foul line with his momentum going in the right direction as the Pacers secure the ball. If he waits until after the rebound, he's a step or two behind and Scola gets an easy lay-up.

Individual player's responsibilities get more complicated when you consider how many different ways an offensive possession can end. In this clip, Aldridge takes a shot from the top of the key. Since he is so far from the hoop, Aldridge doesn't crash the board. This, theoretically, frees up one of the other players to attack the glass while still keeping the floor balanced. The best teams recognize these positional differences and their players understand when they can crash and when they can't based on the where their teammates are on the court. The Blazers aren't quite there yet.

Damian Lillard, Dorell Wright, and Nicolas Batum all go after the rebound. If even one of them drops back Gerald Green probably doesn't get that lay-up. Knowing exactly who screwed up depends on the specifics of the Blazers' principles. Dorell probably gets a pass since he's playing power forward at the time. On one hand, Nic is at the top of the key, so his position on the court lends itself to defending the fast break. On the other hand, Nic is much, much bigger. Perhaps the team would be better off with Damian sprinting back freeing Batum to rebound. Either way, both guys can't go for the ball.

When trying to shore up the basics, simplest is usually best as complexity tends to come at the expense of execution. The simplest solution is to send all three perimeter players back on every play. That way, even if one of them shoots, you have two players to defend the opposing team's initial thrust.

Unfortunately, even in the clip where Wesley reacts correctly, the Blazers give up a pretty good look at a three pointer. No doubt, nightmares of the Spurs hitting those very shots came pouring in as you watched that clip. If the Blazers want to take that away completely they need to send a third guy back. The Bobcats gave up the fewest points in transition last year and a big part of that was Josh McRoberts. He frequently stayed around the three point line and dropped back rather than crashing the glass. As a result, the Bobcats often had three defenders ahead of the play. If the Blazers want to be that elite in transition, they should consider doing the same. Assuming Robin Lopez always crashes, that means anytime another player takes a shot near the baseline the other three players should drop back, including Thomas Robinson in the above clip against Indiana.

What's that you say? Robinson is a beast on the boards? And the Blazers were the 3rd best offensive rebounding team in the league, a big part of their elite offense?

Thus emerges one of the great debates in the analytical community:  is crashing the offensive glass a winning strategy? Do you get more in second chance points than you give up in transition?

Lots of people smarter than me have analyzed the question statistically. I'll just say there are a few teams that have been able to have their cake and eat it too. Last year's Chicago Bulls was one such team ranking 11th in offensive rebounding percentage and 9th in fast break points allowed. It's not hard to see why. With a large, active frontline and the commitment to play two bigs at all times, the Bulls get their fair share of offensive rebounds without sending wings to crash the boards. I can think of another team with its own set of energetic big men that might be able to employ a similar strategy.

This is something to keep in mind as Barton gets more minutes and we salivate over Batum's five by five games. It's easy to see the putback dunks and gaudy stat lines and think their rebounding is a plus. It's a lot harder to pinpoint exactly which wing forgot to rotate back preparing for the fast break. If the Blazers commit to letting their big men attack the glass, it leaves a lot less freedom for the wings to do the same.

This precision in positioning sets the Blazers up for success but it far from guarantees it. The next key is good communication. Typically, the top priorities in transition are to stop the ball and protect the rim. Teams are complicating this somewhat by running elite shooters straight to the corners but it still largely holds true. The Blazers could certainly improve how they matched up in transition preventing things like this from ever happening again:

Or this:

Ugh. I was genuinely surprised by how prevalent these types of plays were last year. Picking between the plethora of clips was probably the most disheartening part of my film study. In both examples, there are at least three Blazers ahead of the play but no one runs to the rim and no one really picks up the ball handler. Just terrible. Here the Blazers start in roughly the same starting position but force a drastically different result.

Mo Williams picks up Eric Bledsoe at half court slowing him down and both Batum and Lamarcus Aldridge run straight to the hoop taking away the drive and pass to Gerald Green. Bledsoe is forced to pass to the trailing Dragic and Lillard hustles back to force the turnover.

Too often, transition defense gets boiled down to hustle with the assumption that players are lazy if they give up transition buckets. I think that understates the complex positioning and communication required, but hustle is certainly still a key part of the equation. No matter how dedicated two (or even three) players are they just can't defend the court effectively. It's simply impossible to stop players at this level with so much space. The best that can be expected is for the defenders to take away the most dangerous shots for a short period of time.

In order to make sure those players aren't left on their own for too long, the rest of the team has to hustle back. An ideal transition defense would go something like this:  a shot goes up and at least two, preferably three Blazers start retreating to prepare for the fast break. As the opposing team dribbles up the floor, one Blazer picks up the ball as soon as possible, slowing it down. The other goes to the paint helping to corral the ball handler and prevent a lay-up. The ball handler probes, trying to hit his teammate streaking to the hoop but is forced to pass to the trailer spotting up for a three. The other Blazers hustle back preventing the shot and forcing the offense to reset. The Blazers got pretty dang close to that ideal in the last clip.

Anyone who watched the Blazers last year knows that, for the most part, this was not a lazy team. There were certainly some lapses but more often than not, every player put in the effort and ran hard. It was the Blazer's poor positioning and lack of communication that prevented this hustle from really shining through. All this takes is focus and a willingness to give up some offensive rebounds both individually and as a team. Out of all the opportunities for defensive improvement I've discussed, this should be the easiest thing to correct.

As I was writing this, Terry Stotts was asked a question about what went into improving the Blazers' transition D.

"It's everything. We have times where you put in the effort to get back and you don't communicate. Sometimes you don't get those first two or three steps, say, out of the corner and now you're behind the play. Just having the alertness. I think it's mental effort and physical effort."

Leave it to coach to sum up a 2,000 word article in a single sound bite.

It's great to see Stotts articulate the Blazers' key weaknesses so clearly and it's obvious he has his finger on the pulse of the team. Unfortunately, that's only half the battle. Getting the players to buy in and holding everyone accountable will ultimately determine if that understanding shows itself on the court. It's a process, but we can rest assured knowing the Blazers are on the right path and the man leading the way knows where he wants to go.

If you'd like to keep tabs on their progress yourself, look for it to be more crowded as opposing guards try to cross over into the middle of the floor and for fewer switches against the pick and roll. On the weakside, look for more kick outs to shooters and see how well the Blazers close out to contest the three pointer. Finally, in transition, watch for players moving backwards before the rebound and for the Blazers to pick up the ball handler higher up the court.

Statistically, look for the team to be at least average in protecting the paint, top ten in both defensive rebounding and transition, and no longer a historical anomaly in forcing turnovers. In exchange, the Blazers should expect to lose their crown as the best offensive rebounding team in the league and give up a few more three pointers. How these trade-offs play out will largely determine the success of the Blazers' season. A top five overall defense may be out of reach since we don't play in the East like the Bobcats, but top ten is certainly an ambitious but attainable goal.

Stotts and company have a lot of work ahead of them, but if the Blazers can start doing all of this consistently, it could be a great season. Now if only it would just start already.

If you missed the first two articles in the series you can find them here: Part 1 Part 2