clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Strengthening the Weakside: The Key to the Blazers' Defensive Improvement

Last year, the Blazers' weakside defense was well...rather weak. How can they go about strengthening it and what would that mean for the season? Part two in a three part series discussing the Blazers' opportunities for defensive improvement.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

If you missed the first article on pick and roll defense, you can find it here.

When thinking about the Blazers' pick and roll defense last year, the image that comes to mind is an opposing guard coming off a screen with four feet of space in every direction. This situation is a harbinger of bad results as opposing guards used that space to get to the middle of the floor, attack the paint, or shoot wide-open jump shots - all relatively bad outcomes for the defense.

The easiest way to buttress a poor pick and roll defense is to position extra men closer to the action. This eats away all of the space the attacking ball handler had to work with. The Bobcats are a perfect example of this (Can I still call them the Bobcats since I'm talking about last year?). They used a similar scheme to defend the pick and roll with similar personnel but were significantly better at protecting the rim. Most of their success came from aggressively positioning their weak side defenders in the paint.

Look at where Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are against this Dwyane Wade pick and roll:


Even though Al Jefferson is giving Wade lots of cushion he can't really go anywhere because the paint is so crowded. Compare that to how the Blazers defended a similar play.


The Blazers stubbornly and strategically refused to send help last year preferring to keep their weakside defenders close to shooters. As a result, the Blazers were one of the best teams at  defending the three point line and gave up the fewest corner threes in the league. This brings up an important tension between points in the paint and points from behind the arc. Working to take one away makes it more difficult to defend the other. Positioning weak side Blazers near the paint may come at the cost of open three point looks.

While this is true to some extent, focus, athleticism, and good footwork allow the best teams to do both. They help their teammates control the ball and then close-out hard if the opposing team passes to a spot up shooter. Sagging closer to the paint also prepares weakside defenders to make key rotations. These rotations, more accurately described as "helping and then recovering", are myriad but I'll focus on stunting, bumping, and pinching. The Blazers often missed, or chose not to make, these rotations and doing so consistently would greatly help the Blazers protect the rim and support their pick and roll defense.


Pick and pops were effective against the Blazers because our bigs were often a step slow recovering to their man. Stunting stalls the shooter for a half second giving their teammate the extra time needed to contest the jumper - all while not giving up an open three point look.

Dorell Wright does it DWrightWay here. His presence prevents Scola from shooting a jumper in rhythm allowing Robinson to recover and force the bad pass.

Notice how Wright arrives simultaneously with the ball. By the time Scola has caught the ball and had the chance to look up Wright is already recovering to his man. He simply breaks up the rhythm of Scola's jumper.

There are four keys to his success. First, he takes a step and a half up the court as Watson goes around the screen clearly anticipating the play. Second, he begins his stunt as soon as the ball is in the air reacting quickly to the pass. Third, he keeps his weight back as he approaches Scola allowing him to recover to his man quickly. Fourth, he steps up into the passing lane as he returns to his man. If he fails to do any of these four things, Scola has an open jumper or an easy pass to Stephenson for a corner three.

Unfortunately, the Blazers often skipped some of those steps.

Batum is backpedalling away from the action as George Hill starts to dribble. You can see the half second it takes him to shift his weight in order to start moving toward David West. He also seems surprised by the pass only beginning to react after West catches the ball. Batum keeps his weight back as he approaches but doesn't step up into the passing lane.

As a result, West gets a wide open jumper in rhythm. He also catches the ball and looks up as Batum is still coming towards him. This makes it an easy read and pass to Paul George for an open three pointer. Batum's momentum would have been going in the opposite direction so there is no way he could recover in time. Considering how hot George was during this game (43 pts, 7/15 from deep), West might have done us a favor by taking the jumper.

All of this highlights the incredible precision required by NBA defenses. A half step here and a shift of your weight there can be the difference between a wide open jumper and a turnover. This type of precision is equally important for the other rotations as well.

Bumping the Roller

Bumping the roller is critical when trying to defend athletic big men. If not done properly it can have disastrous consequences on the scoreboard, team morale, and an individual player's sense of self-worth.

*Video courtesy of the NBA's youtube account

There are a couple different breakdowns on this play. Why Greg Monroe is "helping" defend Chris Paul when Jose Calderon is clearly right in front of him I'll never know. But the take home message is that letting Jordan take four steps unimpeded and then trying to contest the shot at the rim is a bad idea. Like the worst idea you could possibly think of. Like an idea so bad, it will define the rest of your career and no one will remember you for anything else.

A much more successful strategy is to beat the rolling big man to the spot before the pass. Again, we turn to the Bobcats to demonstrate. Although Jefferson steps up instead of dropping back against the screen as he usually does, the principle is still the same.

Kemba Walker is between Bosh and the basket the moment James Jones catches the ball and his presence gives Jefferson the time to catch up to the play. All the little things that make stunting successful are true here as well. Walker moves into the paint during Wade's pick and roll anticipating the play. He keeps his weight back ready to recover to his own man and almost picks off the pass. As a result of trying, he's off balance allowing Chalmers to get to the rim and create the three point look. However, I think we can all agree a cross court pass, drive and dish, and angle three pointer is much more difficult for the offense to execute than a simple alley-oop in space. Unless you're the Spurs of course.

The Blazers almost never helped this much. Walker is on the complete opposite side of the key as his man. This type of cross court coverage requires not only attention to detail, anticipation, and positioning, but lots of energy as well. Whether the Blazers can lean so heavily on their starters and also expect this kind of exertion is an open question. On the other hand, Walker averaged 35.8 minutes per game last year, the exact same as Damian Lillard. So maybe they just need to suck it up and stop making excuses.


Stunting and bumping are most often seen in the context of the pick and roll. Pinching happens anytime a big is forced to leave his man to protect the rim. This leaves the opposing center open near the hoop for an easy dunk.

Here Wade gets by Henderson forcing Jefferson to step up and prevent the lay-up. That leaves Bosh open on the baseline if not for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist pinching to take away the dump pass.

This kind of action is sometimes referred to as "helping the helper". Jefferson helps initially and this requires someone to help him and so on down the line. Kidd-Gilchrist ends the chain of helping with a perfect closeout against the greatest player in the world. Now if only he could learn to shoot and then join the Blazers.

Here is a similar play where Lillard completely misses his pinching responsibility.

Now before we chastise Lillard, it's important to note how everything is connected. Bledsoe completely blows by Williams getting into the paint very quickly. This gives Lillard much less time to make his rotation. Lillard is clearly more than a half step behind as he should have started the possession lower and seemed largely unaware of the play developing behind him. However, even if Lillard was ready and made the rotation correctly it likely wouldn't have made much of a difference. Bledsoe has too much space and too much time to read the defense. If Lillard takes away the pass to Plumlee he opens up the pass to Ish Smith in the corner. Dunks are clearly the worst thing a defense can let happen but corner threes aren't very far behind.

Now change the story slightly and assume Mo Williams still gets beat but not as badly. If he stays trailing on Bledsoe's hip, Aldridge can wait an extra half second before helping and it gives Lillard more time to take away the dunk. Now Bledsoe is trying to make that long pass to the corner in a split second with a worse angle and two guys draped all over him. Even if Bledsoe gets it through, the pass is likely off target forcing Smith to take a beat and collect himself before shooting. This half second gives Lillard enough time to recover and contest the corner three.

Aside: This is why the Spurs' "baseline drive, baseline drift" or "Hammer" play is so devastating. They bait you into thinking you've got them in this situation and then they create the passing lane to the corner by jumping out of bounds.

You can see this positive chain of small differences in the Bobcat's example. Henderson gets beat but stays with Wade. As a result, Wade doesn't have the space to euro-step and all Jefferson has to do is stand there. Henderson's pressure also disrupts the kick-out pass forcing Lebron to dribble rather than take the open three. Henderson fighting for just a few more feet makes his teammates' rotations wildly successful rather than complete failures.

This is why I find NBA defenses so fascinating. I already discussed how small changes in someone's individual defense could drastically change the result. Half steps and shifting your weight can be the difference between open shots and turnovers. But you also have the same relationship between players. Minuscule differences in one player's defense affects the difficulty of the next guy's responsibilities and so on down the line. It's like chaos theory for hoops: small changes in the assumptions lead to drastically different outcomes.

It's also why there is lots of hope for the Blazers to improve in this area. Small improvements in their awareness and positioning could have disproportionate impacts on the effectiveness of their overall defense.

Just looking at the Bobcat's perimeter rotation shows that the Blazers have all the necessary athleticism and talent. Walker, Ridnour, Henderson, Neal, Kidd-Gilchrist, and Doughlas-Roberts isn't exactly a murders row of defensive specialists. In fact, if you compare them to the Blazer's projected rotation next year the only defensive advantage they have is at the starting SF position (if you haven't been lucky enough to witness MKG's amazing footwork you should check it out. It was more exciting than Charlotte's offense last year. Wow...that might be the nerdiest thing I've ever said about basketball).

The counter argument for all of this is that the Blazers won't be able to handle these added weakside responsibilities and still cover the three point line. We like to think things like focus and effort are completely malleable but why would Faried be so valuable if that were true? The Blazers might not be as good as the Bobcats, and even if they were, those same kitties were below average in preventing three point attempts and ranked 24th in opponent three point FG%. All in all, the Blazers allowed a lower Effective Field Goal percentage than the Bobcats last year which takes into account the added value of three pointers. Doesn't that mean the Blazers had a better balance between preventing three pointers and protecting the rim than your exalted Bobcats, even if it was a little unorthodox? Shouldn't we be looking elsewhere for improvement, like defensive rebounding, turnovers, and transition defense which affect the number of shots in the half court rather than their distribution?

My retort is that this misses the relationship between weakside positioning, turnovers, and defensive rebounding. It's not simply "no threes" vs. "no layups". Rather it's no threes vs. no layups, more turnovers, and better rebounding.

By giving the ball handler less space and clogging up the paint teams are bound to create more turnovers. Stotts alluded to as much during the same interview that motivated this whole analysis.

"Our weakside defense, I think, is going to be the big area where we are more alert on the weakside. I think that will help - we were obviously low in forcing turnovers. I think we'll force more turnovers by being more alert on the weakside and being in better help position rather than necessarily trying to steal the ball and intercept passes and gambling."

Here’s a perfect example of what Stotts is talking about:

This was one of the rare times when the Blazers had all five defenders in the paint. All of those bodies forced Dragic into an errant pass. The Bobcats ranked just 26th in opponent turnover percentage but they were at least in line with the rest of the league. The Blazers ranked dead last and were more than a percentage point behind the next worst team. A percentage point may not sound like much but it was by far the largest distance between two neighboring teams in the rankings. The Blazers were not only bad at forcing turnovers, they were historically bad. The only effective way to fix that is by sending more help defenders.

Last year, many people were surprised by how much our rebounding improved. Especially considering we lost the double-double machine JJ Hickson. What became apparent was that our new defensive scheme was a big part of the explanation. By keeping our bigs closer to the hoop we put them in better rebounding position. The same principle applies to perimeter players. If you position them closer to the paint, they are more prepared to fight for the board.

Here, Ginobili is able to prevent T-Rob for getting a rebound because he pinched during the play.

His rotation not only prevents the alley-oop, it also crowds Robinson as he goes for the offensive board. The Spurs largely neutralized the Blazer's offensive rebounding during the series and this is a great example of how. This positioning effect is a key reason why the Bobcats and Spurs were ranked 1st and 4th in defensive rebounding percentage last year while the Blazers remained average.

The final take-away is that an NBA defense is a complex cocktail of competing relationships too vast and nuanced to enumerate completely. The Blazers had an unique mix last year with a conservative scheme, refusing to bring help from the weakside. This led to lots of points in the paint, historically few turnovers, the best three point defense in the league, and an average defense overall. The Bobcats used a similar pick and roll scheme, with similar personnel, but brought lots of help from the weakside. This led to fewer points in the paint, more turnovers, better rebounding, below average coverage of the three point line, and the 5th ranked defense in the league.

How the Blazers go about finding the right balance between these scenarios will largely determine if they are able to take the next step. While the Blazers don't have the Pacers-esque athletes to be extremely aggressive on the weak side and maintain their elite status against the three, it's clear the Blazers must find a better mix. Ranking last or close to last in both turnovers and points in the paint simply won't get them to where they need to be defensively. The Blazers shouldn't copy the Bobcats whole hog but improvement begins with being more aggressive on the weakside. It will be especially interesting to see the extent to which the coaching staff makes these changes and the ability of the players to execute them.

As we've seen, a couple feet could make all the difference.