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How Is The Blazers' Defense So Good Without Forcing Turnovers?

The Blazers' defense doesn't force opponents into many turnovers, but that hasn't stopped the team from being among the NBA's best defensively. How is this possible?

Just suffocating.
Just suffocating.
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

I know, I know. You read a title like the one above, and you instinctively know what to expect from the article below it. The "question mark headline" is the oldest trick in the book. It's never used as a genuine rhetorical device - i.e., actually asking a question and searching for an answer. People who begin their articles with questions are those who already have solutions in mind. They're either setting you up for an obvious yes (for example - "Are the Blazers real contenders to win the Northwest Division?") or an obvious no (like, "Could the Blazers trade for LeBron James next week?") The point of the question mark is to grab people's attention, compel them to click, then pummel them with a condescending lecture about how you already know everything.

Relax. I'm not doing that here.

In this case, I'm throwing the question out there because I'm legitimately curious and I'm not sure what to say. The Trail Blazers are a bizarre anomaly of a basketball team in that:

  1. They are very good at defense - as in, they allow opposing teams to score very very few points against them.
  2. They are very bad at forcing turnovers - as in, they almost never steal the basketball from opposing teams, unless such an opportunity happens to fall accidentally into their laps.

You rarely see these two sentences written about the same team. But with the Blazers, they're both true, and it's perplexing to think about why. It seems kind of counter-intuitive - how does giving your opponent more possessions to work with translate to fewer points?

What's even more perplexing is to discover that this is by design. The Blazers are a low-turnover team because coach Terry Stotts actually wants them to be. He's said as much publicly - for example right here, in an interview last month with Grantland's Zach Lowe:

They’re still playing a conservative style - dropping back against pick-and-rolls, staying close to shooters on the wing, and diving inside to help only when there is a real threat. That system produced the second-lowest turnover rate in franchise history last season, but Stotts studied past champions and decided to basically punt turnovers, he says. "It’s just not a priority," he says. "Good defensive teams don't necessarily force a lot of turnovers."

That last sentence - "Good defensive teams don't necessarily force a lot of turnovers" - was mindboggling to me at first glance. It just didn't pass the common sense test! Every time you force a turnover, you're taking away your opponent's opportunity to shoot. The less they shoot, the less they score. Isn't preventing the scoring of points supposed to be the entire goal here? The knee-jerk reaction, at least in my mind, was to chalk Stotts' quote up to ignorance, much the same as Byron Scott's nonsensical declaration earlier this year that championship teams don't shoot 3-pointers.

Except here's the thing. The Blazers are weird. Logic might dictate that fewer turnovers means more scoring, but that's only true for... well, just about everyone in the NBA except Portland:

That's a scatterplot showing the correlation between turnovers and points. On the Y axis, you've got the percentage of possessions that the team's defense turns into turnovers - ranging from 10 percent to 17. On the X axis, you've got straightforward defensive efficiency - points per 100 possessions, ranging from 97 to just over 115 (side note: good lord, the Lakers are bad). The green best-fit line in the middle shows the league-wide trend - as turnovers go down, points go up. This is to be expected.

The Blazers, all alone down there in the bottom left corner, are farther from that green line than anyone else in the league. Translation: They're doing something really, really different. They're the absolute best team in the NBA at preventing scoring without relying on the turnover.

How in the world are they doing it?

I'm not here today to confidently present any answers, but I do want to toss out a few theories and see what others think. I'm going to go about this analysis by contrasting the Blazers with three other teams - Minnesota, Philadelphia and Dallas - that are basically Portland's opposite. High turnovers, weaker defense. The Wolves are third in the NBA in turnover rate but 28th in defensive efficiency; the 76ers are first but 13th; the Mavericks are second but 25th.

These are some reasons why.

1. High-percentage buckets

In the above passage about Stotts' defensive strategy, when Lowe mentions the coach's conservative strategy, what he really means is this - the Blazers are switching defenders on the vast majority of their opponents' pick-and-roll plays, making sure there's always someone guarding everyone, regardless of position or size. This works because Stotts has a roster loaded with versatile athletes - guys who are quick enough and long enough to guard a variety of players, even if it's LaMarcus Aldridge on a speedy guard or Damian Lillard in the post. They make it work.

Other teams don't have that luxury, so they play a gimmicky style wherein they choose one of the two players in a pick-and-roll, they commit, they trap him hard and they try to force a mistake. Sometimes this yields a turnover; other times it just leads to an easy, easy bucket for the open man.

Here's an example of Minnesota, which has forced 358 turnovers this season to Portland's 264, taking a gamble and getting burned:

You'll notice that the Wolves' Corey Brewer spends most of this possession guarding Monta Ellis, while Anthony Bennett is chasing around Chandler Parsons. Then Parsons comes curling around a screen, appearing to get open for a wing 3 - it looks like Bennett has slipped the screen and stayed with Parsons, while Brewer continues guarding Ellis down low. But instead, Brewer pops out and doubles Parsons, hoping to force him into a mistake. Instead Parsons notices Brewer's man wide open, and the result is an easy bucket at the rim.

The Blazers would never guard Parsons like this. The Blazers also hold their opponents to 59.3 percent shooting from inside three feet; the Wolves are giving up 68.7 percent. Draw your own conclusions.

2. Open 3-pointers

It's not just buckets in the paint that can hurt you when you play the hyperactive, swarming style of defensive basketball. Inevitably, 3-pointers will happen too. If you commit too much defensive pressure too one guy, you'll occasionally get the steal, but you'll also get yourself into plenty of situations where teams with good ball movement can break you down.

Here's where the Sixers come in. Despite their pathetic record, they're a surprisingly decent defensive team overall! But their Achilles heel is the occasional open jump shot that results from plays like this one:

Most of the blame for this one lies with Philly's Hollis Thompson. As the Suns' Goran Dragic drifts over to the left wing of the floor, Marcus Morris swings around to the opposite corner, with Thompson tailing him. There are only six seconds on the shot clock when Dragic makes his move to attack the basket, and Thompson figures Dragic has committed to shooting since he's running out of time, so he decides to crowd the paint and try to make Dragic give up the ball. Except six seconds is plenty of time for a crafty playmaker like Dragic, who dishes to P.J. Tucker, who finds Morris open in the corner. Thompson's gambit failed.

The Blazers probably would have guarded Morris. Sixers' opponents are shooting 34.1 percent from deep this season. Against the Blazers, teams are down in the dumps at 28.5.

3. Poor positioning for rebounds

People around the league these days talk a lot about "spacing." It's one of the biggest buzzwords in today's NBA. If your offensive players are spaced out properly, you can move the ball effectively and get open shots without the court clogging up.

Spacing is also important on the defensive end, though. There are certain situations where you want a scorer or ball-handler to see a crowd, sure, but there are also numerous difficulties that arise when all your guys are clumped together on the floor. What happens when there's a rebound or loose ball that goes flying to a spot where your "clump" isn't?

This happens to the Mavericks. Here's an example from a game against the Utah Jazz, a team with a lot of dudes who are young and quick and good at being absolutely everywhere on the floor:

This is a pretty basic high screen-and-roll between Utah's Trey Burke and Derrick Favors, and the Mavericks respond in typical fashion by switching, with the bigger Tyson Chandler following the smaller Burke to the basket. Except Jameer Nelson chases after Burke too, ostensibly hoping to force a miss or a turnover even though he's not really in position to do anything. He could have made himself useful by boxing out, sealing off the paint to help position his teammates for a rebound should Burke miss. Except when Burke does indeed miss the driving layup, there's a massive dogpile of Mavericks in the middle of the paint, including Chandler and Nelson, and no one's around to stop Burke from snagging the longish rebound that pops out. The Jazz get to reset their offense with little resistance.

The Blazers rarely waste defensive personnel on swarming guys in the paint when it won't help them. Instead, they keep their players spaced out, ready to handle any eventuality. The Blazers have pulled down 75.9 percent of all available defensive rebounds this season; the Mavericks are among the league's worst at 70.7 percent.

4. I dunno, you tell me

Everything above is just a theory. There's some game tape and a little statistical evidence to back up each idea, and they all sort of pass the common sense test, but there's still a lot of room for debate there. What's really the Blazers' secret to defensive success without turnovers? Is it some combination of a couple of the above factors? Is it all of the above? None of the above? Something else altogether is going on that I'm not seeing? Or maybe it's all just a fluke, and Portland will regress to the middle of the pack defensively by February?

I'm open to feedback. All I know is that the Blazers this season are doing something really, really interesting, and I'm looking forward to seeing whether or not it keeps up.