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Could the Zone Be the Answer for the Portland Trail Blazers?

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In this edition of the Blazer's Edge Mailbag we answer questions about zone defense, LaMarcus Aldridge leaving Portland, and more!

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One of the hidden advantages to the NBA making playoff participants count to 1-billion-Mississippi in between first-round games is that we've got a free day to answer Mailbag questions!

Dave,

When I see a team like Memphis who clogs the paint and doesn't shoot the 3 very well, I wonder why we don't go zone more? I know it hurts defensive rebounding, but seems like something we could do more, especially if Courtney lee is on the bench. Thoughts?

Jeff

The idea has merit.

One advantage of a zone is that it takes away penetration. The Blazers need to take away penetration. A zone would accentuate Portland's length while covering for their lack of lateral quickness. Memphis is not known as an outside-shooting team so they're not likely to be zone-busters. So yeah, I could see Portland using that strategy.

Zones are weak in the seams between defenders, however. The most obvious area of weakness is the center of the court, near the foul line. Whether a top defender comes over to cover the middle or the rim defender comes out, a hole emerges in the defense that's hard to cover. Every compensating rotation leaves a bigger hole. That's how zones get broken.

Marc Gasol makes a living with foul line jumpers. If the Blazers offered a steady diet of zone against a rotation with Gasol in it, I'd expect Dave Joerger to order those shots on a silver platter. Gasol would deliver every one until Portland compensated. Coming from the side they'd give up the three; coming from the middle they'd give up the layup. Likely they'd simply abandon the zone.

Zach Randolph can also score from the seams on the side. That's another issue.

The Grizzlies have been hitting threes like gangbusters against the Blazers, mostly because they're wide open off of Portland's normal defense. If they're going to hit those shots a zone wouldn't fix anything. If they're going to miss them, there's no need for a zone. The Blazers can just sag inwards on their normal sets.

For these reasons, I don't think the zone is suitable as a permanent, or even an oft-employed, strategy. I could see it shaking up the Grizz for stretches, though, especially when they go to their bench.

7-game series are all about adjustments, especially for the team that lost most recently. Portland will end up trying just about everything to turn around momentum. In the process they might well pull the zone out of their bag of tricks.

Dave,

You've heard the rumors of [LaMarcus] Aldridge leaving. Do you see this as a realistic threat?

Alec

Depends on who's threatening. Until we get clear signals from Aldridge's camp to the contrary, I'd consider it low-level scuttlebutt.

If Aldridge really is deciding these things between Games 1 and 2 of a playoff series with his team in dire need of a win and success riding on his shoulders, the Blazers shouldn't wait for him to test the market. They should just fire him for being a dolt. Fortunately, I wouldn't give a 1 in 10,000 chance that this is the case.

Rather, I suspect Aldridge and his agent have considered these matters all year and at minimum are waiting for the season to end to begin addressing them. Playing through injury doesn't make sense any other way, especially with the credit Aldridge's impressive start earned him. If his next contract--let alone next destination--were his first priority he wouldn't have acted as he did this season.

One never knows with these things, but the implication that Aldridge's decision would be tied to the result of this series seems specious. The outcome of Memphis-Portland could confirm his leanings, but I doubt they'd change them. Given Portland's injuries, the vagaries of seeding (one game's difference would have brought a different opponent), and Portland's recent history with the Grizzlies, hanging a huge career decision on the next 4-5 games doesn't make any sense. If he's going to leave, it'll be for longer-standing reasons.

That's not to say Aldridge will remain a Blazer for life. He has a right to demand that the team improve. If that doesn't happen, why wouldn't he leave? But if his heart isn't set on an immediate departure, it'd make more sense to sign a huge, 2-year contract, see if the team gets better around him, then leave in 2017 when the league's new broadcast revenue reaches full flow.

Signing a long-term deal this summer is Aldridge's "loyalty" option. A short-term contract is the middle, "flexibility" option. With those available, Aldridge would have to be dead set on not coming back to do anything else.

That said, the Blazers could be playing poorly because Aldridge already announced that he's leaving after the season. We just don't know. Only one guy does, and he's not sharing right now.

We ran a story on the "Aldridge Leaving" topic when it first came up a few days ago. That's our job. But I don't see the middle of a playoff series as the most appropriate time to hash it out, especially when there's zero chance of getting more information from Aldridge and his camp until the season is over. Unless the situation changes, we don't plan to run any more articles on the subject until the playoffs are done. We'll have plenty of time to chew it over then.

Dave,

How many stars would you give "50 Shades of Grey: Extended Cut"?

Amazon.com

At least f...oh wait. That wasn't a Mailbag question, was it?

Dave,

I've read the stats and seen the first game.  Give me some hope for my beloved Blazers anyway!  Can we win this series?

Ivy

Of course. Anything can happen. As we continue to explain what happened in Game 1 and look forward to Game 2 over the next 48 hours you'll understand what the Blazers need to change. (And there's plenty!)

But here's some easy, right-brained hope. The Memphis Grizzlies played well, but somewhat shaky on offense. (Their defense was superb. Wowie.) The Blazers played poorly, also shakily. As filled with confidence as they're going to be, I'm not sure Memphis has much incentive to get over their discontinuity. (They were strutting in Game 1 of a 7-game series, after all.) The Blazers are not going to play that poorly forever. Portland should close the gap in Game 2 or Game 3.

That doesn't mean the Blazers are going to win the series, or even a game. Frankly what we saw on Sunday was an extension of what the Grizzlies did to Portland during the regular season, just more pronounced. But that pronouncement will dim, which leaves Portland a chance. I'm pessimistic about the size of that chance, but it's there.

Plus the Blazers did have a couple of good signs on Sunday. Nicolas Batum played relatively well. The offense rebounds were masterful. If those things continue, Portland's stars have a platform upon which to base the resurgence that everybody knows is coming. The Blazers may go down, but not without a fight.

The mantra is the same for players or fans: don't let anybody take hope from you. You wait until the final horn sounds on the final game before admitting it's over.

How can you be so negative about the Blazers?  I know Sunday was bad but this is still a 51 win team.  The negative coverage is too much.  Believe in your team for a change!

Chris

There's a personal and a philosophical answer to this.

Personally, I try to be aware of how people will hear things as I write without letting what people will think of my analysis change what I write. This comes from years spent as a pastor. I have the responsibility to convey truth as I see it. But truth doesn't come abstractly. It's communicated from one person to another. The voice that speaks and the ears that hear are both important in that process.

Speaking a perfectly good truth in a way that the audience can't understand or interpret is no better than not speaking the truth at all.I have to know my congregation, empathize with their experiences, then translate truth into terms that fit the time, place, and people.

At the same time I cannot simply submerge the truth into its context wholesale...telling people only what they want or expect to hear. Otherwise what purpose does speaking serve? Truth that doesn't change or grow us isn't truth, it's just stagnation.

The analysis I do here isn't that much different.. The subject is, but not the process.

I'm aware of the vast variety among our readership. Our ranks include everyone from analysts to basketball professionals to kids experiencing their first blush of the NBA to true-red Blazermaniacs. (See what I did there? That other color belongs to the enemy right now.) I hear all of you as I read comments and the e-mails you send. No single post could possibly encompass, let alone reflect, all those views. So I try to vary approaches from post to post...sometimes within the same post when it comes to game recaps. Our staff has been selected because they speak in different voices as well. Somewhere in the midst of it all, we find ground where we can all meet. But through all of it--no matter the voice or context--we still speak the truth as we see it.

When recapping a horrific loss like Sunday night's, I understand that the Blazermaniac portion of our audience is not going to be satisfied completely. I cannot deliver the kind of recap that would make you happiest because the Blazers didn't deliver the kind of game that would make you happiest. That's the truth. In a way, being upset about it is an authentic part of the experience.

But even so, I'm trying to pay attention to your ears and your viewpoint. You'll not hear things like, "AUGH! The Blazers suck SO HARD!" or, "This series is OVER after Game 1!"  I'll tell you they played poorly, because that's the truth. I might even use a little over-the-top humor or sarcasm to take the edge off while doing so. But when you come by the comment section and say, "The Blazers can play way better and they're still going to win this series" I'm not going to argue with you or put you down. I'm more likely to say, "I hope so, and Go Blazers!" Your portion of the truth still matters and remains true even when another facet of the truth has to take precedence in the main post.

If that still bothers you, perhaps the philosophical approach will help.

Following the team for as many years as I have, I understand that Capital "B" Blazers means far more than any given roster or outcome in a given year. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are the current incarnation of the Trail Blazers, but they carry on a legacy from Clyde Drexler, Arvydas Sabonis, Rasheed Wallace, Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, and many more. Blazers fans learned the meaning of "excellence" from those teams. We learned the difference between good play and bad, between dominating an opponent and getting dominated by them. Whatever smarts and perception we have--whatever notion of winning and success, losing and failure--was nurtured by those experiences.

To me, clearly analyzing the good and bad of the current Blazer squad is another form of paying homage to the Capital "B" Blazers and all we've learned from them over the last four decades.

Because I have followed the Trail Blazers for years I know excellence on the basketball court when I see it. Because I have followed the Trail Blazers I understand that excellence was dressed in a Memphis Grizzlies uniform Sunday night, not in Portland's. That doesn't mean I wish I was a Memphis fan. It means I know what dominating defense looks like because I saw it from Greg Anthony, Brian Grant, Buck Williams, Jerome Kersey, and Rasheed Wallace. I'm going to speak the truth about that defense not to honor the Grizzlies, but to honor those Blazers who taught me the difference. That's what having a winning, championship pedigree means.

To treat every team and every event the same--saying, "YAY!" for 62 wins and the same "YAY!" for 26 wins, responding to amazing victories and horrible defeats the same--cheapens the accomplishments and abandons the lessons of the past. Telling the truth about your team being good or bad at any given moment is far less unfaithful than not being able (or free) to differentiate between the two. Without that distinction, how could we say that LaMarcus Aldridge is great or that Damian Lillard is the next franchise superstar? What difference does it make if they take the court or Sebastian Telfair and Nolan Smith? I'm supportive of all those players personally, but when it comes time to analyze the sport, you can bet I'm going to discern a difference between them.

Hope that clarifies.

Mailbags will pick up again from now through the summer, so get your questions in to blazersub@gmail.com or call in to our Podcast Voice Mail line at 234-738-3394!

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard@Blazersedge