It's been a few weeks since the craziest free agency I can remember. I think we're all slowly coming out of the chaos and getting a handle on things. There have been some great long-form write ups on individual players. We've had several musings on the Blazers new style of play. Slowly but surely we're piecing together who makes up this brand new team and what they'll look like as a unit.
We can gain a pretty good understanding of the new players by looking at their game film but the stylistic questions have been conjecture by necessity. We won't have a good sense until we see the first pre-season games but Stotts threw us a bone in one of his first interviews since the massive overhaul. As Mike Richman reported for The Oregonian/OregonLive, he won't be considering a systemic change to the Blazers' defense even with the drastically different roster.
Even though our bigs and our wings are a little more athletic, I don't see us getting out and pressuring," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said at summer league in Las Vegas on Friday. "I don't think that's a formula for necessarily good defensive teams. I think we established a good foundation.
That's a little surprising, and perhaps a bit disappointing, but we should stop short of assuming the defense will look similar even if the scheme remains the same. That may be a strange thing to say but there are lots of changes along the margins of a scheme that can affect how a defense functions.
At a certain level, most teams in the NBA employ the same scheme. With the exception of Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Miami, and a few teams that hedge with their power forwards, every team prefers to drop their bigs back against the pick and roll. However, lots of teams' defenses look different because of slight but significant variations within that general framework.
Last year, the Blazers had one of the most drastic defenses in the league. They dropped their bigs more consistently and farther than almost any other team. This worked because they had a plethora of trees that could protect the rim. Portland doesn't have those trees anymore.
It all depends on what Stotts means by "pressuring" in the quote above. He may not be considering trapping screens but I'd be surprised if the Blazers' bigs don't pick up ball handlers a little higher up the court. The overall philosophy might stay the same but the fine tuning and positioning of the players will have to change.
This "fine tuning" may seem insignificant or like fringe changes around the edges of a defense but it can have a drastic effect on its overall character. Pulling the bigs a step or two higher up the court would likely lead to more turnovers, less dribbling by opponent guards and a more active feel to the entire defense. It might be the same basic scheme but it wouldn't behave like the'stay at home, give the ball handler lots of space defense we've grown accustomed to.
Along these same lines, the extent of help can change slightly with more athletic, extra long defenders. Al-farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless have crazy long wingspans and quick feet. If they can take an extra half step, or even a full step into help position, Stotts would be crazy not to encourage them to do so. They wouldn't be making different rotations but those same rotations would be longer. This would, again, lead to more turnovers and a more active defense.
More athleticism should also allow increased ball pressure. Aminu and Gerald Henderson seem especially prepared to hawk the ball and bother ball handlers. Last year, Portland struggled controlling the ball and sending it certain directions. We'll have to see how disciplined and refined some of the new defenders are but they have the athleticism to be more aggressive than defenders in years past. I expect the defense to go at the offense, as opposed to simply reacting, much more next season.
Finally, this pressure can also be increased off the ball. Memphis disrupted many of our offensive possessions because their guards and wings were physical when chasing Portland's players around picks and denying them along the perimeter. This forced the Blazers' guards and wings to catch the ball farther out and away from their ideal locations. Except for Zach Randolph hedging screens, Memphis had a similar, basic philosophy. They didn't want to get caught in scrambling rotations. However, their guards and wings were much more athletic and physical along the perimeter and it gave their defense an entirely different feel. The Blazers should be able to incorporate some more of this off ball physicality with their new length and athleticism.
All that is to say, just because Stotts might not change the Blazers' basic philosophy doesn't mean we won't see the character of the defense change. Picking the ball up a few feet higher, helping an extra half step, and being more physical on and off the ball would all have a profound effect on the defense without deviating from the existing structure. I fully expect the defense to appear much more active and to force more turnovers than the past few years. There's just no way Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee can succeed in the exact same context that LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez thrived in. They're too different.
Stotts may not be overhauling the defense to take advantage of new athleticism. It sounds like he has a well-developed philosophy on the best way to play defense. None of this is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, a specific style of play on both ends is usually a positive attribute for a coach. It only becomes a problem if they can't find enough flexibility within these broad principles to put their players in a position to succeed.
We'll see how Stotts will respond to the challenge during training camp. In the mean time, don't assume his comments imply the defense won't change. The same scheme calibrated for different players could look very different. And it will be fascinating to see it all come together.