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Where Can the Trail Blazers’ Defense Improve?

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The Blazers rock the worst Defensive Rating in the entire NBA. Where does Portland need the most work?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at New York Knicks Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret the Trail Blazers’ defense has struggled through the early portion of the year. Since the 2011-12 season, they’ve given up 120 points or more to opponents 27 times, winning twice. In the past five years the Blazers have given up 120 points roughly 5 percent of the time. In other words, it was a rarity for this team to offer that many points to an opponent. Through the first 18 games this season they’ve ceded 120+ point games on five separate occasions, while holding opponents under 104 points only twice. Portland’s getting lit up on a nightly basis and the question is: Why?

The first place to examine is the Blazers’ interior defense. Coming into the season, the need for a defensive-minded big man was stressed and highlighted by both the local and national media. Instead, Portland opted to maintain the status quo, re-signing all of its restricted free agents while adding Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli to the mix. The thought was that continuity, growth, maturation, and some added defensive perimeter chops would be enough to elevate them into more than just a passable defensive team.

Last year the Blazers finished among the middle of the pack at No. 17 (lower is better) in paint field goal attempts allowed, No. 6 in paint field goals made (higher is better) and finished No. 11 overall in paint field goal percentage allowed.

While last year’s Blazer defense wasn’t the best in the league, it was certainly not at fault on most nights when things went wrong. What’s so radically different this year? Well, Portland is playing at a slightly faster pace, up from around 99 to 103, so there’s more opportunities that could be cashed in. That alone however doesn’t account for the radical change in field goal attempts allowed, made, and the uptick in defensive field goal percentage.

The first instinct when discussing points in the paint defensively is to begin with the big men. You can charge them with guarding the rim like the “Ring of Power,” but the prevailing idea is that they’ve guarded it about as closely as that ring you picked up on vacation that made your finger turn green.

Mason Plumlee has been derided as someone who’s failed to guard the rim, covering up for mistakes on the perimeter. To the eye test this rings somewhat true. However, according to player tracking data on NBA.com Plumlee ranks in the upper third of the pack, holding opponents to a shade over 47 percent. The players immediately following him aren’t exactly slouches: Bismack Biyombo, Anthony Davis, Alex Len, Steven Adams and some guy named Robin Lopez. Scroll further up the list, and sitting at fourth best in the league you’ll find Meyers Leonard at 39.3 percent.

Right there, it sounds like the Blazers are getting solid rim protection from the guys charged with holding down the paint. The not so shining star in this example is Ed Davis, whose noted slow start in nearly every category isn’t exactly bolstered by his 56.5 percent rim protection. If he isn’t rebounding or scoring, you can typically count on Davis to at least provide some solid interior defense. Early on, he really hasn’t given the Blazers much, although that’s improved over the past few outings.

If the Portland bigs are at least holding down the fort at the rim, there must be other factors contributing besides “the Blazers needing help inside.” This isn’t meant to excuse some of the sub-par interior defense - it’s certainly been there plenty this season, but here are multiple problems contributing to the cause. The “at the rim defense” actually isn’t all that bad, and in fact as far as field goal percentage allowed goes, the Blazers are No. 6 in the league at 55 percent. That’s solid.

It’s just that they’re losing the battle outside the restricted area. Badly. Only the Miami Heat give up more made field goals in the non-RA paint. However, they have someone in Hassan Whiteside who erases everything around the rim and opponents are forced into taking shots further away where Whiteside’s ability to contest, alter, and/or block shots is mitigated as much as possible.

Portland’s defensive game plan is to funnel opposing players into this area where help defense can come down and contest shots, or bigs can take that step or two further out to contest and make that shot about as difficult as your average midrange jumper. The problem? Teams are eviscerating Portland in this part of the paint, shooting nearly 50 percent on over 14 attempts per game.

There are a couple variables at play here. One could simply be variance. Perhaps Portland is sliding all the way into the red in the opening quarter of the season while other teams are hot now. Then, the rest of the season, Portland could go gangbusters again, and things could regress and normalize for a seasonal average. There will probably be some of that, but there’s another reason at play here.

Portland allows nearly .75 points per drive, which is good enough for No. 25 in the league. This is essentially the same as the Blazers playing the Toronto Raptors on a nightly basis, except it’s every team in the league just looking like the Raptors on a nightly basis. Mix that in with Portland’s spotty pick-and-roll coverage on both the ball handler (No. 29) and the roll man (No. 23) and you’ve got a recipe for a defense that performs about as good as reheated lutefisk smells.

Here’s what the Blazers’ opponent field goal defense looks like so far this season (move the slider to progress game by game):

Basically, what this tells us is that the Blazers are targets for easy dribble penetration, off both the pick-and-roll and straight line drives. This is like taking candy from a baby when the baby is openly giving you the candy. Team after team is taking notice and attacking off the dribble and heading to the rim. There’s a good chance they’ll score off the initial drive, and if that doesn’t work, there’s a good chance that a Trail Blazer will foul. If neither occurs, there’s a better than average chance that Portland won’t be able to secure the rebound.

....Ah, rebounding.

This was somewhere the Blazers could hold their own most nights last year; Now, keeping the differential on the glass at -12 or better seems to be a minor victory. Securing the rebound is the end of a defensive possession - the final piece in transitioning from offense to defense. Failing to secure the rebound after a sound defensive possession is like marinating a delicious filet mignon. Sure you could do it, but why?

While nearly everything inside the 3-point line is about as awesome as bamboo torture, the Blazers are consistently holding opponents to 33 percent shooting (third best) on over 25 attempts per game.

Along the same line, Portland is limiting opponent assists (18.8 per game, eighth fewest) which in theory may mean they’re limiting ball movement, closing out, and contesting shooters. It could also mean opponents are getting into the lane so easy that ball movement isn’t a necessity to facilitate opportunity. Let’s just say it’s a little of column A and a little of column B.

Making matters worse for Portland right now - compounding their laundry list of issues - is that they’re missing their best defender on both the perimeter and the interior. Al-Farouq Aminu is the sealant that keeps all those cracks in the defensive dam from turning into full-blown fissures. Well, the dam is broken and water is a flowin’ without Aminu. When he went down, he led Portland in blocks, rebounds, and steals. He was a weakside shot blocker if necessary and a helpside defender when things went awry and without that, the structural integrity of Portland’s defensive foundation is in jeopardy, which looks to be built more on Jenga blocks than bricks.

Piece by piece, the foundation is being weakened. First, it’s interior defense. Then the fouls leadto free throws and increased opponent efficiency. Next goes the transition defense and points off turnovers, and, sooner or later, you push enough pieces out and everything comes crumbling down.

There are no easy answers for the problems that ail the Trail Blazers. You can make up for a couple issues here or there with game planning, rotations, practice, adjustments, etc. But when there’s only a handful of things you can count as positives on a nightly basis, you have to examine two things: the framework of the defense and the personnel involved. If it’s not one then it’s probably the other, and now’s the time for Portland to experiment. Things clearly aren’t working, so perhaps a double-team here, a trap there, and throwing in some zone would jazz things up a bit - see what sticks.

If that doesn’t work or nothing positive comes out of it, perhaps then it’s time to evaluate personnel.


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