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Leaky Trail Blazers Defense Allows Too Much Penetration

The Trail Blazers struggle mightily in defending pick-and-roll action and allow opposing ball handlers to get to the rim almost at will. How can they fix it?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we reviewed the Blazers’ defense from a statistical perspective. Here’s a brief recap:

  • The Blazers have been really bad with a stretch of “Historically Bad” defense after Al-farouq Aminu went down.
  • They’ve been a little bit worse at just about everything.
  • It’s a team wide malaise. Almost no one has impressive (or really even adequate) individual defensive numbers.
  • Defending penetration has been the biggest bugaboo. The team has gone from above average to terrible at limiting and defending drives.
  • Most of that penetration has come out of pick-and-rolls and isolations.

That gives us a decent picture and begins to answer the question “why is the defense so much worse?” But it left several loose ends. Notably, why are the Blazers allowing so much more penetration this year? How do they fix it? And the scariest of all — are they capable of fixing it?

It all starts at the point of attack. The Blazers’ defense is designed to defend the pick-and-roll with just two players. In order for this to work, the guard has to funnel the opposing ball handler into a specific area, typically away from the screen and toward the sideline. Portland calls this type of pick-and-roll defense “Blue.”

This may sound simple but teams design their plays to make it difficult. In the first clip below, the Rockets have cleared the paint on the left side of the floor. This means Shabazz Napier has to guard against the backdoor cut before his man, Patrick Beverly, catches the ball.

*Note: We couldn’t embed all the clips individually without crashing everyone’s browsers so they’re grouped into videos. In this video, there’s also a second clip of Damian Lillard defending the play correctly but we’ll talk about that later. For now, let’s just focus on Napier.

The problem is, Napier is playing too soft. When Beverly catches the ball, Napier is too far away to cut off Beverly’s path to the middle of the floor. You can see Shabazz take a step and a shuffle up the court but his left foot never makes it above the screener, Nene Hilario. Note that when Beverly starts to dribble, you can see Napier’s feet between Nene’s legs.

Obviously, you can’t prevent someone from dribbling around a screen if you yourself are not outside the screen in the first place. Napier needs to be a full step higher up the court (i.e. toward the pinwheel) with his left foot above Nene’s screen. Part of this is effort and quickness but it’s mostly preparation. Almost no athlete in the world could get above the screen starting where Napier started. He’s just not anticipating what’s coming next and positioning himself accordingly.

Once Beverly gets over the screen, Portland is in serious trouble. Meyers Leonard is positioned on the left side of the paint expecting the ball to stay on that side. As Beverly dribbles middle, he takes a step up but is way too far back to deny the pocket pass. There’s no defender in the left corner so no one can help defend the rolling Nene. Leonard is left to defend both Beverly and Nene. Instead of defending the pick-and-roll two-on-two like they planned, Napier’s gaffe leaves a two-on-one.

This play is called a side pick-and-roll (because it happens on the side of the floor) and it killed the Trail Blazers way back in their first-round series against Memphis two years ago. It continues to undermine coach Terry Stotts’ defensive schemes, mostly because their guards can’t control the ball and force it where it’s supposed to go. This has always been a problem but it’s been even worse this year.

Fixing this will require the guards to position themselves better. The second clip is from the Indiana Pacers game, right after two days of practice focused on defensive fundamentals. You can see Stotts point which way he wants the ball to go when Glenn Robinson starts dribbling. Also notice where Lillard’s feet are. He hustles up the floor and gets his right foot well outside the screen making it impossible for Robinson to get to the middle. Leonard is now in perfect position and the play is completely non-threatening. CJ McCollum sags toward the elbow, ready to help.

It’s amazing how a single step can be the difference between solid defense and a crisis situation. Whether the guard gets his foot above and outside the screen completely changes the outcome of the play.

These tiny details are not easy. Taking that extra step, every time, all game is exhausting and requires an exceptional amount of focus. That said, the Blazers need to find a way to control the ball more consistently. They’re simply not up to snuff when compared to the rest of the NBA.

But before we start labeling the guards as scapegoats, it’s important to understand the role big men play in this equation. There’s a lot of timing and positioning that they’re responsible for as well. In this first clip, Mason Plumlee gets most of that completely wrong.

Hassan Whiteside is coming to set a screen for Goran Dragic. In response, Maurice Harkless positions himself to prevent Dragic from using the pick. For reasons that are unintelligible, Plumlee is above the free throw line hanging onto Whiteside’s hip. Dragic notices this and attacks the wide-open lane. Instead of funneling the ball into his waiting teammates, Harkless becomes an air traffic controller, waiving Dragic down the runway.

They’re lucky Dragic missed and it’s possible Harkless messed up the coverage. Portland almost always “Blues” side pick-and-rolls but they mix it up occasionally in the middle of the floor. However, the big man is the one who can see everything so the burden to communicate falls mostly on his shoulders. If Plumlee is one full step lower in the paint, he’d be able to cut off Dragic’s path to the basket. Again, a couple feet make the difference between a relatively easy drive and a solid defensive stand.

That’s a pretty egregious miscommunication. Usually, Portland’s bigs aren’t on the wrong side of the paint, they’re just too low.

In the second clip, Portland decides not to Blue and Lillard trails over the high pick-and-roll. Plumlee is prepared and works to corral the ballhandler, Dragic. But Mason starts a foot behind the free throw line and starts backpedaling immediately. Notice where Plumlee is when Dragic passes the ball.

His foot is in the restricted area for pete’s sake! Portland’s defense has essentially allowed the opposing team to dribble from the 3-point line to the restricted area unimpeded. Plumlee prevents the layup and the alley-oop but he lets Whiteside catch the ball deep in the paint. This was okay when Portland had two, physical 7-footers to contest shots but it doesn’t work without a rim protector (or two). Against the vast majority of NBA centers, if Plumlee lets them catch the ball that deep he’s dead.

Portland is far and away the worst team at defending shots in the paint but outside the restricted area. They allow opponents to shoot almost 50 percent from there and plays like that are a big reason why. Most teams allow 8-foot floaters or hook shots against an aggressive contest. The Blazers are allowing 5-foot floaters and hook shots over undersized defenders.

In the last clip, Plumlee meets Dragic at the elbow. He reaches a bit and bites on the shot fake, but his activity and aggressiveness delays Dragic. McCollum has enough time to get back in the play and contest the second shot. I wouldn’t call this perfect defense but the activity level from both players makes up for the momentary lack of discipline.

This dependance between the two defenders is critical. The higher Plumlee can meet the ballhandler, the easier it is for CJ to catch up to the play. The faster CJ can catch up to the play, the less time Plumlee will have to defend in space. If they both do more, they both can do more. If CJ dies on the screen, then Plumlee is gonna have hard time cutting off the drive and will need to set up lower. If Plumlee backs off, then no matter how hard CJ works he won’t be able to catch up.

Tune in later this week for part two of Willy Raedy’s in-depth breakdown of the Trail Blazers’ defense against penetration.

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