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Can the Trail Blazers Fix Their Long-Term Defensive Issues?

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The Portland Trail Blazers improved defensively toward the end of the 2015-16 season, but that improvement hasn’t carried over into this year consistently.

Utah Jazz v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Editor’s note: This is the second part in a two-part feature from Willy Raedy breaking down the Trail Blazers’ defense. To read part one from Tuesday, click here.


If Lillard has shown any glimpse of defensive improvement this year, it’s been his intensity trailing the play. He still struggles to force the ball to specific places but at times he’s worked his butt off after getting over screens. One of those stretches was the end of the third quarter against the Pacers. Here are three possessions in a row where Lillard does a great job trailing the pick-and-roll:

The key word here is “glimpses.” Eventually, this level of effort needs to become normal for Lillard. I think the ship has sailed on him becoming a plus (or maybe even average) defender, but he’s capable of not being a liability. His consistency is hugely important for Portland long-term.

But it’s certainly not just Lillard. Many of the same concepts that define defending the pick-and-roll — focus, positioning, and effort — also determine other aspects of the defense. The Trail Blazers have fallen from the middle of the pack to the bottom of the barrel in terms of defending Off Screen plays. The biggest reason has been boneheaded mistakes like the ones below.

Harkless is a long and active defender but his discipline comes and goes and he’s prone to the occasional lapse. In the first clip, he’s too nonchalant getting over the screens and gives up a wide-open look. Harkless may be one of the brighter spots this season but he’s been anything but spotless on defense.

The last two clips are some of the most frustrating plays you’ll find outside of Brooklyn or LA. In the second clip, Lillard literally allows lets a guy to jog right around him. His knees aren’t bent, he’s hopping around like a knight on horseback from the Holy Grail, and then swipes at the ball instead of recovering to his man. People often don’t recognize Lillard’s solid stretches of defense but my goodness, sometimes it’s rough.

And then CJ leaves JAMES FREAKING HARDEN wide open!!! I legitimately have no idea what’s going on here. I guess McCollum thinks he’s going to switch with Harkless but Moe is two steps below the 3-point line and is pointing at Harden. I can only interpret that point to mean “Hey, did you notice you’ve turned your back on, like, perhaps the most dangerous offensive player in the world? Maybe you should, ya know, go back and focus on that.” Baffling.

Considering less than eight points a game separate the Trail Blazers’ defense from an average one, these plays can make a big difference. The margin of error is so small that even a few major mental lapses each game is problematic.

The flip side of that coin is that these should be the easiest things to clean up. The Blazers are relatively young but they’re certainly experienced enough to be beyond these types of mistakes. And that continuity we keep hearing about should show itself at some point.

But no matter what the Blazers do, they’ll never be perfect. Even the best teams blow coverages, which is why a carefully calibrated help defense is so important. Portland tries to limit help compared to most other teams but, for the most part, they could ramp it up a notch.

Help defense is also highly dependent on the opponent. If you’re playing the Grizzlies, it’s almost impossible to help too much off of Tony Allen. If you’re playing the Warriors, it’s almost impossible to help at all off Stephen Curry.

Against Indiana (the first time) and Miami, Portland took advantage of injured rosters to ramp up the aggressiveness. In the first clip, McCollum has both his feet firmly planted in the paint:

This is important because Lillard can’t keep Dragic on the sideline. You can hear someone yelling “Blue! Blue! Blue!” as Goran dribbles over the screen and into the key. Woops. Luckily, McCollum is there to corral Dragic allowing Plumlee to stay with Whiteside. CJ is ball-watching a little bit but is able to deflect the pass. Harkless astutely notices the crisis and switches, and the defense is able to recover. In a lot of cases, this would be way too much help defense, but it was appropriate against Miami. Given their injuries, the Dragic-Whiteside pick-and-roll is pretty much the only thing to worry about.

Supporting the pick-and-roll defenders is the most important part of help defense but that’s certainly not its only role. Portland needs to be doing a better job of “stunting” or lunging at shooters when they catch the ball.

In the second clip, Allen Crabbe does what might be called a super-stunt. He almost completely leaves his man to double Wayne Ellington. On the positive side, Crabbe prevents the shot and allows Evan Turner to recover. On the downside, it gives Tyler Johnson a lane. Again, I would call this over-helping in most cases. Generally, it’s not a good idea to help one pass away. However, Johnson isn’t much of a creator and Portland forced him outside his comfort zone. I think coach Terry Stotts would take a Tyler Johnson floater every time down the court.

These various aspects can come together to form virtuous or vicious cycles. It all starts with the pick-and-roll. If guards can funnel the ballhandler more consistently, bigs should be able to meet the ball higher up the court. That will give the guard more time to catch up to the play and place fewer demands on help defenders. Fewer crises means help defenders can pick their spots, adjusting their tendencies depending on who they’re guarding. It should also keep players in better rebounding position and reduce fouls to prevent easy shots. Small changes — a step here, a step there — can have a surprisingly large effect on the defense over the course of an entire game.

When it all comes together it works like a charm:

The caveat is that Portland’s best defensive games have come against teams that were injured and struggle to score. Even that play above isn’t particularly difficult to defend. Crabbe does a good job shading toward the sideline. Aaron Brooks forces the ball to the middle but has to go pretty wide to do so. This allows Crabbe to stay in front of Brooks and avoid the screen. McCollum is in great help position and recovers to his man on the pass. The defense is completely reset and Monta Ellis forces a stupid pass. Evan Turner is also in the right position and makes a nice play for the steal.

Could they do this consistently against a good team? That’s the million-dollar question. Imagining this group becoming elite defensively is getting tougher and tougher, but I still think average is possible when healthy. It’s important to remember that the original starting lineup has defended at a high level this season. In fact, that lineup has the fourth-highest Net Rating in the entire league (min. 100 minutes played). There are still signs that there’s a solid team underneath the early struggles.

However, the hope coming into the season was that the team would pick up where they left off last year. In theory, the late-season surge in 2016 wasn’t a hot streak but a sustainable leap due to Harkless’ insertion in the starting lineup. It’s clear now that was wishful thinking. Aminu’s injury is significant but the extent of their struggles shows focus remains an issue. Past stretches when they were locked in haven’t translated to consistent improvements. That doesn’t mean they won’t grow but nothing is baked in to personnel changes.

Improvements will have to come from some unidentified source. As such, they’re much less likely and have little precedence. Buckle up. An assumed upward trajectory could now go just about anywhere.


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