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Blazers Guards Need to Improve Defensively

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have always struggled to defend other talented backcourts, but they need to step up for this team to improve.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Losing eight of your previous nine contests is a sure way to shine the brightest of lights on all of your shortcomings. While sometimes it’s harder to highlight a particular area of concern that needs to be addressed in order to rectify the problem(s), the Trail Blazer’s issues are about as nuanced and inconspicuous as a man in a kilt and a Darth Vader helmet, riding a unicycle, while playing bagpipes that spit fire. Defense. Defense. Defense.

The Blazers have been wearing a metaphorical “all you can eat buffet” sign around their necks for the majority of the season and opponents have been saddling up to the table with empty stomachs. While much of the blame has been placed on the Blazers’ inability to protect the interior, many of the problems are originating well before opponents get into the paint.

It’s not exactly a state secret that neither Damian Lillard nor CJ McCollum are lockdown defenders. However, last year the Blazers were able to paper over their shortcomings enough to keep them from being exposed on a nightly basis. While much of the discussion heading into this season centered around building on last year’s growth and momentum, no one anticipated that the backcourt duo would or could regress on the defensive front this much. Take a look at where both Lillard and McCollum rated last year based on play type data, compared to this year.

(*Sample size is through 30 games this season vs. all of last season)

The only place where either has improved has Lillard going from the bottom 12 percent on the spot-up to just under the bottom quarter of the league in the same area while McCollum kicks up four percentage points. Every other type there has been a dropoff, some of them drastic.

Look at both of them coming off screens! While it accounts for only a small part of the total defensive pie, that’s a pretty staggering dropoff. Yes, you can argue for small sample size and a return to the norm. But that’s just it, so far this season it’s been THAT bad.

Looking for the visual evidence? Take a look at this.

The first clip shows both Lillard and McCollum getting lost on a double action from the Warriors involving Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Yes, these are two of the premier shooters of this generation, which kind of makes this a more egregious error. Both Lillard and McCollum initially bite on the dive from Thompson as Curry sets the slightest of back screens. Lillard leaves his man (Steph Curry!) and chases Thompson as he cuts down, but so does McCollum. CJ realizes the error too late and doubles back and gets caught on a pick from Zaza Pachulia and the world’s best shooter gets a clean catch and shoot look from three with no one within six feet of him.

The second clip in the progression sees McCollum getting spun around again as Curry runs the baseline and a rub-pick is set while Mason Plumlee has sagged into the paint after a rotation hasn’t been made or communicated well enough. McCollum is left flailing in the wind and has to try to contest a Curry three too late.

While the second clip is a bit harsher on McCollum than it should be because there were breakdowns before it came to him, it shows a bigger point. The breakdowns are team-wide, but they start and end with the backcourt.

In the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on the previous road trip, the Bucks perimeter players were able to attack the rim and finish or kick out to shooters with impunity.

Look how deep Giannis Antetokounmpo and Matthew Dellavedova are able to get before being forced off their attack path. They’re both into the heart of the defense, deep into the paint before a body is put on them and they are forced to deviate. In the first clip Giannis is almost at the rim before anyone contests him, and Lillard has sunk down to cover John Henson, when Maurice Harkless has already switched onto him, leaving Dellavedova open on the wing. Lillard is too far away to contest the spot-up three after digging down and the result is a clear release and three points.

The second clip slows down to show the way Lillard is funneling Dellavedova into the corner, except he gets so high up on him that Delly is able to turn the corner with a full head of steam and Allen Crabbe is unable to offer help until Delly has gotten into the paint. At this point it’s too late as Crabbe isn’t in a position to contest or force Delly off his shot. The angle that Lillard has played here keeps him from being able to recover and forces an immediate switch, long before Delly has decided to attack the paint.

Now, this could be a predetermined switch, and the Blazers’ game plan could dictate that forcing Delly down the sideline is the best way to produce their desired outcome. However, if the play had developed differently, would it have made sense to have Lillard on Giannis? My knee jerk reaction here is to say that isn’t in the Blazers’ best interest.

To illustrate where the Blazer’s backcourt duo rank among other NBA perimeter players take a look at this graph.

(*Points Per Possession = PPP; Scoring Frequency = Score Freq)

By far and away the worst this season in the pick-and-roll is Kyrie Irving, another guard who’s never been confused as a defensive stalwart, but not too far behind him in the first grouping of sub-par defenders is Lillard. The next tier is where McCollum hangs his coat, until you start working your way down to some of the better or more consistent perimeter defenders, such as Avery Bradley of the Boston Celtics. Not surprisingly the Blazers’ team rankings look very much like this graph.

Ironically, the Houston Rockets are the best in the league at defending the ball handler on the pick-and-roll. While James Harden has multiple Youtube mega-hits highlighting his defensive deficiencies, he also has Clint Capela behind him, Trevor Ariza to one side and Patrick Beverley to the other.

Take a look at the three teams in the upper right corner. The Atlanta Hawks, sans Al Horford and Jeff Teague, The Cleveland Cavaliers who feature Irving and have had their backcourt decimated by injury, and... the Trail Blazers. You can see where the league average settles in and the where some of the better teams in the league rank in terms of controlling the ball handler in the pick-and-roll game.

The Blazers have been able to win a few games where they were able to outscore an opponent based on the fact that they have superior firepower, even when you consider that the Blazer’s defense is spotting the opponent a few points.

If you’re going by the “magic quadrants,” you want to be up the upper right hand corner. That means you’ve got a great offense and a great defense. Lo and behold, that’s the home of the Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Cavs, and Raptors - all teams that figure to be prominent come the end of the regular season. Right now, this serves as a snapshot of the pretenders and the contenders. Fall below the trend line too far and you’ll be left behind. If the Blazer’s recent run of form is indicative at all, they’ve fallen off that pace rather quickly, and a lot of that has to do with the inability of the backcourt to handle the defensive side of the court.

The Blazers feature two guards who excel at every bit of the pick-and-roll game on the offensive end, and struggle with each and every aspect of it on the defensive end. Each of them can be acquitted in other defensive areas, Lillard in isolation and down in the post, and McCollum off the ball as well as on it in isolation. But when you start throwing picks in the equation the wheels start to fall off quick.

Here’s the part where the positive outlook is supposed to come in, and there’s some room for it. First of all, this same team was much better than they are currently performing. As well, they’re missing arguably their best perimeter defender in Al-Farouq Aminu, who could help alleviate the pressure from one or the other on a nightly basis.

The team’s numbers with a lineup of Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, and Mason Plumlee actually stand up quite well, albeit in limited time, to the top third of the league. In 127 minutes of action that lineup sports a 102.6 DRtg and a Net Rating of +13 which means there’s a glimmer of hope that once Aminu is again healthy the Blazers can begin to round back into form. In fact the Blazers preferred starting lineup this season compares favorably with that of the Boston Celtics, another team that features two small-ish combo guards in Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas.

This however doesn’t cover up the fact that Lillard and McCollum are also tied to five of the seven worst DRtg lineups the Blazers have put out there this season. So while the sum of all their parts may come together to form a stable enough core, the Blazers have shown that they’re an injury or two away from letting opponents put up 120 points a night on a regular basis.

The argument has been made that the Blazers could get Aminu healthy and reel off some wins heading into the new year much like they did last season. While getting Aminu healthy is certainly a welcome addition, it’s probably more than a stretch to assume that he can solve all that ails the Blazers right now.

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