Now almost 60 percent of the way through the season, the Portland Trail Blazers are trying to claw themselves out of a hole. Any objective onlooker would have to call this year a massive disappointment. The dreaded eighth seed of mediocrity has become the most realistic, best-case scenario.
Of all the causes, the defense has got to be reasons number one, two, and three. Portland ended the first quarter of the season with the worst defense in the league, They’ve been a tiny bit better in the second quarter but the offense hasn’t kept pace resulting in an abysmal record. Let’s see how the stats stack up.
Defensive Rating: 108.1, No. 20 (105.6, No. 21st)
*note: all stats are from stats.nba.com unless otherwise noted.
Normally, I include the year-to-date numbers and compare them to last season’s. This time I decided to quote statistics from just the second quarter of the season (Dec. 4 through today’s date). These numbers are a bit more optimistic (and man could we use some optimism right now) and they allow us to ask an important question: even if we assume the first quarter of the season was an aberration, what’s the status of the Blazers’ defense? Last year’s statistics are still included in parentheses for comparison.
Amazingly, Portland has a better ranked defense in the last 28 games than they did last season. But before you go enjoying a rare sign of improvement, note that their rating has actually dropped. In absolute terms, the defense was worse compared to last year. But relative to the rest of the league, Portland’s defensive ranking was better. What gives?
The NBA is in the midst of an offensive surge. The league average Offensive Rating has jumped from 106.4 last year to 108.4 this season according to Basketball-Reference.com. That increase has been driven largely by improved shooting percentages. Portland’s statistics follow this trend.
- Effective Field Goal Percentage Allowed: 51.1%, No. 10 (50.3%, No 15)
- Opp. Turnover Rate: 13.9, No. 16 (13.4, No. 25)
- Defensive Rebounding Percentage: 75.6%, No. 21 (76.2%, No. 13th)
- Opp. Free Throw Rate (Opp FTA/Opp FGA): 0.317, No. 28 (0.307, No. 28)
Again, looking at Effective Field Goal Percentage Allowed (EFG%), Portland has gotten worse while improving in rank. The rest of their four factors are fairly unchanged with some positive and some negative changes. Since the analytical models weight EFG% as the most important of the four factors and it changed the most, let’s focus on that number.
Portland has actually improved in their ability to prevent shots near the rim in the second quarter. I would want to see the team’s foul rate drop before declaring them one of the best rim protecting teams in the league (are you really protecting the rim if you just foul guys once they get close?) but those rankings in the Restricted Area and In the Paint are impressive.
The problem is the region Above the Break. Teams are taking more and more threes and these shifts have had a disproportionate impact on the Blazers. Portland has been pushed behind many of their peers. In the last 28 games, Above the Break threes have increased by more than 20 percent compared to last year. Their ranking in that area has precipitously dropped as well.
That might not be the end of the world except...
Effective Field Goal Percentage By Location:
Portland is basically dead last in defending the 3-point line. They’ve allowed opponents to shoot an astounding 40.1 percent from Above the Break, which works out to an EFG% of 60.2. That number is all the more damaging because opponents are taking so many shots from that area of the floor.
That’s especially frustrating because it outweighs other positive developments. In the second quarter of the season, Portland led the league at defending the rim. They were one of the best last year and have built on that success. The rest of the shot distribution is also pretty good. Being towards the bottom in the Mid-Range isn’t so bad because the efficiency is so much lower. They’ve also improved relative to the rest of the league from that area.
If 3-pointers are driving opponents’ improved shooting percentages, then we need to understand how opposing teams are getting those shots.
Play Type stats on the NBA’s website can’t be filtered by date so the below statistics are year-to-date, unlike the preceding numbers.
We know Portland is giving up an exceptional amount of 3-pointers compared to the rest of the league. No doubt, the lion’s share of those attempts come from Spot-Ups. However, Portland ranks highly in preventing these shots. Coach Terry Stotts’ experimenting makes generalizations a bit tougher but Portland’s conservative scheme still manages to prevent catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Compared to the rest of the league, the defense struggles to prevent shots coming off of screens or in the pick-and-roll. Both of these play types can often lead to 3-pointers above the break and opponents are scoring relatively efficiently in these situations.
Portland not only ranks in the bottom of the league in preventing these types of plays, but also in defending them. We’ve known about the Blazers’ struggles defending the pick-and-roll for some time now but off-ball actions are becoming just as worrisome. While Portland has gotten better defending the interior, they’ve fallen off along the perimeter. All of this leads to a worrisome narrative about Portland’s eroding position.
Last season, the Trail Blazers got a little ahead of the curve. The departure of LaMarcus Aldridge allowed them to double down on movement and 3-point shooting. They played lots of small ball and approached their offensive ceiling.
Other teams that hadn’t adopted these same tactics had more room to grow. As more and more teams pace and space, those teams have passed the Blazers. This has dropped Portland from an elite offensive squad to simply above average.
At the same time, those shifts towards the perimeter attacked Portland’s defensive weaknesses. As a result, they weren’t able to maintain the improvements they made at the end of last season and have struggled to even tread water.
In absolute terms, this meant the Blazers had a similar offense with a worse defense. In relative terms, their offense became less exceptional while their defense stagnated and dropped along with the rest of the league. From either perspective, the result was a significant drop in the team’s Net Rating. Not surprisingly, a poor record has followed suit.
That narrative is far from conclusive but it does seem to fit. It it’s true, then how do the Blazers get out of their predicament?
Perhaps the most glaring problem is that Lillard and McCollum don’t excel at defending any of those play types. That’s a problem because it makes hiding them on defense much harder. If a defender struggles in the pick-and-roll but can chase a shooter around screens, you can probably find a good matchup for him. If he can’t do either, then you better hope the other team has an offensive nobody. Otherwise, it could be a long night.
Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner are not much better. Both of them are in the bottom third in these play types as well. The only exception is that Crabbe is above average defending Spot-Ups.
The Blazers need all of them to excel in at least one area of perimeter defense. If they do that, then Stotts and company can fit together a defensive puzzle most nights. It will certainly involve some roster changes, and the frontcourt will have to get much more mobile and disruptive, but even the most optimistic scenarios will be inadequate if the cadre of guards doesn’t improve.
During last year’s unexpected playoff run, Portland appeared to have found an identity. Surround Dame and CJ with length that can switch across multiple positions and you could build a team with a great offense and an adequate defense. That became the foundation to build upon.
That foundation was eroded by the advances of the rest of the league. Other teams have adopted many of the offensive principles that used to make Portland exceptional and these shifts have expanded and exposed Portland’s defensive weaknesses. What used to be cutting edge is now vanilla. To rise through the ranks, they’ll need a significant infusion of talent or a change in identity -- perhaps both.
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