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No Dame, No Problem: New Tactics Carry Blazers’ Hopes

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The Blazers have improved defensively over the last several games, coincidentally as Damian Lillard has nursed a sprained ankle.

Sacramento Kings v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

When Damian Lillard rolled his left ankle late against the San Antonio Spurs just before Christmas, the Portland Trail Blazers weren’t exactly setting the world on fire losing what would be their fifth game in a row that evening. So when it was announced that Lillard would be missing time on top of the Blazers’ already subpar play, doubt over the immediate future started to creep in around the fan base.

Portland has the luxury of having two incredibly dynamic offensive powers in Lillard and CJ McCollum. They’re essentially the the NBA’s answer to a hybrid sports car; two power sources to drive the car at breakneck speed, while providing redundancy, with a little extra weight to carry around. However, remove one engine from the equation- and that same vehicle becomes less Porsche 918 and more Nissan Leaf-y. Sure the Leaf will get you there, but you’re not doing it in style. That’s where the Blazers currently find themselves: stuck between style and function.

Sure the “why not both?” memes are certainly relevant here, but what’s happened to the Blazers over the last several games without Lillard has raised some interesting questions. The first question namely—which is beyond ridiculous—is “are the Blazers better without Lillard?” The answer: an unequivocal no. When you’re losing the unquestioned leader of the team, the best playmaker, leading scorer, and most dynamic offensive player on the roster to injury, you’re not getting better. However, they are different.

Sliding McCollum down to the point guard and inserting Allen Crabbe at the shooting guard position significantly upgrades the Blazers’ size and length at both positions. It also removes one of the two biggest defensive liabilities the Blazers have had this season in Lillard, and replaces him with one slightly better defender in McCollum, while adding Crabbe to the lineup gives them what could be a plus defender. Outside of Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, Portland’s individual defensive numbers are difficult to stomach, so this isn’t all laid at the feet of Lillard. There’s certainly more going on here than just the simple: “Dame out = better defense.” Coach Stotts has changed his defensive approach without Lillard and with a very limited sample size it’s hard to tell where the cause and effect starts and ends.

We can however assess what has taken place with Lillard in and out of the lineup (insert sample size argument here) and see from a statistical standpoint what’s happened.

As highlighted earlier, losing your leading scorer is going to hinder your offense. As such, without Lillard the Blazers ORtg has dropped from 107.8 (8th in the league) to 99.7 (29th in the league) which in playground parlance is more falling off the monkey bars than just coming down the slide.

Here you can see who has been picking up (or not picking up) the slack since Lillard went down. When a superstar goes down it’s like putting up a neon sign to anyone who wants a bigger role, but the only players seeing noticeable upgrades in their scoring output; McCollum, Mason Plumlee, and Shabazz Napier. Crabbe is getting seven more minutes a night, and a featured role, but is still putting up essentially the same numbers. Meanwhile, the backup big man combo of Meyers Leonard and Ed Davis has taken the biggest hit, falling down across the board. Replacing 27 points and 6 assists is nearly impossible for the best of teams, let alone one that still hasn’t been fully formed, so the fall—while precipitous—is to be expected.

What wasn’t expected was the the literal worst to first DRtg flip-flop. The Memphis Grizzlies currently hold the best DRtg in the league at 101.1 while playing at a glacial pace of 95.16. Meanwhile the Blazers’ defense over the past four games (prior to the GSW loss) has them with a DRtg of 97.8 and a slightly faster, albeit still quite slowed, 96.85 pace. This change has obviously been a revelation for Blazers fans as they quite literally watched the team transform from one of the worst defensive teams in the league to one of the stingiest in a matter of days.

Again, sample size and context are important here as two of the games were played against the Sacramento Kings and the Minnesota Timberwolves, while the others against the Toronto Raptors and the Spurs. Portland fell to both the Spurs and Raptors, while pulling out wins against the Kings and the Timberwolves-—but three of the four contests were within seven points coming down the stretch. This means that, while Portland’s offense wasn’t firing on all cylinders their defense kept them in the game as opposed to ensuring the defeat.

Stotts has employed a rather aggressive trapping and blitzing scheme on playmaking guards on the perimeter, denying initial reads and forcing the ball out of the hands of the opponent’s best playmakers. The team is now also showing flexibility by fronting, denying, and dare I say…DOUBLING the post when players like DeMarcus Cousins, Karl Anthony-Towns, and LaMarcus Aldridge try to go to work inside. Cousins shot 42 percent on 19 shots, Towns was 3-for-15 from the field, and Aldridge took three(!) shots. The last time the Blazers held post scoring bigs down like that I was wearing parachute pants and bumping “Motown Philly.”

What’s interesting to note beyond what the defense looks like on the floor are the opportunities the more aggressive approach is presenting.

While it appears Portland may be playing faster by the way they’re jumping out, hedging, deflecting passes, denying post position, etc. they’re actually playing at a slower pace making each possession that much more valuable. If you take a look at fast break points, Portland is actually scoring less of them. Even though it may feel like they’re getting out more often, the raw total is down. But when you factor in that the they’re taking ten fewer shots per game, and two fewer free throws, those value possessions like fast breaks generated by steals and early offense become that much more of a game-changer.

Even though they’re playing slower, if it feels like the Blazers are getting their hands on the ball more often and generating turnovers, that feeling is spot-on.

All Data as of Jan 3rd, 2017

That visual representation of effort and hustle that fans have been longing for is translating into turnovers for the Blazers’ defense. While there haven’t been any studies linking the amount of steals and correlating that to wins, there have been studies on what generating steals says about a player’s individual impact on a team. In short, steals happen because typically someone forces action to take place. This highlights the change in approach that Stotts seems to be employing with Lillard out, by forcing the action defensively, even dictating at times to the opponent that the Blazers are getting opposing teams off-kilter. The theoretical points gained by stopping and opponents possession while getting “free points” on your end is one that can yield staggering results.

While this new defensive philosophy from both player and coach feels like a revelation, the next question is: what happens when Lillard returns? Do the Blazers keep with their new defensive schemes, or do they fall back into their old ways? Perhaps there’s a middle ground, and of course the BIG question: can the Blazers return to their high-scoring ways while maintaining this level of defensive commitment?


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