In an era dominated by the three-point shot, the Portland Trail Blazers give up the fewest threes in the NBA, a trend that’s continued throughout Head Coach Terry Stotts’ tenure in the Pacific Northwest. The Blazers have ranked in the top eight in each of his six years in charge and if their current statistics in this area hold up, 2017-18 would be the third year in which they ranked best in the league in three-point stinginess.
Part of the secret to their success is defending the pick-and-roll, the most-used action in the league. Portland defends the tenth-most pick-and-rolls in the league as a percentage of their overall possessions, with more than a third of their total defensive possessions ending in a pick-and-roll. The Trail Blazers are an elite defensive unit against this action, posting an 88.1 defensive rating on these plays, second only to the Toronto Raptors in points per possession allowed.
The key to Portland’s defense in these situations is something that a lot of teams have left behind in favor of a more aggressive approach: they drop their big men way back in the paint and are content with allowing their opponents to pull up for jump shots. The NBA is filled with guards who are proficient at making shots off the dribble, but the Trail Blazers have decided that they’re willing to give up these shots in order to take away catch-and-shoot threes from the weak side or shots at the rim.
No defense can take away everything, but the best defenses cede shots from the least-efficient places on the floor. In the analytics era, that means allowing opponents to take as many midrange jumpers as possible, something the Trail Blazers do better than just about every other team in the league. Portland has ranked in the top six each of the last five years in midrange shots taken by their opponents. By shutting off all other options in pick-and-roll defense, opposing offenses often have no other choice than to launch a lightly-contested midrange jumper. Watch below as Pat Connaughton forces Kemba Walker to his left (using what’s known as “weak” coverage) as Ed Davis drops into the paint, opening up the jumper for Walker.
When Walker turns the corner, Davis stays rooted in the paint, relying on Connaughton to fight through the screen and get back in front of Kemba. The Blazers are content with Walker immediately pulling up for the jumper if he wants; it’s not a particularly efficient shot even if mostly uncontested. Portland does give up a high shooting percentage on midrange jumpers, but allowing opponents to shoot a relatively good percentage on those shots still keeps the offense inefficient in the grand scheme of things.
A key component of Portland’s pick-and-roll defense is getting their guards to contest from behind the shooter. Watch below how Lillard fights his way back into the play and blocks D.J. Augustin from behind:
The Trail Blazers’ guards have been great in this area so far this season; Damian Lillard is currently posting a career-high block percentage and CJ McCollum is above average in block percentage among all combo guards. They’re active defensively, fighting through screens to contest jumpers from behind and make their man as uncomfortable as possible on those shots.
Portland’s pick-and-roll defense of choice has two extra benefits that feed into their overall defensive numbers. They can defend the pick-and-roll with two players, which allows them to stay home on their opponent’s outside shooters, and they’re almost always in position for the defensive rebound. Dropping the big man deep means a third defender doesn’t need to rotate over to tag the roll man, which takes away another of the point guard’s options in pick-and-roll. As long as the big man can adequately position himself to both contest the ball handler at the rim and play the pass to the rolling big man, Portland can stay home on shooters and cut off the catch-and-shoot three-pointers that offenses love to generate.
Defensive rebounding has been another hallmark of the Trail Blazers’ defense this season—they rank fifth in the league in defensive rebounding percentage. Again, we see their pick-and-roll defense feed into their stellar rebounding numbers:
As Jamal Crawford comes off the screen and makes his way toward the paint, Davis is in position to handle both the drive from Crawford and a potential pass to Karl-Anthony Towns. Crawford takes one dribble inside the 3-point line and pulls up for a midrange jumper, which Davis is happy to concede; he doesn’t even put his hand up to contest. Instead, he immediately finds Towns and boxes out, which allows Shabazz Napier to secure the rebound. Most big men around the league would see the guard pulling up for a jumper and at least step toward him to make the shot less comfortable, but Stotts has instructed his big men to eschew that responsibility in favor of crashing the defensive glass.
Portland plays a pick-and-roll defense that’s growing further and further out of style, as teams employ agile big men who can stick with sharpshooting point guards on the perimeter, but the Trail Blazers have nearly perfected the scheme and have been reaping the rewards this season as they solidify themselves as a top-five defense. The more traditional coverage allows them to stay home on shooters on the weak side and puts them in good rebounding position when their opponents miss the midrange jumpers they’re nonplussed about giving up.
Editor’s Note: Please welcome Jeff Siegel, one of two “Outsiders” we’ve invited to join the Blazer’s Edge staff in order to give an analytical look at the team, their scheme, and overall performance. You can find more of Jeff’s work at his permanent home: SBNation’s Atlanta Hawks site, Peachtree Hoops. Stay tuned next week for another Outsiders column!
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