Coming into this season much was made about how the Portland Trail Blazers were a committed defensive team after finishing 6th in defensive rating (105.5) the season prior. People weren’t relying on anecdotes from a week, or a month, even a quarter of the season to say Portland could project to be a solid defensive team. A season’s worth of film and stats showed that Portland could survive an 82-game campaign without breaking.
The beginning of this season it felt like that was still the case – Portland was holding opponents to a league-low 42 percent from the field and they were 10th in opponent 3-point percentage. When you’re making it that difficult for opponents to score, you’re clearly doing something right.
In the last couple of weeks, however, the defense has collectively hit the fan. Since November 12th, the Blazers are 29th in opponent field goal percentage (49.5 percent) dead last in opponent 3-point field goal percentage (41.1 percent), and 28th in opponent turnovers (12.5). You have to dig deep to find anything Portland’s defense has done well the last few weeks.
Head Coach Terry Stotts has already held the traditional longer film session to address effort and defensive consistency. It apparently didn’t work, as Stotts gave a heated halftime talk just a few days after Portland let the anemic Orlando Magic climb back into a game in the second quarter.
Much of Portland’s negative play came in a brutal, 6-games-in-11-days road trip that saw the them travel through four timezones in a cross-country affair. That trip included a back-to-back between the New York Knicks and the Milwaukee Bucks and a layover in Oakland on Thanksgiving before taking on the Golden State Warriors (who were themselves mired in a 4-game skid). That being said, if Portland is a team that fancies itself a contender they need to get things dialed in, even under adverse circumstances.
December is the month on the calendar that I had marked when the season started. The schedule is getting worse as the season progresses. “Gimme games” on pre-season paper against the Memphis Grizzlies and the Dallas Mavericks have now turned into much closer contests. Throw in multiple games against the Jazz (seriously don’t think they’re done yet) and Warriors in a 7-game-in-13-days stretch (with 4 on the road) and the Blazers don’t have time to mess around.
Where and how do the Blazers figure it out? From what I’ve seen, their defensive issues revolve around effort and commitment. Opponents have been able to find an open shooter after a drive and kick...usually after a perimeter defender hasn’t offered a much resistance. Since November 12th, the field goal percentage of Portland opponents on the catch and shoot is a staggering 42.5 percent. Contrast that with the lead-up to that point where Portland was a bit stingier – 34.9 percent. Same is true at the three-point line where the drop off is 41.8 percent against again a much crisper 35 percent.
You can run through basically all of the stats and they all tell the same story: Portland was playing good, aggressive and consistent defense through the first 13 games of the season. Since then, not so much. The scheme hasn’t changed and I don’t think it’s going to anytime soon – so that leaves the personnel and the execution as the culprit.
If you look at the lineup data, this may be why when Maurice Harkless has been healthy, Jake Layman has been a DNP . When Layman is with the starters, opponents have shot nearly 47 percent from three. Things haven’t been that much better during Harkless’ limited time (44 percent), but the record is there from last year to fall back on.
This isn’t in any way to place the blame on Layman. The numbers aren’t great either way. The one constant is the four OTHER players involved. It comes back to the original point about effort rather any one player in particular.
If you are looking for the silver lining, Portland’s bench units – also known as basically any unit that has Evan Turner running things – have fared quite well on the defensive end. The problem therein is that the bench has been very hot and cold on the offensive end so the trade-off hasn’t always been as noticeable on the aggregate scale.
I wish the answer was something more than just consistency and aggressiveness. But from what I’ve seen so far- that’s just not the case. The good news is that, that’s much easier fix than “we don’t have the players.” The bad news is that the Blazers have got to this point again.