The Portland Trail Blazers are underwater right now, staring up at the 2020 NBA Playoffs bracket with wistful hope. April is an eternity away, but it’s hard to miss Portland’s defensive deficiencies, and to imagine how they’ll make the post-season if they don’t correct them. An astute reader addresses the topic in this edition of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
What’s wrong with our defense? We’re scoring enough to win even with the injuries. The defense just looks sad. Is Zach that important or what?
Zach Collins is important. Portland’s defensive woes probably have something to do with his absence, but that’s hardly the only issue. Let’s list out three things going wrong. You can judge for yourself now much Collins would help.
For a brief, shining moment (read: last season) the Blazers seemed to have resolved the “swinging screen door” problem that had plagued their defense since the days Nate McMillan roamed the sidelines. Their solution involved commitment and continuity. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum positioned themselves better when defending picks, cutting closer to the screener when going under or trailing harder to interfere with an outstretched hand when going over. Portland’s frontcourt players anticipated the angle of attack for the offense, covering for their own defending guards. Say what you want about Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless, and Jusuf Nurkic, but their ability to shade towards penetration or help against jump shooters, then recover to their own spot, was a huge asset to the defense. They made the guards look good.
This year’s crop of frontcourt players are inexperienced, some in absolute terms, some in this system. They aren’t able to make the same reads; they aren’t getting to the same spots. Drivers are coming off of screens clean. Whenever the Blazers crowd a jump shooter, the offense is one pass away from a wide-open shot. Portland just doesn’t have the mobility to cover.
Lack of positive results appears to have affected the guards as well. Suddenly they’re starting to “stick” to screens instead of moving around them. When they do cover, they’re swinging far out or far behind. It looks more like the defense of 2015 than 2018-19.
Since every team in every corner of every multiverse utilizes some form of screening offense, this is a bad area for the Blazers to revert. There’s no easy solution, either. Gary Payton isn’t suiting up any time soon. Portland’s guards will be what they will be. Unless the rest of the team grows eyes, feet, and the heart to help, ugly spurts of defense will become the norm.
We pegged fouls as a possible problem for Portland’s centers at the start of the season. We underestimated the gravity of the situation. Even allowing for the early-season settling-in period, the Blazers are giving up an enormous number of free throw attempts: 28.6 per game, dead last in the league. Adding insult to injury, opponents are shooting 81% from the stripe, ranking Portland 30th in that category as well. Just what they needed.
Portland gives us 23.1 points per game from the foul line. That’s 1.6 more than 29th-ranked Atlanta, and astonishing 5.2 points more than the league median.
Some of that is sample-size noise, but the numbers still matter. The top and bottom five teams in the NBA have margins of victory greater than 7 (positive or negative, depending on which end of the scale they’re on.) Everybody else is operating between a margin of -4.4 points and +6.2 points. The extra 5.2 points the Blazers are giving up per game in foul shots would put sad-sack Cleveland and Sacramento in the middle of the league, or make a middling team formidable. If those fouls could be turned into actual stops--eliminating the 5.2 point hole--Portland’s 25th-ranked defense in points allowed would become the best defense in the NBA. Obviously that kind of dramatic shift isn’t possible. (Sometimes the opponent would score anyway if they weren’t fouled.) But you get the idea.
Five Trail Blazers players are averaging over 4 personal fouls committed per 36 minutes. Surprisingly, none of those is Hassan Whiteside, who has pared back to 3.6, exactly his career average. Skal Labissiere and Nassir Little average a disqualification every 36 minutes; Kent Bazemore is not far behind.
Whatever gains the Blazers have made on defense with more aggressiveness and forced turnovers are getting washed away by fouls committed. The potential gains of their new defense are mercurial, whereas the foul issue has been consistent.
The Whiteside Conundrum
Is Hassan Whiteside a solid solution for Portland’s defense or part of the problem? So far, he’s been both. Though his per-minute production is down from last season, his per-game numbers are about what you’d expect for blocks and rebounds. On his best nights, he packs the lane with an intimidation factor that the Blazers have largely lacked. Take him out of the lineup with Zach Collins injured, and Portland fields no real defenders taller than 6’6.
On the other hand, Portland’s defense is not that special even with Whiteside starting. They’re 17th in the league in Points in the Paint allowed, 11th in opponent Field Goal percentage and Three-Point Percentage. They’ve been slipping in all three categories over the course of the month.
When Whiteside is not making a spectacular play, he’s often a liability. He does not move well outside of the lane. Portland has real trouble covering three-point shots against committed opponents when their center can’t get anywhere near the arc. Nor is he sharp on screen plays. Sometimes he’s not sharp at anything, appearing to check out for stretches of the game.
Portland is in a desperation relationship with Whiteside right now. He’s the boyfriend you know isn’t right—has serious drawbacks, in fact—but the idea of having nobody at all is worse. They’ll keep on going and hope he reforms, but they can’t feel settled with his defensive effort or the results.
If the Blazers can settle a couple of these issues, their defense should be sufficient to earn more wins. If all three continue to go wrong, even the best offense won’t overcome the problems.
Thanks for the question, Mark! Send all you wish to firstname.lastname@example.org!
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