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Pick and Roll Defense Could Torment Blazers in the 2019 NBA Playoffs

Portland’s preferred first-round opponent could come down to a basic set.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Jusuf Nurkic’s catastrophic leg injury left a massive hole in the center of the Portland Trail Blazers’ defense. Enes Kanter has been elevated to attempt to fill Nurkic’s role as pick-and-roll partner to Damian Lillard and orbital center of Portland’s defense, but the latter of those responsibilities is not exactly an area in which Kanter has succeeded in the past. He doesn’t have the size Nurkic possesses and, more importantly, doesn’t have the mental acuity to consistently be in the right position to make plays at the rim or defend in space in pick-and-roll.

Portland’s pick-and-roll defense will be of chief concern as the regular season winds down and the 2019 NBA Playoffs begin, as the Trail Blazers are seemingly on track to play one of four teams in the first round, all of whom are above-average in their use of pick-and-roll to generate offense.

While nothing is quite set in stone at this point, it’s overwhelmingly likely that Portland will obtain a top four seed and take on one of the four teams below them in the current standings: Utah, LA, Oklahoma City, or San Antonio.

The Utah Jazz are lined up as Portland’s most likely first-round opponent and would likely be the most difficult matchup of any of the bottom four for the Trail Blazers. Utah runs a metric ton of pick-and-roll; the finish nearly 40 percent of their possessions with a pick-and-roll, the highest portion in the league. As well, they are very efficient on these plays, scoring 97.7 points per 100 possessions in pick-and-roll on the season, the tenth-best mark in the league this season. Portland would have their hands full defending the Jazz in pick-and-roll for two primary reasons: Rudy Gobert’s immense finishing ability at the rim and their three-pronged perimeter attack.

Gobert is one of the best rolling big men in the league and puts a lot of pressure on his counterpart to drop off the Jazz ball handlers to deter lobs to the rim. He leads the NBA in dunks this season, with nearly half of his total field goal attempts being throwdowns at the basket. A full 82 percent of his shots come within three feet of the basket; he’s a dominant inside presence despite not creating much of his own offense at all. A saving grace against Utah is that Gobert hasn’t quite developed a one-on-one game to this point in his career – they’re reticent to give him the ball on the block and let him go to work, even in a switch, so the Blazers might be able to experiment with more unorthodox defensive systems should they play Utah in the first round.

The perimeter attack for the Jazz is as varied as any in the league, as head coach Quin Snyder runs out Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, and Joe Ingles as his team’s primary creators at the point guard spot and on the wing. While a lot of teams have a single primary ball handler, Snyder mixes and matches these three with Gobert; the Thunder are the only other team in the league who have three players with at least 700 pick-and-rolls run this year as the ball handler. The Jazz are equally comfortable going to any of these three ball handlers in pick-and-roll, which makes them very difficult to defend. The fact that all three bring a different element to their pick-and-roll game compounds problems for opposing defenses.

Rubio lacks an outside jumper, but it hasn’t harmed his pick-and-roll efficiency, as he’s been the best operator in that action for the Jazz this season at 104.2 points per 100 possessions. He’s able to get around his poor jumper by snaking back and forth behind multiple screens from Gobert to get to his spots or find the right pass, either over the top or to the perimeter for an open three. He’s one of the more gifted passers in the league and the Utah offense makes a lot of sense when he’s running the show, as Mitchell and Ingles possess the outside ability to space the floor around Rubio-Gobert pick-and-rolls. Mitchell, on the other hand, is much more of a scoring threat than Rubio while lacking the passing and vision of his backcourt partner. Should Portland play heavily toward Gobert to deter lobs to the rim, Mitchell provides Utah with a perfect counter as a dynamic scorer at all three levels. Ingles uses more pick-and-roll possessions than you’d expect given his reputation as a shooter, but he’s one of the highest usage pick-and-roll wings in the league to round out Utah’s perimeter attack. He provides the middle ground between Rubio and Mitchell – he can shoot from outside, forcing defenders to fight over screens, but can also find the right pass. As a tertiary creation option, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one around the league.

Just behind Utah in pick-and-roll usage are the LA Clippers, who run the third-most pick-and-roll in the league and convert those opportunities at the second-best rate league-wise. Unlike Utah, the Clippers are heavily reliant on a single ball handler, but unfortunately for defenses facing off against them, that ball handler is one of the best pick-and-roll operators in the league today. Lou Williams has very little of what most would think of as traditional pick-and-roll skills, but he’s devastatingly effective in these spots; only four players in the league have run more pick-and-roll than Williams this season and he ranks third among high-usage operators in efficiency at 105.7 points per 100 possessions. For comparison, Damian Lillard ranks just ahead of Williams in both categories – Portland’s all-world point guard ranks third in usage and second in efficiency.

Williams does most of his damage as a scorer, with his patented falling-to-his-left jumper on full display. If there were to be just one line on his scouting report, it would be to dissuade him from getting to his left hand, a rather unnatural defensive strategy against a right-handed player.

As a result, the Clippers enjoy turning defenses around by starting Williams on the left side of the floor and having the big man step into a side ball screen. Most defenses will work to keep this action “down” (also known as “ice”) in order to keep Williams away from the middle of the floor, but that just gives him the drive to his left, where he can take a dribble or two and hit that everlasting fading jumper.

Williams’ passing isn’t overly advanced, but he’s able to find the open man most of the time, especially when the defense sucks toward him in a trap or hard hedge situation. He and Montrezl Harrell have developed a strong chemistry in pick-and-roll, with the latter quickly slipping to the basket if he feels the defense is trapping out on Williams. A quick pocket pass splits the defense in two as Harrell moves to the rim, drawing help and kicking out or finishing himself.

Further down the standings (at least for now), the Oklahoma City Thunder haven’t posed as difficult a pick-and-roll threat this season as they have in previous years, but the prospect of a Russell Westbrook-Steven Adams duo still makes every defense quake in their boots. Westbrooks newly-found inability to hit a jump shot has killed the Thunder in pick-and-roll this year, as defenses are perfectly happy to play off him and let him jack non-paint shots to his heart’s content. He’ll oblige them most of the time, as well, which is a dangerous combination for the Thunder. More of their offense has moved toward working for Paul George off the ball, which will certainly be a massive focal point for the Trail Blazers should they face off against the Thunder.

George has elevated himself as Oklahoma City’s best player and a strong candidate for First Team All-NBA and while they use him as an on-ball creator relatively often, his best work comes as an off-ball threat, where he can work around screens to unlock his three-level scoring ability. In a lot of ways, the tenets of defending George’s off-ball screens works similarly to a standard pick-and-roll or dribble handoff: George’s defender gets caught up on the screen as he receives the ball, presenting a brief window for a two-on-one against the defensive big man. It’s more apparent when George curls the screen and takes a bounce or two toward the rim with his defender trailing over the top of the screen and chasing back into the play.

If the big man defender is up high, George can split with one hard dribble and get to the rim or hit Adams on a pocket pass. If he drops off into the paint, George has had no trouble shooting over his own defender this year, either from behind the three-point line or on a midrange pull-up. All of those options are the same as they would be if George were dribbling around the screen himself in pick-and-roll, but with the added bonus that he can stop behind the screen and launch a catch-and-shoot jumper.

The Spurs pose a somewhat similar threat to the Trail Blazers that the Clippers would, with one player gobbling up a ton of their pick-and-roll usage. DeMar DeRozan has had another wonderful offensive season in his first year in San Antonio, posting a career high in assist rate and assist to usage ratio while not seeing a massive uptick in his turnovers. After flirting with a three-point shot last year, he’s back to his old habits; he leads all wings in midrange usage, with a full 70 percent of his shot attempts coming from the NBA’s most abandoned area. DeRozan mimics Williams in his pick-and-roll usage – he’s more of a scorer but has developed into a very capable passer – but brings a lot more size and better footwork to the table, while leaving the three-point shot out. DeRozan is also a foul-drawing machine and could live at the free throw line against Portland if they’re too aggressive physically. The upside to defending San Antonio’s primary attack is that it would fall on one of the Trail Blazers’ better defenders, likely Moe Harkless, rather than being charged to Lillard.

Whomever the Trail Blazers draw in the first round of the playoffs, they’re going to have their hands full without Nurkic available to patrol the paint. Kanter will have to do his best to mimic Nurkic’s impact, while backups Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard provide little consolation in this department. Collins is the team’s best remaining big man defender, but hasn’t taken the necessary steps forward on the other end to be a capable starting player. The bet Portland took with Kanter is that his offensive ability will outweigh the defensive shortcomings, but they never imagined that they’d have to play him as the full-time starter. Now that their worst-case scenario at that position has been realized, it’ll be up to Terry Stotts and the rest of the team to pick up the pieces and do what they can to build a successful playoff defense.