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Can Terry Stotts Ever Coach the Trail Blazers to Great Defense?

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Hint: He already has, but he needs the tools to do it.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Defense has not been a hallmark of the Portland Trail Blazers during the 2010’s. They’ve been up and down, generally finding success when they’ve defended well, falling on their collective faces when they haven’t.

Terry Stotts has served as Portland’s head coach since 2012. As such, he has shouldered most of the blame for the team’s defensive shortcomings, earning the dreaded reputation of “offensive coach”. Is this warranted, or is Stotts paying the price for things beyond his control? Are his teams so good on offense that their defensive performances look pallid by comparison, or is he truly clueless on the defensive end? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

We’ve had a sub-par defense for years, and while it’s easy to chalk it up to defensively deficient guards, to what extent should we start to consider that maybe our coaching is a factor?

Stotts has doggedly adhered to the same “centre-drops-back” strategy - which relies on guards fighting through screens - since his arrival, and we’ve been a bottom third defense ever since.

Is it time for a change?

JH

Yes, probably, but not the way you’re thinking.

I shy away from using single stats to measure big-concept aspects of the game. I particularly resist doing it with defense, which is inherently statistics-unfriendly. But what the heck...for the purposes of this facile discussion, I’ll do it.

Take a look at Portland’s defensive ratings since 2012, when Stotts and Damian Lillard came on board:

As you can see, the Blazers have cycled a couple of times defensively. They stunk in Lillard’s rookie year, then grew to near-impressive status (for Portland, anyway) by 2014-15. Then they dropped back to bottom-third level, only to leap forward again in 2017-18. After that, they slipped back to mediocre, then awful again. Their defensive performance under Stotts has not been a bottomless pit, but a roller coaster.

Key events during this span include:

  • Summer of 2013—Robin Lopez arrives
  • Summer of 2015— Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge depart
  • 2017-18— Jusuf Nurkic plays his first full season in Portland
  • 2019-20— Al-Farouq Aminu leaves, Nurkic injured

We can draw a fairly good correlation between Portland’s frontcourt experience/talent and their defensive prowess. Pundits can debate the “ice” scheme for Portland centers all they want, but the key issue is not just that they drop back, but who is dropping back.

As the Aldridge-Lopez tandem matured together, the Blazers got better on defense. Their schemes worked and their playoffs expectations rose. When both of them left in 2015, the defense fell off a cliff. Aminu came on right afterwards, but he wasn’t enough to make a difference, particularly playing small forward. Then the Blazers moved him to power forward and Nurkic joined the club. At that point, their defense looked better than ever. Neither played in 2019-20 and suddenly the Blazers looked bad again.

There’s hope and caution in this:

  1. Yes, the Blazers CAN be good on “D”, even with these guards, even with Coach Stotts at the helm. They’ve done it before.
  2. A solid, experienced, talented tandem at the four and five positions are important to their defensive success.
  3. Nurkic and Zach Collins may be such a tandem. We don’t know yet, as they haven’t played together enough BUT...
  4. If they’re not—either because they’re unsuited or because they can’t stay healthy—it’s pretty clear that nothing else is going to save the team. No amount of improvement from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, no tinkering with scheme or system, has made a difference. In other words, Nurk and Zach had better be great or Portland is in trouble. ALSO...
  5. Judging by this season, Hassan Whiteside is probably not the guy, although the Blazers would need to pair him with a better defensive power forward to be absolutely sure. The last time the Blazers looked this bad on defense, J.J. Hickson was manning the middle. That’s...not good.

Instead of replacing the coach, Blazers fans should hope that Collins and Nurkic stay healthy and gel together. Either that, or they should hope the Blazers pick up another multi-skilled forward who can kick it on the defensive end.

Keep the questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll keep answering them!

—Dave (blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard / @blazersedge)