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Do the Portland Trail Blazers Have a Defensive Coaching Problem?

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Dave Deckard argues they might, but it’s not that simple.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers have 99 problems right now, and defense is definitely one. This isn’t a new refrain. For years now, the Blazers have been searching for a defensive answer that’s just not forthcoming.

A couple of days ago, I wrote about a few simple ways to judge a defense using readily-available stats. After that article, I got this follow-up question, the subject of this Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Hey Dave -

How much of the stats you point out in your article are related to Terry Stotts’ “Coaching Principles”? It’s an honest question – I am not sure if some of this is by design (i.e. chasing offensive rebounds and in turn giving up fast break points)? I feel like there has to be some correlation and it may point out some of Stotts’ shortcomings, particularly on D. Any insights?

Dustin

Great question. I think we need to distinguish between intent and execution.

The Blazers have gotten more “liberal” in their defensive schemes this year. You get glimpses of it every once in a while. The forwards (and Gary Trent, Jr.) get farther out on the perimeter and are playing more aggressively. It’s no longer the kiss of death when a perimeter player lets an opponent drive. Forcing turnovers is more of a priority. They’re playing faster overall, getting out on the run instead of sagging back to the glass. It looks more like an NBA defense and less like, “We’re just holding place here, trying to take away the obvious until we can try to score again.”

The problem is, it kind of wasn’t working even when the team was healthy, and it’s really not working with half the roster injured.

The issue lies in two broad areas.

Speed

Portland’s old scheme was pretty simple. Every perimeter player takes responsibility for his own man, either staying in front or channeling him into the center, who always drops back towards the bucket to protect. That won’t quite work anymore. First, everybody and their uncle can shoot now, meaning centers dropping back leave open perimeter shooters. Second, it totally wastes the prowess of the wings.

The Blazers have updated, letting their perimeter players take risks, sending help against high-powered scorers. This requires defenders to remain active, rotating and covering the court. The Blazers have also turned to their centers for help on the perimeter, showing hard or actually picking up a shooter, but also dropping back into the lane.

The common denominator: defenders need to be aware and need to be fast on their feet. Awareness appears to be there; most Portland players are pretty smart. The speed isn’t.

The problem starts at center. Jusuf Nurkic came into the season out of shape, moving at 70%. Enes Kanter isn’t quick by any measure. Either one can reasonably get out to the arc to defend. Neither is getting back once they’re out there. If the opponent runs a screen or forces one rotation, Portland’s lack of mobility in the middle gets exposed.

This filters down to bench players like Rodney Hood (also recovering from injury) and Carmelo Anthony. The Blazers are often fielding one, and usually two, players who just don’t move well. Under those conditions, the X’s and O’s on the board go pfffftftftffffttt.

Long story short, Portland tends to run half a defensive rotation when they need to execute three.

Point of Impact Defense

The Blazers have a stunning lack of point-of-impact defensive prowess. Robert Covington is formidable anywhere. Derrick Jones, Jr., Gary Trent, Jr., and occasionally CJ McCollum get crafty on the perimeter against opposing dribblers but aren’t the best on the move or finishing a defensive play (except when Jones gets a bead, of course). Kanter and the 2020-21 version of Nurkic intimidate nobody. Neither do any of the guards or other forwards. Even when they get to the spot, the Blazers just aren’t stopping anybody.

You could see the collapse falling inward upon itself in last night’s game against the Houston Rockets. Rewind that tape, especially in the second half. You’re going to see absolutely WONDERFUL possessions in which Kanter is out defending the three-point arc while, simultaneously, Lillard and Anfernee Simons stand by the rim, trying to stop scorers. It’s almost laughable. Enes will never recover from there; Dame and Ant aren’t stopping layups against guards, let alone muscling out anyone else.

In the face of injuries, the easiest solution seems to be reverting to the old defensive scheme. Percentage-wise, it’ll be better to keep Kanter inside rebounding than having him anywhere else on the floor.

Longer-term, the Blazers need to address the speed and the point-of-impact issue through changes in personnel. Four players can kind of make up for a non-defending teammate if that teammate moves his feet and tries hard. They just limit the amount of space he has to cover and boom! It’s probably ok. Two or three teammates cannot compensate for two or three others on a regular basis. Opposing offenses are too skilled, and the rules favor them too much, to allow that in 2021.

A new coaching voice may help the Blazers, particularly if things go south this season. No coach they could bring in right now can make filet mignon out of this hash, so I hope they get better soon and score a bunch in the meantime.