It’s ironic, poetic even, that during Monday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Kristaps Porzingis and the Dallas Mavericks seemed to always find some way to keep the game out of reach. More often than not, it involved the 7-foot-3 big reaching out for a key rebound reserved for someone of his stature, or hitting a turnaround shot over the outstretched arms of a Blazers forward giving up nearly an entire foot.
One play late in that game comes to mind: with the Mavericks leading 116-94, the Blazers force a miss, and Damian Lillard is tasked with boxing out Porzingis, who, of course, retrieves the ball on a long rebound. Lillard, defeated, looks around as if to say, “What can I do?” And yes, in case you were wondering, the Mavericks did score on that possession.
By virtue of rostering one of the NBA’s shorter teams, being undersized felt like an inevitable occurrence. But, as both injuries and pandemic-related absences have knocked this team down another peg, it feels worth wondering: as Joe Cronin kickstarts the new regime in the near future, will the Blazers prioritize and emphasize the size advantage for the first time in years?
By the Numbers:
Heading into the 2021-22 season, the Trail Blazers rostered just two players above 6-foot-9 (Jusuf Nurkić and Cody Zeller).
There are worse frontcourts to shell out across the NBA. But, that was always going to be a risky combination to mortgage into; the two have combined to play in just 151 of a possible 283 games over the last two seasons prior. Now, with seven players out due to health and safety protocols, the Blazers have been forced to defend centers with the likes of Nassir Little, CJ Elleby, and Tony Snell, an effort that, bless their hearts, has gone as rough as one would expect.
It’s been particularly concerning over the last ten games, where they’ve joined a five-team fraternity of teams that rank among the ten worst in the NBA in field goals allowed within five feet (187) and percentage allowed (67.3). Though, outside of that, opponents are shooting 45.7 percent against the Blazers in the non-restricted area, the third most efficient mark in the NBA. True to trend, it’s noticeable how many opposing bigs have been able to have season-best-type games against this group; Christmas Day was last Saturday, but the Blazers have been gifting points from that area throughout the season. As a few examples:
— Dwight Powell — 22 points. Before Monday, Powell had one 20-point game over the last two seasons.
— Willy Hernangomez — 13 points. The third-highest output of the season
— Frank Kaminsky — 31 points. A career-high; Deandre Ayton — 28 points. A season-high— Jarred Vanderbilt — 14 points. The second-highest output of the season.
The one number the Blazers do have going for them is that they allow the fewest offensive rebound opportunities across the league. In counter, one could argue that teams don’t need multiple chances to score if they can do it in one possession as they’ve done this year ... but no, let us not speak that sentence into existence.
For a team with just a 17.3 percent chance of sneaking into the postseason, according to Basketball Reference’s probabilities, it’s high time for the Blazers to find answers to this question if extending their NBA-high eight consecutive postseason appearances to a ninth is a priority. Yet, even so, that lack of size has been even more pronounced on film. Here are a few examples of that.
By the Tape:
Perhaps the most demonstrative change between the Terry Stotts-led Blazers and the new Chauncey Billups-led regime has come in the change in pick-and-roll defense. The Blazers’ bigs are now tasked with doing more show-and-recover-type defensive methods. Two things feel noticeable across any pick of Blazers games: (1) how often the Blazers’ weak side rotation is either late, or ineffective and (2) How often teams can simply take the Blazers’ big out of a play with a far-out pick-and-roll, and force him to cover more ground. It’s, in some ways, the same thing the Blazers’ offense does with Lillard and McCollum … but it’s certainly much more fun to watch when on the offensive end of that.
The Blazers started using an aggressive P&R defense under Billups hoping to fix things. They blitz or show on P&Rs more often than all teams, but they also allow more points per chance than anyone when they do.— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) December 2, 2021
Nothing is working. Portland has a roster issue, not a scheme issue. https://t.co/3jL2LackTh pic.twitter.com/Sy0cwFCFct
Outside of that, it’s clear that the Blazers don’t have the requisite backline defenders needed to cover that, particularly if Robert Covington or Larry Nance Jr. aren’t in the game. In Monday’s game against Dallas, the Mavericks put on a clinic on the best ways to attack it. Porzingis became the fulcrum, using his high and low post proficiency to first get himself going, and then use that attention to create for others. That becomes a recipe for disaster when the Blazers are in one of their three-guard or undersized lineups. If this is the Blazers’ defensive scheme of choice, that’s fine. But going forward, it’s worth arguing that more size is needed in the paint area. As an illustration:
Far too often, it feels that this puts Blazers defenders in disadvantageous situations. A player such as Larry Nance Jr. comes to mind. He’s proved up to the challenge as a help-side defender and energy source. But as a pure, point-of-attack, 1-on-1 defender, he’s giving up far too much mass to be effective. Opposing bigs are shooting 7.5 percent better than average at the rim against him, and one could venture to say that that’s not all on him. The same goes for Anfernee Simons or Norman Powell, who sometimes have the unenviable task of being the tagger as the low man, and having to defend rolling bigs at 6-foot-4. Best of luck with that.
And, unlike most seasons, the Blazers have been incapable of merely offsetting troubling defense with audacious offense. They’ve won the points in the paint battle just once in their last eight games, signifying a team that can’t win games of different settings with consistency. Their paint defense has dropped from No. 12 to No. 20 this year, with the only true remedies being bargain bin free agents to pursue on a 10-day contract, or beginning their search in the 2022 NBA Draft.
It feels overzealous to be comparing the Blazers to the 2020-21 Bucks, the 2019-20 Lakers or 2018-19 Raptors, the league’s last three champions. But, one thing they each had in common is that they had reliable, size-filled lineups that they could turn to in different situations to overwhelm smaller units. Even in an NBA where getting smaller is the chic thing to do, there are teams showing that it’s possible to thrive with length. All isn’t quite lost yet for the Blazers; on the Locked on Blazers podcast, Mike Richman made note of The Athletic’s Jason Quick’s reporting, in how new general manager Joe Cronin isn’t gun-shy on the idea of making a move.
But until that day, if the Blazers’ reach for championship contention, just like their defensive effort and lack of size, is coming up a tad bit short for the time being.