The Portland Trail Blazers are on a wonderful streak, having won 8 of their last 9 games on their way to an 18-10 record. Despite that, their defense still languishes in the lower third of the NBA. Today Jason Quick of The Athletic interviewed Seth Partnow—a former Milwaukee Bucks staffer, also of The Athletic—about Portland’s defensive woes. [subscription required] The extensive interview covers personnel, coaching, and schemes, illuminating the gears grinding behind the far end of the court.
Partnow spares no words answering the eternal question: is Portland’s bad defense a coaching or roster issue?
Quick: Let’s get at the heart of the matter right off the bat: Do you see the Blazers’ struggles as a reflection of poor coaching by Terry Stotts, poor roster construction by Neil Olshey or just plain ol’ bad luck on the injury front?
Partnow: I think it’s mostly the roster. I don’t want to say “poor roster construction” because from a defensive standpoint you’re starting from a pretty deep hole if you’re giving 56 percent of the cap to Lillard and McCollum. You can quite reasonably say the offense those two bring (when healthy) is worth the trade-off. But you do have to acknowledge you’re making the trade-off.
Filling out the rest of the rotation, you have two very negative defenders in Anthony and especially Kanter. I know Stotts has tried to say nice things about Kanter’s defense, but the center is allowing 66.7 percent shooting at the rim (more than 10 points higher than league average for centers) and has a track record of being a poor rim protector with terrible overall defensive impact metrics. Hood has been average to slightly negative in impact metrics for his career. Trent Jr. works hard defensively, but has been a sizable negative in defensive RAPM his first two years and is in a similar position in the early going this year.
...the thing that is lacking is point-of-attack resistance. It’s all well and good for Stotts to want to play more aggressively, but how does that (or any other) scheme work if you can’t stay in front of the ball while rarely forcing turnovers? That last point is especially notable, as Portland currently sits 21st in opponent turnover percentage according to Cleaning the Glass. This would be the first time Portland has not finished in the bottom five in that metric since 2011-12.
Later in the interview, Partnow details successful NBA defenses, suggesting that they either play 48 minutes of good defense or play superbly with the starting five and get by with limited minutes from the bench. Portland has neither option available:
What does not work is having a decent defense with top units and then a tire fire at all other times. Lineups with both Anthony and Kanter have played just under a quarter of Portland’s non-garbage time possessions according to Cleaning the Glass. Those groups are surrendering 117.7 points/100 possessions, Lineups with Lillard but no Nurkic (obviously with substantial overlap) tell a similar story. Without their idealized personnel groupings on the floor, this roster is noncompetitive defensively.
The article is pretty important when it comes to understanding the operation, and shortcomings, of the roster. Give it a read if you can.