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Trail Blazers Betrayed by the Foul Line

Portland plays hard, but isn’t getting rewarded for it. The opposite, in fact.

Portland Trail Blazers v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers have lost more often than they’ve won this season. That’s to be expected. In the process, they’ve given up massive numbers of free throws in several games. For a few Blazers fans, that’s adding insult to injury to roster renovation. Let’s take a look at the issue in today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag,

Dear Dave,

As if things weren’t hard enough, why are we getting so many fouls called against us? The refs sure seem to have it out for the young guys. I see us trying to do what coach wants on d and the refs won’t let us play. Have you ever seen such big free throw gaps? Is it because they’re unfamiliar or are they trying to teach young players a lesson?


First off, this might be a little bit illusion. Portland has experienced some huge free-throw disparities, but on average they’re mediocre in foul shots attempted and given up.

To the extent it’s true, though, I’ve got two words for you: interior aggression. Portland’s style of play influences those calls far more than inexperience or referee bias.

Let’s look at the offensive end first. The Blazers lack three-point shooting like the Oregon Coast lacks 90 degree days. They want to generate offense going towards the rim. The coaching staff knows it. The opponents know it. Some guy under a rock in a cave in the outer reaches of Guatemala knows it.

With nobody around to stretch the floor, opposing defenses are packing the lane three and four players at a time. By the time a Portland dribbler has taken two steps, a couple of defenders are already in the space he meant to occupy, with one or two more cutting off passing angles.

You’d think driving into this kind of traffic would lead to more fouls. Typically it does, as the dribbler gets a half-step on the defender, somebody rotates to help, and the whistle gets blown in the turbulence in between.

That’s not happening, though. Defenders are laying back so far that they’re already set well ahead of the ball’s arrival. There’s no turbulence, just a wall. It’s really hard for the offensive player to get a whistle under those circumstances, as it looks like he’s trying to force a bad play instead of being disrupted out of a good one.

On the rare occasions opponents have lagged on defense, the Blazers have drawn bucket loads of foul shots, simply because of the frequency with which they take it inside. That hasn’t happened nearly as often as opponents just lying in wait, though.

On the other end of the floor, Portland’s been thin at the center position and small otherwise. Deandre Ayton works hard enough, but he can’t be everywhere at once. The Blazers depend on him to cover space between the three-point arc and the rim. Often opponents will draw him towards the perimeter, then attack the lane quickly in his absence. When he recovers, he’s vulnerable to the same kind of calls we described above.

Outside of Ayton, the Blazers have no rim protection. An athletic wing might swoop in for a help block, but that presumes the driver got stopped or delayed in the first place. More often, the opponent gets that precious half-step and the result is a layup or a foul before help can arrive.

To their credit, the Blazers don’t give up defensively. They contest hard on drives, pressure for turnovers, double-team aggressively and recover. Those same positive, aggressive characteristics also lead to fouls.

As was true on the offensive end, opponents know this about Portland. Anybody who can put a big man in the middle of the floor or send a quick guard darting down the lane is going to get points. This being the NBA, they do it again...and again...and again. Tah dahhhh! Welcome to your billion free throws.

The situation probably won’t change anytime soon, so you might want to get used to the parade of whistles. You can use the foul line as a pretty good indication of how things are going for the Blazers. You can also take solace in the fact that those whistles mean they’re still working. If the players weren’t dedicated and fast, we’d see fewer fouls and more unopposed shots for the other team.

Thanks for the question! You can always send yours to and we’ll try to answer as many as we can!