There has been a repetitious buzz of late regarding the Portland Trail Blazers’ lack of defense. I, myself, have contributed to this swelling cry for improvement, so I think it is important to give context to the numbers that need to change. Here are the facts, what they mean, and why they are important – ‘stat geek’ label be damned.
- Steals [F]: The Blazers ranked 28th in the league for total steals this season; just behind the losingest team in the NBA, Orlando Magic. Batum’s wingspan and Matthews hustle account for 1/3 of the entire roster’s swipes. That’s great for our perimeter defense and all, as those two guard the wings, but the Blazers have a hard time stripping the ball inside or reading the pocket pass. This results in demoralizing, and often uncontested, opponent points in the paint.
- Blocks [F]: The Blazers ranked 26th in the league for total blocks this season; this time just ahead of the Orlando Magic. This is largely due to the sometimes unaggressive LaMarcus Aldridge and always undersized J.J. Hickson. Although the 6’9” Hickson admirably filled in at center, he’ll likely head elsewhere come summertime as Portland seeks a traditional center to anchor the defense. One would hope that backup center, Meyers Leonard, would improve enough to take on that role, but he has yet to show marked improvement on the defensive end.
- Personal Fouls [C]: The Blazers ranked 7th in the league for least amount of personal fouls. While one could argue this as a good thing, it can also demonstrate a lack of aggression in the paint. If you’re not ready or willing to make the smart foul, you’ll pay with a high opponent field goal percentage. That is exactly what happened as teams ran through them.
- Opponent FG% [F]: The Blazers ranked 2nd (the bad way) in the league for opponent field goal percentage, allowing a staggering 47.4%. Their opponents made nearly half of their shots on a nightly basis. This is truly unacceptable for any team that hopes to avoid the lottery and is a direct result of the aforementioned inability to stop the pick and roll by stealing, blocking, or fouling (when necessary). Portland needs to improve their defensive positioning or recruit players that excel at it naturally.
- Opponent 3PT% [A+]: The Blazers ranked 3rd (the good way) in the league for opponent three point percentage, allowing just 34%. This is the one redeeming factor of Portland’s defense. There is always a hand in the face of would-be ranged assassins. However; when paired with the Blazers’ statistical shortcomings in interior defense, this suggests that Portland is quick to pop out on potential shooters, leaving higher percentage shots unattended.
Overall, the Blazers defense sits in the D+ range. In order to improve next season, the Blazers will need to become more commanding in the paint and less hesitant to rattle some cages. Watching the playoffs, I have a hard time envisioning our boys playing as physically as is necessary to win down the stretch. Every team adopts a mean streak when the series is on the line, but Portland’s mild streak won’t even land them a playoff seed, much less above .500. The Blazers have long been considered to play soft defense, but that must change for them to be successful in the future. That starts with a strong interior presence.