It wasn’t exactly a well-kept secret: The Trail Blazers suffered from porous interior defense all season long, and it was one of the main reasons they couldn’t get back into the playoffs.
According to Hoopdata, Portland gave up 18.7 points per game at the rim (29th in the league) on 66.2% shooting (23rd). Looking at their roster, there might not have been much hope to begin with. Their frontcourt primarily consisted of LaMarcus Aldridge, J.J. Hickson, and Meyers Leonard–not exactly a group to inspire confidence defensively.
Despite standing 6’11″, Aldridge is an average defender at best. His lateral quickness helps him against dribble penetration, but he doesn’t contest shots in the paint well and isn’t very aggressive with throwing his body around. Hickson, meanwhile, is undersized at 6’9″, and since he played the center position for Portland, this was a magnified area of vulnerability as other centers simply shot over him. The rookie Leonard was no better despite being 7’2″, showing a lack of polish on the defensive end. His defensive instincts are in need of work, and he needs to get into the weight room and bulk up in order to match up with other NBA centers.
Watch the following clips focusing on the two starters, Aldridge and Hickson. The first clip showcases Aldridge’s ineffectiveness with altering shots in the paint and also his lack of aggression as a help defender, as Goran Dragic is able to slip right by him for a relatively easy layup.
In the second clip, Hickson’s lack of height is highlighted as even though he puts up a fight against the 7-foot Robin Lopez, Lopez is ultimately able to shoot over the top of Hickson. When he misses his first shot, he is able to grab the offensive rebound and get an easy score. Even though Hickson is a superior rebounder to Lopez (Hickson collects 20.7% of available rebounds while he’s on the court compared to Lopez’s 12.9% mark), Lopez’s height advantage is too much for Hickson to overcome.
It should come as no surprise that, even as a unit, this group was unable to hold down the paint for their team. Opposing teams could score with relative ease, and for a number of reasons. Collectively, the Blazers had many flaws when it came to interior defense.
Perhaps what most- if not all of their defensive issues as a team branched from was a lack of communication. Defensive switches and help defense were rarely called out, leading to a disorganized defense that the opponent team could easily take advantage of. It’s really a fundamental mistake not to be talking on defense, and yet, it happened all too often for the Blazers.
In this clip, a miscommunication occurs as J.J. Hickson leaves his own check to cover Andre Iguodala. In all likelihood, he was probably expecting Nicolas Batum to switch on to his man, Kosta Koufos, but this doesn’t happen and neither realizes as both follow Iguodala. Of course, this leaves Koufos wide open at the rim for an easy alley-oop.
When players don’t communicate on defense, it makes it easy for the opposing team to free up a player with complex sequences of screens, cuts, and misdirection plays. If the communication isn’t happening, rotations are missed and offensive players are left open after their cuts.
In that play, the Oklahoma City Thunder curl Kevin Martin around a baseline screen set by Kevin Durant to lose his defender, Will Barton. With no communication between Barton and Durant’s defender, LaMarcus Aldridge, the rotation doesn’t happen and Kevin Martin gets an easy layup.
With rotations being missed as often as they were for the Blazers, it was no surprise that they couldn’t defend the interior. A defense that isn’t talking and isn’t rotating properly will give up points in the paint regularly against anything from pick-and-rolls to backdoor cuts. This is where the other things, like a lack of energy, stack up to make things worse. It isn’t easy to want to play defense when the defense being played isn’t very good.
Between the individual defensive deficiencies of the big men on the roster and the poor team defense, Portland had a hard time defending the rim against anyone last season. It undermined the work of Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews, both very good perimeter defenders, as they had no first line of defense to fall back on behind the arc.
Portland recognizes that their interior defense is weak. Hickson will very likely leave for another team as a free agent, and the Blazers will hunt for a better defensive center to anchor the paint alongside LaMarcus Aldridge. However, that’s only half of the fight. Portland will still have to make sure their defense is communicating, and that the right adjustments are being made. That will need to happen if Portland wants to seal up that hole underneath the rim.