It’s not exactly an unknown fact to any of us, but the Blazers truly were awful on defense last season. Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum made a pair of good (great?) defenders on the wing, but beyond them, the Blazers were simply woeful on that end of the floor.
It all started with 6’9″ J.J. Hickson playing out of position and getting beat by bigger and better centers. It definitely didn’t help that he was backed up by Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, both subpar defenders themselves, and a bench that did little to nothing against opposing offenses. The end result was a team with a Defensive Efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 106.9, 4th-worst in the NBA.
We all know how the offseason went. Neil Olshey went out and brought in a handful of assets for our bench, as well as a new starting center that was actually fit for the position in Robin Lopez.
It’s safe to say that we’ve at least plugged up a few holes in our defense. Replacing Hickson with Lopez will be huge, and not just because of the extra size Lopez offers. At 7’0″ and 255 lbs, Lopez definitely is a more imposing figure than the 6’9″ and 242 lb Hickson. There’s no denying he’s a significantly better defender, either. While he’s not exactly in the top tier of interior defenders, Lopez averaged 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes last season and throws his body around well. He’s an extremely solid defender in and around the paint, especially in post-up situations or as a help defender.
As for the revamped bench, that will certainly help as well. Simply having more depth allows the entire team to play harder while they’re on the floor, knowing that there are reliable players on the bench that can come in and produce up to expectations when they get tired. Foul trouble becomes a bit less of a death sentence with reliable options waiting in the wings, and that extra bit of energy might mean a slightly sharper response as a help defender or just a little more scrappiness in running to contest a shot.
However, there are a lot of question marks remaining. Perhaps most glaring is that the Blazers still don’t really employ that one defensive stopper that can anchor a defense. In fact, most of their player personnel remains relatively lackluster on defense in spite of the new additions to the roster.
Lopez is solid, while Matthews and Batum are both above average defenders. They still have their own flaws, however. Lopez is extremely slow-footed out of the paint, and terribly weak against the pick-and-roll (which won’t fit well in the aggressive defensive scheme of the Blazers) or big men capable of coming out of the paint to make a jumpshot. Matthews is strong and tenacious, but not quite quick enough to defend against many other guards in the NBA. Conversely, Batum is long and agile, but lacks strength and suffers from attention lapses away from the ball.
It gets worse when we go deeper through the roster. Aldridge is mobile and tall, but makes poor and delayed decisions as a help defender while failing to impose himself as much of a presence around the rim. Obviously, we hope for improvement from Damian Lillard and especially the 7’1″ Meyers Leonard in their sophomore seasons. However, it’d be foolish to expect either to become a plus on defense right away. Lillard struggled to stay with nimble point guards on the perimeter, and the pick-and-roll was a huge problem for him. Leonard was even worse, as even with his height and athleticism, he quickly got lost and proved to be easy to bully down low for stronger NBA centers.
As for the rest of the new summer acquisitions after Lopez, there’s nobody that really inspires defensively. In fact, most of them are pretty awful defenders. Dorell Wright has nice length for a wing and stands 6’9″ tall, but lacks foot-speed and is inconsistent with his effort. Mo Williams is outright awful, with little to no athleticism and regularly struggling to stay with his check on or off the ball in any way. It’s hard to expect much from rookie C.J. McCollum, and while he plays the passing lanes well, he’s neither fast nor strong enough yet to defend the various types of guards he will face in the NBA. Thomas Robinson is strong, athletic and long, but the issue with him is still learning the quirks of playing defense in the NBA, be it defensive rotations, guarding the pick-and-roll, or simple positioning.
Consider the player personnel, and match it to Terry Stotts’ aggressive defensive scheme. Stotts likes to hedge with the big man against pick-and-rolls, but this doesn’t suit our guys well. Lopez is far too plodding away from the rim, and Aldridge, Leonard. and Robinson don’t time well or hedge hard enough for it to be particularly successful. Stack this on top of the general lack of quality of perimeter defenders after Matthews and Batum, particularly at point guard, and you’re left with a defense that could be asking to be beat by the opposing offense.
Even if the Blazers switch to a conservative defensive scheme (which Zach Lowe mentioned, but didn’t source), this is still a team limited by its players. The Blazers’ interior defense improved, but Lopez being “solid” won’t be enough to anchor it. The relative lack of reliable defense from the other big men around him means interior defense will still be an issue heading into next season, though not the fatal flaw it was last season. Unfortunately, the perimeter defense isn’t much better. Matthews and Batum are a perfectly decent pair, but everybody else looks like a weak link.
The Blazers’ plan next season is, without a doubt, offense first and defense second. They’ve made a conscious effort to grab three-point shooters to add to their existing trio of Lillard, Matthews and Batum. Outscoring the opponent, for Portland, means putting up a lot of points on the board and trying to get to 100 points first (see: Lawler’s Law). It doesn’t mean a war of attrition trying to hold the opponent team to sub-40% shooting the way it does with the Indiana Pacers.
Even with that said, it’ll be very important for the Blazers to be able to stand their ground on defense. The Western Conference is an absolute dogfight, and the Blazers are doing themselves no favors by playing the defense they played last season. The last seed or two in the playoffs could be open for the Blazers, but they’ll have to fend off fierce competition from teams like the Denver Nuggets and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Every edge they can have will help.
In other words, the onus will be on the Blazers to step their defense up. The players they have are poised to be a strong offensive bunch, but those same players will need to commit to playing defense as well. Their standards on that end are low, but the expectations this season can’t be. Terry Stotts will need to find what works best, and get his lineup to buy in. Changes were made to where this team was weak on paper, now changes will have to be made to where this team was weak on the court.