April 10, 2013; Sacramento, CA, USA; New Orleans Hornets center Robin Lopez (15) questions the foul call against him against the Sacramento Kings during the second quarter at Sleep Train Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Defense, Rebounding, and Pace

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Yesterday I slipped past the event horizon of the black hole of internet basketball stats sites. Just as I began to fear I would never return, a kindly wizard saved me. To repay him, I saved his kingdom from a horde of ogres. Now I am back. I have seen the end of the universe. I know all. But mostly I have some observations about this year’s and last year’s Blazers teams.

  • This team has two underrated rebounders at the 4 and 5 in LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez. LaMarcus has always been seen as a weak rebounder, but the statistics don’t bear this out. He has averaged 7.9 rebounds per-36 for his career (data from Basketball-Reference). Disappointing, maybe, but the numbers have trended upward for years to a high of 8.6 last year. More importantly, Portland has been a better rebounding team with him on the floor every year he’s been in the league, last year by 5.4%. He’s not elite—Tim Duncan’s was +8.2% last year—but LaMarcus Aldridge’s team improves more when he’s on the court than Dwight Howard’s or Blake Griffin’s.

    The same goes for Robin Lopez. His rebounds per-36 last year was 7.8—not great for a power forward, downright bad for a defensively-focused center. But he has the same knack for securing team rebounds without actually needing to grab them. JJ Hickson, by the way, is the exact opposite. He averaged 12.8 rebounds per 36, but the Blazers just barely grabbed more boards with him on the court. Most observers are concerned that replacing Hickson with Lopez will make Portland’s rebounding—20th in the league last year—even worse. I actually think that Aldridge and Lopez, two unselfish bigs who do that boring ol’ boxing out, tipping to a teammate stuff, will operate much better than Aldridge and Hickson.

  • Last year, the Blazers were going to get out and run. They finished 18th in pace. The year before that, they were going to get out and run. They finished 16th in pace. Every year, every team is going to get out and run. And yet, some teams just don’t. Things don’t look great for Portland this year. The team was 28th in steals last year. As much as you might want to, it’s very hard to get out and run when you don’t create any live-ball turnovers. Also relevant here is defense—speeding up the game is difficult when you keep pulling the ball out of your own basket. The consensus is that the Portland defense will be better next year, but I wouldn’t expect a major bounce in pace. Don’t worry about it too much, though. The teams tell us they’re going to run because they think it’s exciting. And it is. But so are the Miami Heat, who were the 23rd fastest team in the league.
  • Most people talking about this team hope that Meyers Leonard wrestles the starting center job away from Robin Lopez at some point this season. I personally doubt this happens, but Leonard will start. Lopez more than doubled his career-high in minutes last year and played every single game. His minutes have progressed like this in his five years: 614, 986, 991, 895, 2136. I’m much more inclined to say that 2012-13 was an anomaly for Robin rather than a new direction. He’s probably one of those players for whom missing time is something to take into account before the season starts. The odds are good that regardless of how well he’s playing, Meyers Leonard will be pressed into starting duties at some point.
  • One of the Achilles’ Heels of last year’s team was post defense (all of the following comes from MySynergySports). They were 24th in the NBA, at .88 points per possession against. Whose fault was it? Whose fault is it always? That’s right. JJ Hickson allowed .94 PPP, raising Portland’s average despite LaMarcus’ .71 mark, which was good for 41st in the league. Hickson’s replacement, Lopez, was barely worse than Aldridge at .73. It’ll be good to see Dwight Howard coming up on the schedule and not think “Well, maybe LaMarcus can match his 35 points.”
  • Portland’s defense was also atrocious against the pick and roll last year, 28th in the league when the roll man finished the play and 19th against the ball handler. If you haven’t read Zach Lowe’s take on the Portland defense, do that now because he’s much smarter than I am. He says that Portland will start playing the pick and roll less aggressively next season and has cool diagrams to show what went wrong with the old system. Portland often doubled and tried to trap the ball handler coming off the screen. This was a disaster, mainly because the other guys on the court were Luke Babbitt, Will Barton, Meyers Leonard, etc., and not defensively smart enough to execute the complex rotations this strategy requires. Robin Lopez should help, along with increased familiarity and comfort in an NBA defense from the young guys.

So there you have it. An assortment of observations and predictions for the next season from a guy who can barely keep track of everything happening in a two-on-two pickup game.

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Tags: LaMarcus Aldridge Portland Trail Blazers Robin Lopez

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