January 27, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin (32) dunks to score a basket against the defense of Portland Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

About the Trail Blazers Defense

Six games into the 2013-14 season, the Blazers found themselves in a strange spot. They had the 26th best defensive rating in the league, at 107.5 points/100 possessions.  That’s exactly where the team ended up last year. They were 4-2 because they had the third best offense in the league. How sustainable is that? As cool as it would be if they were an elite offensive team and an absolutely awful defensive team, my instinct is to say that the two extremes will converge at least a little. Since  I’m not especially concerned about our world-beating offense, I’ll be looking at the defense today. (All these numbers are up to date through six games. This really bizarre Pistons game is not included.)

At first blush, it looks like the Blazers should actually be lower on defense. The Heat and the Clippers, top-10 defensive teams a year ago, have both been inexplicably bad so far. So the Blazers’ defense actually looks better than it should. (Yes, it goes the other way, too. The Bobcats, who are starting Al Jefferson at center, probably won’t stay in the middle of the pack. But it’s a little disconcerting that two of the only teams behind the Blazers definitely won’t be there for long.)

Let’s look at this defense through Dean Oliver’s Four Factors: Shooting, turnovers, rebounding, and free throws.

Last year, Portland allowed and effective FG% of .512; 26th in the league. This year, that’s down to .494; 15th in the league. The adjustments Terry Stotts has made to the defense, especially in the pick and roll, are the sort that would aim to lower field goal percentage above all else. They play a conservative style, with very little hedging. This won’t harass the ball handler into many turnovers, but having Robin Lopez hanging out in the middle discourages penetration and reduces shots in the paint.

Here’s the problem: opponents have so far shot 29.5% on threes against the Blazers. They’re not a team that plays suffocating perimeter defense. And even if they were, no team came especially close to that mark last year. I don’t see any reason to think this won’t improve. Opponents are just missing shots at an unsustainable rate. A bump in 3P% will increase that EFG% in a hurry.

This year, as with last year, Portland is near the bottom of the pack in opponent turnovers. This year, in fact, they’re dead last. I’m inclined to call this a feature rather than a bug in Portland’s defense. The Blazers best on-ball defender, Wes Matthews, lacks the quickness to gamble and recover reliably like a Chris Paul or a Russ Westbrook. LaMarcus Aldridge has very quick hands, but it’s hard to tally steals as a power forward. Nic Batum is out of position enough anyway and probably shouldn’t be gambling too often. So I doubt we’ll see much of an increase in opponents’ turnovers without the team sacrificing something else.

The third factor, rebounding, could potentially see some improvement. Portland has allowed offensive rebounds on 27% of its defensive possessions, roughly the same as last year. I’ve already discussed why I think this team, despite its raw numbers, could be a good rebounding team. And the last two games against Sacramento, they’ve shown some improvement on the boards. Last game they allowed offensive rebounds on 19.5% of possessions, and 18.2% the game before. Granted, the Kings have averaged 24.2% this season, so it’s not like the Blazers took down a rebounding juggernaut, but it’s an improvement. (Incidentally, the Pistons picked up about fifteen offensive rebounds while I was writing this. That’s not a good sign.)

Finally, the bright spot, which predictably comes in the least important category. The Blazers rank sixth in FT/FGA, at .189. Zach Lowe, in fact, thinks that might be too low:

“And players can challenge shots more aggressively at the basket, since foul trouble to starters will no longer amount to a death sentence. Only four teams fouled less often per shot attempt than Portland last season, and while not fouling is generally a good thing, Stotts believes the Blazers were almost too cautious in this regard. ‘Not fouling can be a double-edged sword,’ he says. ‘I thought we laid off on a lot of plays last season. There were possessions where we could have taken a foul or contested a shot, but we didn’t, because we were too worried about fouling.’”

So the Blazers are mediocre to bad at every one of the factors and their only strength might be a weakness in disguise. Are we doomed? I don’t know. It doesn’t look good. Early returns have been pretty bad on the revamped defense, so let’s hope the team’s just falling victim to small-sample-sizes and some good opponents.

(All stats from Basketball-Reference)

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