NBA players, coaches, and scouts have to zoom around the country constantly. The job of the players is to play basketball, not to understand it. Teams do employ advance scouts, who tell the players what to look out for. But basketball is a fast enough game that decisions are rarely made by players based on thoughtful consideration and recollection of the day’s scouting report. It’s not that the players aren’t cerebral enough; it’s that the decision to close out on a shooter or not is made in a manner of milliseconds, and objective decision-making doesn’t work that quickly.
The upshot of this is that the NBA is often late on things, and much of player reaction is based on perception and reputation, rather than reality. Chris Paul has shot 33.1% from 3 the last two years, but the league still considers him a threat from deep. Ray Allen has not been Ray Allen from three this year, but defenders aren’t about to stop closing on him because that’s Ray Allen. Rajon Rondo is no longer a bad midrange shooter, but the NBA hasn’t quite caught up.
The Blazers have been the beneficiaries of this in one major way this season. LaMarcus Aldridge should probably not be drawing doubles in the post. He’s shooting 36% on the block this season, as Zach Lowe recently pointed out. But for months, much of the Blazers’ offense could be based on kickouts from the post to shooters on the perimeter. The double-teamer would scramble to recover, the defense had to rotate, and moments later Wesley Matthews had an open 3. A good litmus test of other teams was how often they double-teamed LMA. Part of Portland’s recent offensive stagnation has been the league finally listening to the scouts/stat guys in the front office and staying home on shooters. The jig is pretty much up now. Even before the injuries, teams had largely decided to play him straight up in the post.
As much as the regular season relies on perception, the playoffs rely on reality. Players have time to replace what they know to be true with what actually is true. The question for the Blazers is whether or not the reality their first round opponent finds will be one they enjoy.
The cat’s out of the bag on the Aldridge thing. In fact, the league’s perception of him has swung far enough that he could be a secret weapon in the playoffs; if he can recover some of his old post dominance, the opponent will have to take a Sharpie to like, half of its defensive gameplan.
In a sense, it might be an advantage that the Blazers are in a state of disarray at the moment. A few months ago, the Blazers would have been pretty easy to plan for. Stay home on shooters, box out hard on Aldridge and Lopez, run right at Mo Williams on offense, and run straight at the rim. Today, the team looks different. They’ve got all sorts of rotation uncertainty, and Terry Stotts has been throwing lineups at the wall for a month and a half now. While this is certainly not a good thing–who wouldn’t rather be the Spurs?–there is an element of surprise to the playoff Blazers that could throw an opponent in the playoffs. The Spurs went 3-7 over their last 10 last year.
If Aldridge has stopped deserving loads of defensive attention, I have to believe that once a team really looks at the Blazers, they’ll decide that Lillard deserves just as much. The franchise has never really had a threat from deep like him, and it won’t be long before any thought of going under a pick against him is completely gone. That’ll make things harder on him, but it leaves the floor open for others, replacing the spacing Aldridge used to provide.
One of the most surprising developments this year has been Robin Lopez’s usefulness on offense. I’m a contrarian on his defensive impact. I think what he’s done this year is replace JJ Hickson’s offensive production while playing defense like not-JJ Hickson. He’s actually a really good roll man, and any team we play in the postseason will have to gameplan for the Batman-Robin PNR.
Defensively, the Blazers are pretty poor most of the time, but the good news is that there is no easy matchup to exploit. Last year’s Warriors were extremely successful taking advantage of their size advantage–Tony Parker and Ty Lawson didn’t stand a chance in the post. Damian Lillard, while not a strong defender, isn’t small enough to get shoved around down low by a point guard, and could probably do an okay job on a bigger 2 if it comes to that. This is up for debate for sure, but I think the weaknesses in the team’s D are mostly scheme-related, rather than due to a failing of the defenders themselves (except for Mo Williams, who fouled a ball handler from behind twice while you read this parenthetical). This general consistency might not improve the team’s offense, but it does make teams discard the most obvious gameplan possible.
I would say that on the whole, Portland’s hidden trends and wrinkles, most of which their playoff opponent will sniff out, will not provide an obvious blueprint for victory. On the other hand, the team is playing so poorly there’s a chance it won’t even matter.
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