Being 82 games long, an NBA team’s season is constantly full of swings – a team may get hot or cold, a key player may get injured or return from injury, the offense may suddenly click, etc. The team that began the season in late October is not the team that sprints (or limps) to the finish line of the regular season in May.
Our Portland Trail Blazers were no exception, as the team we saw end the season was a far different beast from the one that started it. One change that manifested itself throughout the course of the season was a gradual improvement on defense.
During the Trail Blazers’ hot start, much was made of the team’s defense – or rather, the lack thereof. You didn’t need fancy stats or numbers to tell you, either. The team was winning simply by outscoring its opponents, and in doing so, conceding points (especially in the paint) at an alarming rate.
By the end of the season, however, the team had quietly climbed up the defensive rankings. The Trail Blazers ultimately finished the season ranked 16th in defensive rating (average points allowed per 100 possessions) with a 104.7 mark. While that number is probably not good enough to pass for a championship ball club, it is well out of the “disaster” range, and in fact approaching the “acceptable” range.
This was largely due to the team’s improved attention to defense down the home stretch of the season. Looking at things pre and post All-Star break is a rather arbitrary cutoff, but it is easy to find data for, so we’ll roll with it.
Before the All-Star break, the Trail Blazers had a pathetic 105.7 defensive rating. After the break, the Trail Blazers sported a new and improved defensive rating of 103.0 – a marked improvement. For reference, this rating would have placed the Trail Blazers 12th in the league, one spot behind the Miami Heat, who finished the year with a 102.9 defensive rating. On the other hand, the Trail Blazers’ pre-break numbers would have been good for only 21st in the league.
While the notable progress did not do them much good against the juggernaut that is the Spurs’ offense, I personally believe this newfound attention to defense is a gigantic part of what carried the team past the Rockets in the first round.
Although it is readily apparent that the Blazers displayed an improvement on defense, the question is always, “Why?” Like with nearly anything basketball related, the answer is most likely incredibly nuanced and has no easy explanation, but I suspect there are a few easy possibilities.
To start with, I think the team gelled quite a bit. In particular, Robin Lopez, who was new this season, really started to fit into his role on the defensive side of the ball. While he may never be a bona-fide rim protector, he did what he could admirably and was a definite linchpin of the defense. Overall, players found and were able to fit into their roles more effectively.
Additionally, coaching must have been a factor. If you followed one of the earlier links, you would have seen that the Trail Blazers’ offensive rating (approximate points scored per 100 possessions) actually dropped from 108.7 to 107.4 from before the All-Star break to after it. I suspect that Head Coach Terry Stotts and his assistants decided to spend more time working on defense in practice, as well as telling their players to tweak their energy expenditures to work a little harder on the defensive side of the ball.
Following this logic, it may seem like most teams would improve on defense as the season went on. This was certainly not the case. As merely one example, the league’s leaders in defensive rating, the Indiana Pacers, absolutely fell apart after the All-Star break. Before the break, they had an almost unbelievable 92.3 defensive rating, while after the break, they slid all the way to a 102.3 rating. Luckily, the Trail Blazers went in the reverse direction.
Whatever the cause was, the Blazers showed a noticeable improvement on defense towards the end of the season, a trend that will need to continue for the team to have a chance of postseason success.