Portland’s Defense: Take Two


March 2, 2013; Portland, OR, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio (9) is guard by Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) and forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) in the first half at the Rose Garden. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The Blazers defense last season was a tale of two extremes. While poring over the finalized team stats after the season finished, I was elated to see that they allowed their opponents the third worst percent on three pointers made. As our knowledge of basketball stats continues to evolve and grow, it is becoming apparent that three pointers are far more important than had been realized these past few decades.

Just as an example, of the ten teams who made the most three pointers during the regular season, Portland was the only one who did not make the playoffs. This is a trend worth monitoring, and a play style that Daryl Morey in Houston and Mike Woodson in New York have embraced.

If three pointers are so crucial for success, it only stands to reason that keeping opponents from making them is also extremely important.

This all sounds like rainbows and unicorns thus far, so where was the problem? Standard field goals. The Blazers allowed their opponents to shoot 51.2% within the arc. Take a second to think about that. Every time an opponent threw up a shot worth two points, it had over a 50% chance of going in. It pains me to think about.

If we reintroduce three-pointers and free throws into the equation, every shot that opponents attempted earned them an average of 1.21 points. Painful. For some context, Indiana (who is an excellent defensive team), allowed only 1.10 points per shot by their opponents. That’s a staggering difference. If an opponent attempted the league average 82 field goals in a given game, the Blazers allowed, on average, 9 more points than the Pacers.

The question is then, why? Portland allowed their opponents to make 66.2% of their shots at the rim (8th worst in the league), but even more harmfully, allowed opponents to shoot at 47.1% from three to nine feet away from the hoop (absolute worst in the league by nearly 4.0%). The next worst team (Minnesota) allowed opponents to shoot 43.2% in this area. In the past three years, no other team even had allowed their opponents to break 46% from this range.

This is a major problem, and is precisely the reason why speculation is flying that the Blazers will pursue a veteran center. They lacked any sort of rim protection this year. While a hustler, J.J. Hickson was woefully undersized to be a starting NBA center. Size still can and does matter – just look at Memphis banging down low in the playoffs – Hickson does not have that kind of size on his side.

While I strongly support giving Meyers Leonard time to develop, last year he did not do much to staunch the bleeding around the basket. In fact, no Blazer really seemed to be able to do much.

Rather than merely blame players, though, I think it is worth looking at team philosophy as well (this is not to say that a rim-protecting center would not have drastically helped). Due to their elite ability to limit opponent three-point success, it stands to reason that the Blazers made this area a point of focus. The problem is that when you buy into one area, you suffer in others. The NBA, and any professional sport, is a game of back and forth: go all in for offensive rebounds, and you will get burned on fast breaks. Prevent the fast break, and you’re sacrificing second chance point opportunities. In soccer, focus on defense and your offense will suffer. In tennis, ratchet up your serve speed and you will increase double faults. It’s a timeless dance, and one that coaches in any sport throughout all eras have tried to navigate.

In the Blazers’ haste to clamp down on the three pointers, they opened themselves to being gouged closer to the hoop. They get into a hazy area with cause and effect, though. Terry Stotts and the other coaches could have looked at the roster, said “Yea, we have no shot at protecting the rim so we’ll cut our losses and focus on stopping threes,” or stopping threes could have been an independent goal that severely backfired. As fans we can never know exactly what goes on in a coach’s head, but we can make our guesses.

Getting away from the hypotheticals, the bottom line is that the Blazers defense betrayed them this season, and for any chance of success it must improve. This is compounded by the fact that it is looking more and more like small-market / superstar destitute teams have the best chance of going deep into the postseason through defense (Indiana and Memphis this year, ‘04 Pistons, etc.). I truly believe that the best way for the Blazers to make a postseason splash in the near future is through defense, and sadly, this past season went in completely the opposite direction.