Trail Blazers’ unique foul makeup suggests systemic problem


The Portland Trail Blazers were a middle of the road defensive team as a whole last season, but with the exception of Wesley Matthews, their most prominent guards stood out as being distinctly below average. No one responds with shock or confusion when told that Damian Lillard and Mo Williams were poor defenders. Lillard gained an early reputation for being swallowed by screens and Williams retained his career-long reputation as a matador. Perhaps less surprising is that their sub-par defense came with a noticeable uptick in fouling.

In the 2013-14 season, the Trail Blazers ranked 25th in fouls per game, but were the only team in the league whose top-two offenders were guards (guess who). Across all 30 teams (60 players), only 10 other guards were top-two in fouls per game on their team: Kyle Lowry, Michael Carter-Williams, Iman Shumpert, Victor Oladipo, Patrick Beverley, John Wall, Peyton Siva, Kent Bazemore, Mario Chalmers, and Ricky Rubio. Three of these guards were rookies (MCW, Oladipo, Siva), and only two of them led their team in fouls per game (Chalmers, Rubio).

Though some of these players are actually solid defenders, that was not the case for Lillard and Williams. They share the worst defensive rating among all of the point guards listed above (110). Their foul trouble came not from tenacity, but ineffectiveness.

May 10, 2014; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts (L) talks to Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) during the first quarter in game three of the second round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

In fairness, Trail Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts’ unique style of pick & roll defense put them in a tough position. Having guards fight over screens regardless of circumstance while center Robin Lopez remained close to the rim created a lot of chasing for players that have difficulty navigating screens (Lillard) and players that are older and lack defensive quickness (Williams). Still, learning to operate effectively within a system is part of being a good defender, and they failed on that front.

This begs the question: Will this year be different? Williams has been replaced by an even older, even slower Steve Blake, and Lillard has yet to show signs of improvement on the defensive end. As long as Stotts implements the same pick & roll defense, we are probably going to see a lot of fouling come from the Trail Blazers’ backcourt. This is unfortunate because many fouls of this nature stem from being a step behind the action, which is a problem I want addressed, not perpetuated.

I would like to see the Trail Blazers end up with a more traditional fouling scheme where the forwards and centers account for most of the hits. Elite defenses like Memphis, Indiana, and Chicago fouled effectively; predominantly with their big men contesting shots at the rim instead of their guards trying to poke the ball away as their assignments blew by. With a healthy Joel Freeland and the addition of Chris Kaman, the Trail Blazers’ frontcourt may have enough depth to be more aggressive without worrying so much about foul trouble.

However; it is important to note that the defensive shift should come from the backcourt fouling less, not the frontcourt fouling more. Teams cannot always plan out how their fouls will be dispersed, but the dispersal suggests areas of weakness nonetheless. Either Stotts needs to work with what he’s got and make defensive changes to accommodate his guards, or his guards need to make defensive changes to accommodate his system. As it stands, the ratio of good fouls to bad fouls is concerning.

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