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The many problems with the Trail Blazers’ terrible defense

AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer
(AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer

The Portland Trail Blazers are the exact opposite of the Los Angeles Clippers, who, though riding their first losing streak of the season with three straight (disappointing) losses, dominated on defense over the first few weeks of the season and led the league in defensive efficiency. Even after regressing over their last few games, they rank second with only 99 points allowed per 100 possessions.

A fundamental reason why is that their starting five features Chris Paul, clearly the best defensive point guard in the game, and DeAndre Jordan, arguably the best defensive center. With two All-Defensive First Team players to build around, to cover the perimeter, protect the rim and cover pick-and-rolls, the Clippers have an amazing foundation to build upon when they have accompanying pieces next to them who are all locked in and communicating.

Portland is the un-Clippers.

Damian Lillard isn’t close to the same league of defense as Paul, and Mason Plumlee, despite being a mobile, fairly athletic center, doesn’t offer nearly the same rim protection, rebounding or versatility to switch onto the perimeter as Jordan. Add another bad defender in C.J. McCollum to the backcourt, and the Blazers quickly have some blatant holes at the forefront of their team.

On top of that, their best defender and most versatile combo forward, Al-Farouq Aminu, has been out for the last 11 games with a calf injury.

While single metrics and defensive stats paint far from the whole picture of a player’s impact on defense, the ranking of these three in Defensive Real Plus/Minus is at least a very initial indication of the problem: Lillard (81st out of 83 point guards), McCollum (69th among 93 shooting guards), and Plumlee (60th among 68 centers).

In a league that is more guard and shooting driven than ever before, having two obvious weaknesses playing 35 minutes a night as your starting backcourt is going to make having a stout team defense incredibly difficult, especially if there’s no Rudy Gobert or DeAndre Jordan as their security blanket in the paint.

Ed Davis is solid and Maurice Harkless is a long, versatile wing defender, but they can’t do everything and depth is the next key issue the Blazers have. Festus Ezeli having no timetable for return is one area of frustration there, currently ridding Portland of a floor running, athletic rim protector.

$70 million man Evan Turner, with his 10.8 PER and -25.5 net rating won’t exactly save the day either.

However, to look at the defensive woes of the Blazers, some eye tests can highlight the problems. En route to them allowing five of their last eight opponents to score at least 110 points to send them to a dead-last ranking of 30th in defensive efficiency, surrendering a generous 110.5 points per 100 possessions, the Blazers have had some truly shocking defensive showings.

Last season was better for them but still troublesome; they ranked 20th with 105.6 points allowed per 100 possessions.

Any defense is going to have a hard time containing everything the Cleveland Cavaliers and Houston Rockets have to offer. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and LeBron James are a formidable, championship-winning trio that plays together in the most deadly, well-oiled offense outside of Golden State. The Rockets, meanwhile, have James Harden putting on a clinic in a new offense surrounded by shooters, the perfect system for him to succeed.

Still, surrendering 34 points (and eight threes!) in a quarter to Love and 137 to the team, a few days before giving up 130 to the Rockets in their last loss, has shown the kind of useless defense that won’t get them far this season.

To start with some examples of where the Blazers are going wrong, let’s look at that historic quarter from Love, the second-highest scoring in a quarter from a player behind the 37 that Klay Thomson poured in last season.

Here, after already burning them for seven three-pointers by this point, the Blazers manage to leave Love wide open yet again. Even though LeBron is the best player on the planet ‘n all, worthy of attention and help defense on drives to the rim, each of the Blazers’ five players on the court found themselves in the paint at the same time on this play (yes, the entire team).

 

The Cavs were left open and Harkless over-helped when Davis was already in the lane. Harkless then had to scramble back to Love, bump off an off-ball screen from Tristan Thompson, and finally leave Love wide open to drain his eighth three.

Next, to avoid diving into too many countless possessions of the Blazers’ defense getting embarrassed, let’s jump over to the 130 points they gave up to the Rockets on Sunday.

In this play, Harden glided through the Blazers’ defense with ease. A startling amount of ease, even for someone as incredibly talented as Harden. Harkless picks up Harden way too early in a failed attempt to apply some full-court pressure, ultimately leading to Harden blowing past, attacking into the increased space–as Harkless is left behind–before cutting through an open lane and abusing the slow help defense and Davis’ lack of lateral quickness for a smooth euro step finish.

 

Both Harkless’ decision and Davis essentially doing nothing is a concern here, allowing Harden to go the length of the court, beat the entire defense and score within just eight seconds.

In the next play, Harkless does a much better job of backing up and staying in front of Harden before The Beard used a screen from Clint Capela to break free. After curling around the screen, Harden cuts through the Blazers’ defense like a hot knife through already-melted butter.

 

Plumlee comes up high to contest a potential jumper but completely fails to shift his feet anywhere near fast enough to prevent the drive, giving Harden an easy lane inside. With Davis failing to react quick enough or shift forward to cut off Harden’s open drive to the basket, the Rockets add another easy layup.

Next, as you’d expect, we’re going straight back to Harden, this time looking at how the Blazers’ communication breaks down and McCollum plays utterly directionless defense. The result? An easy Harden three.

 

Harkless points for McCollum to stick with Harden and avoid a switch, but McCollum starts trailing Harkless’ man (Trevor Ariza) before realizing he’s in the middle of nowhere, guarding no one, and has left Harden wide open. As you’d expect, the offensive juggernaut buried the shot. It’s plays such as this, from lacking awareness to a weak effort to recover and even jump on the shot contest, which shows the weakness of both McCollum’s defense and the team collectively.

The following clip (before I end the defensive lowlights to spare the spirits of Blazers fans) shows Portland’s desperation to stop Harden resulting in some ineffective double teaming. Or, more to the point, a breakdown after the trap on Harden at the sideline by half court got him to give up the ball.

 

Trying to trap Harden at the sideline and cut him off from attacking is a reasonable strategy. He was lighting the Blazers up as a scorer and passer at this point, precisely as he’s done against the NBA all season. But the issue comes with the Blazers seemingly not knowing what the rest of the plan was if they actually doubled Harden successfully and forced him to pass.

Rather than Davis recovering onto sharpshooter Ryan Anderson at the side of the arc and Plumlee then switching onto the open Trevor Ariza in the corner (in other words, going to the players closest to them), both Davis and Plumlee dart inside. Of course, their defense was going to be scrambled after the double team, but one Blazers big man helping inside would have sufficed. With no one covering Anderson and Ariza, or Harkless briefly switching onto Anderson, the Rockets have shooters left open, and the Blazers’ bigs are left running around like headless chickens. The defenders just didn’t look like they knew their jobs.

So, yes, in one word, the Blazers’ defense is bad. In two words: really bad.

To sum up their woes, the fundamental issues revolve around:

  • Lillard and McCollum: When your starting backcourt doesn’t protect the perimeter effectively, smother drives, won’t help in the pick-and-roll, you’re going to make life difficult for your bigs.
  • Limited rim protection: See above. The Blazers’ bigs can bother opponents at times, but they aren’t good enough to make up for the amount of looks opponents are getting in the paint. The Blazers, surprisingly, rank fifth in opponent field goal percentage within six feet of the basket at 57.6, but it’s the rate of shots they allow near the basket that’s the issue–they give up the fourth most attempts within six feet (28.7 per game) in the league, hinting at how they struggle to hold opponents to lower efficiency shots such as long twos or highly contested threes away from the basket. As a result, the Blazers allow the fifth most points in the paint (47.2) per game.
  • Communication: Both on the court (when guys are running to the wrong spots, stumbling over one another), and off the court (when guys are trying to talk out their issues and correct the defense) have been an issue. “Maybe it’s time for you to talk one-on-one with some guys about their defense. Everyone respects what you say,” Meyers Leonard said to Lillard earlier in November, according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe. “The defensive issues — I’m a part of it,” Lillard replied. “I didn’t want to go telling people, ‘You need to do this or that.’ Enough talking has been done.” Beyond such unproductive conversations about the team’s efforts, McCollum simply said to Lowe, “it’s just a lack of communication,” when trying to pinpoint Portland’s issues on defense.
  • Rebounding: The Blazers rank 25th in defensive rebounding rate. That is all.
  • Transition defense: Something I didn’t mention above, although it’s something the Blazers undoubtedly struggle with. Issues with effort and finding matchups in time, as you can see in some of their half court defense, applies to transition, where they rank 20th in opponent fast-break points per game at 13.7. When teams are scoring in transition, they not only have easy opportunities when their opponent’s defense can’t get set to score quickly, they also (obviously) rack up more possessions in the process.

Essentially, the Blazers are terrible across the board.

Aminu’s return to provide a defensive boost won’t be nearly enough to save this team. Changes are needed in every regard, and even then the potential for the Blazers to improve and their long-time minus defenders to reverse their ways isn’t promising.

Dame and C.J. can really score, though. That’s always fun.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, ESPN, and NBA.com.

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