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NBA Saturday: Portland’s Defense Showing Signs of Life

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Portland Trail Blazers Showing Signs of Improvement on Defense

Last season, the Portland Trail Blazers were one of the most surprising teams in the NBA. Portland had just lost LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency and had to replace four of its five starters from the previous season. Despite this significant challenge, the Trail Blazers would go on to win 44 games and advanced to the second-round of the playoffs.

After making some significant offseason moves, such as signing free agents Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli, re-signing Maurice Harkless and matching the Brooklyn Nets’ offer sheet to Allen Crabbe, the expectation was that the Trail Blazers would take another step forward in its development cycle. However, rather than taking a step forward, the Blazers have taken two steps back.

As of December 31, 2016, the Trail Blazers are ranked dead last in defensive efficiency, hemorrhaging 110.3 points per 100 possessions. Early on, it seemed as though the Trail Blazers may have simply been struggling to integrate Turner, while struggling with the loss of Al-Farouq Aminu to a calf injury. However, Aminu has returned to action and we are now closing in on the halfway point of the season. Despite this, the Trail Blazers are still giving up 110.1 points per 100 possessions.

It’s easy to identify that the Trail Blazers have been a disaster on defense this season, but it’s a little more difficult to identify and explain exactly why.

After losing to the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night, Jason Quick of Comcast SportsNet Northwest talked to Harkless and asked why this team, with essentially the same roster from last season, is struggling to play at last season’s level.

“I can’t put my finger on it, I don’t know,” Harkless told Quick. “If the camera was off, I’d tell you.”

Quick turned the camera off, but Harkless then decided to remain silent on the matter.

“No, not right now,” Harkless said.

Despite the team’s significant struggles, Portland’s players have all been unified in not pinning the blame on anyone and simply stating that the whole team needs to do better. Harkless’ ominous comments are the first real indication that there may be something going on internally that has led to the steep defensive decline. Whether the team is not collectively buying into head coach Terry Stott’s schemes, the new players aren’t acclimating, egos are clashing or the players have simply regressed defensively, it’s clear that something isn’t working this season.

Regardless of what the internal issues may be for this team, the fact is that they consistently suffer from poor communication and poor pick-and-roll defense.

“It’s just disappointing,” Stotts told Zach Lowe of ESPN earlier this season. “We should have picked up where we left off last season. We haven’t.”

Dating back to when the team had Robin Lopez, the Trail Blazers have favored a conservative defensive scheme against pick-and-rolls. Rather than using the center to jump out on the perimeter and either hedge or trap the ball handler, Portland’s centers have been coached to hang close to the painted area and clog the lane. Portland’s current players, with the exception of Turner and a few others, are used to this defensive scheme, but it hasn’t worked as well this season as it did last.

Last November, Stotts essentially said that he was not ready to make any drastic changes to his defense.

“You ask yourself: Should we maybe try something different?” Stotts said to ESPN. “But I think most coaches would say, ‘Let’s do what we’re supposed to be doing better before we go changing things.'”

It seems as though Stotts has finally changed his mind. On Tuesday, the Trail Blazers faced the league’s best offensive team, the Toronto Raptors. With a historically good offense facing off against this year’s worst defense, it would have been reasonable to expect a high-scoring affair. Instead, Portland held the Raptors to 95 points and nearly came away with a victory.

The difference in this game was that Portland changed up their pick-and-roll defense and put a ton of pressure on Toronto’s ball handlers. The results were promising as Portland held Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to 16-40 from the field and forced the ball out of their hands several times.

“Their defensive scheme was unbelievable tonight. Their bigs moved their feet well and I had a couple of turnovers trying to get around them,” Lowry said after the game.

“It might have been our best defensive game of the season,” Stotts added. “We played with a lot of energy.”

It seems that Stotts and his staff finally decided that the team did need a change in defensive strategy. However, don’t think that Stotts has abandoned his more conservative defensive schemes completely. Stotts is one of the best coaches in the league and seems likely to adjust his pick-and-roll defense based on matchups.

Following their loss to the Raptors, the Trail Blazers faced off against the Sacramento Kings. Against the Kings, Stotts had his big men stay closer to the painted area in pick-and-roll coverage, packed the paint with help defenders and dared Sacramento’s shooters to punish them for not consistently guarding them out to the three-point line.

The Kings couldn’t capitalize on the daylight the Trail Blazers gave them, going 9-28 from three-point range. With more defenders clogging the paint, the Kings struggled from the floor and shot just 31-79 overall. Considering the dramatic shift in pick-and-roll defense from one game to the next, it seems likely that Stotts will now adjust his schemes on a nightly basis. Whether the Trail Blazers can effectively switch from one scheme to another from game to game remains to be seen, but the early returns are encouraging. There’s perhaps no one playing better basketball in the league than Lowry and he was quick to praise the Trail Blazers for keeping him off balance throughout the matchup.

The Trail Blazers’ best case scenario is probably climbing their way up to a league average, or slightly below league average defense. They are in need of a strong rim protector (e.g., Andrew Bogut) who can truly deter opponents from attacking the basket and allow Portland’s wing-defenders to gamble a bit more on defense. However, even without making a move to add such a player, the Trail Blazers have shown an ability to communicate, make proper rotations and force opponents into difficult shots or force turnovers. The problem is that way too often the Trail Blazers fail to communicate, send help when it isn’t necessary, get burned on backdoor cuts to the basket or lose track of an opponent who gets wide open for a jump-shot

At 14-21, the Trail Blazers are still just a game and a half behind the Sacramento Kings for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff slot despite having gone long stretches without some of their key players, including Damian Lillard most recently.

Even with their defense struggling, the Trail Blazers are still capable of putting up big numbers on the board and staying within striking distance with their offense (similar to the Denver Nuggets). However, for this team to get back on track, it needs to consistently communicate with one another and execute Stotts’ defensive schemes. However, that may be difficult to do if the game plan is going to change significantly from one game to the next.

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About Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.