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Will The Portland Trail Blazers Have a ‘Top Ten Defense’ This Season?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


During this time of year for teams in the NBA, each team sets a few goals for each player, as well as for the team overall. For the Portland Trail Blazers’ individual players, this ranged from learning to shoot three-point shots better (LaMarcus Aldridge, who said he’s extended his range comfortably to the corners) to learning to stay in front of opponents on defense (Damian Lillard, who’s run about 150,763 defensive drills in addition to every else he’s done this summer).

One interesting team-wide goal was mentioned by Portland coach Terry Stotts in an interview a while back. He said the goal for his team this year is to be “a top-ten defense” this upcoming season, a goal stemming from Stotts’, and the team’s, desire to compete for a championship.

It’s a great goal to have, and encouraging as well; the Blazers clearly don’t want to get complacent in the murderously competitive Western Conference. Defense is the half of the court that most players never completely master because offensive numbers equal money, and basketball players historically have been amongst the greediest pro athletes. Therefore, some guys (*cough* Jamal Crawford *cough cough*) think playing defense is a complete waste of time, while others only give enough effort to keep their coach from benching them–and costing them money.

I’m glad to say that we don’t seem to have That Guy on this year’s Blazer squad (Chris Kaman might qualify, but his injury issues combined with the total lack of bench scoring, as well as his age, give Air Sasquatch a pass); everyone won’t succeed all the time, but they will try hard all the time. If that sounds like “Here’s a Participation Trophy!” to you, please remember that NBA defense is really hard. Giving the effort necessary on defense is all a coach can ask his players to do.

Since Stotts’ interview with Sirius XM Radio, the one where he mentioned the top-10 defense goal, I’ve been honestly wondering if it’s possible for Portland to crack that hallowed ground, while keeping up their excellent offensive efficiency. The teams that were in the top ten in both offensive rating and defensive rating in 2013-14 were the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, and surprisingly the Toronto Raptors.

That’s two championship contenders and one likely fluke–the Raptors are going to be good this year, but I’m not sure if Toronto will manage that feat now that they have the NBA’s increased attention. Terry Stotts is trying to spur his team on to championship contention, to be the equal of the Spurs and Thunder.

So, how can the Portland Trail Blazers become a top ten defensive team in the NBA?

It starts with LaMarcus Aldridge: When Aldridge was a young player, his coach at the time, Nate McMillian, voiced the opinion to The Oregonian that Aldridge could be a defensive enforcer on the level of Kevin Garnett, who at that time was the anchor of a Boston defense in 2008 that would go down as one of the best ever, and the best in these modern times easily.

McMillian had Brandon Roy and several other scorers at that time, so his reasoning was easy to understand; with his long arms and graceful movement, Aldridge looked like he could be a devastating defender. Being a defender on the level of a Kevin Garnett, however, requires the attitude to go along with those gifts. KG was a snarling, intense player at all times who played like his butt was eternally on fire. Aldridge is the polar opposite, a calm relaxed guy who back then was as willing to drop 20 as he was to let Roy explode for 50.

When Roy’s knees gave out, Aldridge had to focus on scoring in order to give the Blazers any kind of chance in games, and his defensive development was stunted. It would have failed from the start, I believe; Aldridge just doesn’t have the temperament needed for that role.

That doesn’t mean he can’t make a greater impact than Robin Lopez, however. Terry Stotts’ conservative pick-and-roll defense calls for Lopez to drop back farther than usual, since Lopez’s lack of foot speed means quick point guards would dribble around him if he tried to guard them 20 feet out. Stotts would rather concede the open 15-footer than let the ball handler or rolling big man get an easy shot at the hoop.

The problem is that secondary actions happening behind Lopez–a side pick play, or a cutting wing player freed up by the power forward’s screen–almost always succeed because Lopez can only contain the action out front; he also has to make up for Damian Lillard’s inability to get over screens, meaning he gets no help from Lillard.

If Aldridge were the primary big man on defense instead of Lopez, his mobility would give him a better chance of snuffing out the offense. He isn’t a rim protector on the level of Serge Ibaka or Larry Sanders, but he can move quickly, jump high, and wave those arms at the ball, things Lopez can’t do.

Teams will continue to attack Lopez on the pick-and-roll, but if Aldridge can make himself more of a presence on the weak side–like Ibaka does–Portland can get closer to achieving its goal.

Damian Lillard’s expected improvement: Lillard did address his lack of defensive aptitude during training camp. “How many guys have been great defenders when they first came into the league?” he asked. He thinks he did an alright job in his first two seasons considering his lack of experience.

I do agree with Lillard’s assessment of himself; as I’ve said before, point guard defense is horrendously difficult in the NBA. With his coach declaring that the Blazers need to be a top ten defense to succeed, the time for Lillard to step up is pretty much now.

Getting over screens would be a big help all by itself. Sometimes, it seems as though Lillard has a sticky, glue-like substance coated on his jersey. He gets run into a screen set by a massive man, and he sticks to that massive man like a bug on flypaper. By the time he gets free, the other team’s scored, and he’s bringing the ball up to the other end.

Lillard’s also quick to point out that “The other team has to guard me, too.” While that’s true, it doesn’t excuse his poor pick-and-roll defense, and he knows it. Also, his on-ball defense could stand to see huge improvement; Nicolas Batum often is the one guarding very good point guards on a regular basis, not Lillard. Unfortunately, the list of “very good point guards” is 25 to 30 players long, and there are sometimes two of those players on the same team. (Phoenix dominated their games against Portland last year because of this dynamic. Batum can’t guard Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe at the same time.)

Portland’s path to being a top ten defense would be much shorter if Lillard learns to leverage his elite athleticism and stay in front of most point guards, as well as shrugging off more screens and making himself a threat from behind. Causing more turnovers would be a bonus.

Someone on the bench needs to step up: Batum and Wesley Matthews will do their respective parts on the wings. Lopez will do what he can, even if it isn’t enough at times. So who’s left to mention?

Steve Blake and Kaman are too old to improve beyond their current below-average levels. CJ McCollum doesn’t have an established NBA position; this doesn’t matter much on offense, but it does on defense. He’s too small to check wing players and too slow to guard points–Portland will likely stink in defensive rating whenever McCollum’s on the floor.

The young big men on the Blazers’ bench are either too small themselves (Thomas Robinson, Joel Freeland) or too raw (Meyers Leonard) to make a difference.

That leaves Will Barton, the super-athletic and highly energetic 6-5 wing. Barton doesn’t have the size of Batum or the strength of Matthews, but he’s quicker than either of them. He won’t be able to check the larger wing players in the NBA (Rudy Gay, Joe Johnson, etc.) because of his skinny frame.

That said, can you imagine being a point guard trying to run an offense with this guy breathing down your neck?

Barton has the speed to stay with anyone, and if he can do a better job sloughing screens than Lillard, he has the potential to be a pick-and-roll destroyer in the vein of Tony Allen, a guy that’s always there, always around. That has an effect on all but the very best ball handlers.

It may not happen this season, but Barton likely will have a big hand in whether Portland becomes a top ten defense at any point. The ability to throw a guy in that can defend very well is like a baseball manager having an elite pitcher in his bullpen–throw that guy out there, and he will extinguish all the fires.

To be completely honest, the Trail Blazers don’t have the personnel or the coaching acumen to be a great defensive team; Stotts is an offensive coach, and he doesn’t have an elite defensive coach on his staff as of yet. They will be what they were last season, a team that will score 110 points a game while hoping not to surrender 120.

That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t aspire to be more, and they’ve exceeded expectations before–as a team and as individuals. I don’t expect this kind of improvement, but nothing these guys do should surprise anyone at this point.

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.


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