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The Portland Trailblazers’ Much-Maligned Defense

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

As 2013 came to a close, the Portland Trailblazers were on top of the world, literally. They were tied with an NBA-leading 25 wins and were considered the surprise team of the NBA. We all thought Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs were going to be at the top of the Western Conference, but the Trailblazers?!

Thus far, 2014 hasn’t been as kind to the Blazers. Their 18-17 record in 2014 places them squarely in the bottom half of the league and their 3-6 record since the beginning of March has many asking: wha’ happen?

Sean Widmer and I have discussed it at length on recent epodes of The Bulls vs. Blazers Podcast and it seems to be the common narrative in Portland and nationally — the Blazers defense has been awful.

And that’s not false, it has. Take a look at a few video clips from the Blazers one-point loss to Golden State last night. A game they had every opportunity to win if not for some key defensive breakdowns late in the game.

In this clip, we see Andre Iguodala pushing the ball up the floor, almost too much as all five Blazers defenders are there to meet him in the half court. That is until David Lee blows by Damian Lillard untouched, Robin Lopez starts following Iguodala who drops it off to Lee, who is met by an ambivalent Nicolas Batum for the easy basket.

Another video, another wide-open Lee layup. This time Harrison Barnes backs down, Lopez inexplicably begins to double Barnes but forgets to tell Batum, who doesn’t pick up Lee, leading to an embarrassingly open look.

Now let’s look at the two daggers by Warriors guard Klay Thompson.

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Here’s the full play:

This isn’t going to go well. Batum gives us a shrug almost like “uh, Iguodala is running by me but I don’t want to leave Thompson open” so Batum decides to stay in-between both with some awful results — Thompson drains one in his face. This scenario all happens because Lillard can’t be bothered to run back on defense. He comes jogging in when the shot is already up. I should remind you this is a tie-game with less than a minute remaining.

This was the eventual game-winner, I can’t blame anyone in particular for this but there’s a real lack of awareness on this play. Batum overplays the Lee pick, setting up a total collapse that sees Dorell Wright abandon Barnes, who smartly recognizes that Mo Williams has come to help on him and three-point marksman Thompson is wide-open.

The Blazers defense has not been good but it’s hardly the reason for their poor play as of late. As SI.com’s Dollinger correctly points out:

“The Blazers have relied on their offense all season to compensate for a below-average defense.”

Let’s look at the progression of the Blazers defense throughout the season. From the start of the season to December 31, the Blazers had, as noted, an NBA-leading 25 wins to seven losses. Things were looking great in Rip City but the defense was still a lingering issue as they were giving up the 26th most pace-adjusted points-per-game at 104.8 points per 100 possessions. This was covered up by the fact the Blazers were scoring an elite-level 110.1 points per 100. I recall saying it at the time on an episode of Bulls vs Blazers, so long as the Blazers score in the top five offenses of the NBA, they’ll be fine.

Turns out, they couldn’t sustain that torrid pace. From January 1 to today, the Blazers (18-17 during this period) have given up 105 points per 100, a 0.2 increase over their earlier mark. The difference? The Blazers 106.9 ORtg — a 3.2 difference can go a long way.

From November to the end of December, the Blazers allowed opponents to shoot at a 45.8 clip from the field and 34.8% from downtown. The numbers now? 45% from the field and 36% from three. These aren’t bigger differences. They’ve actually improved in pure opponent field goal percentage going from 18th in the league to 9th. Strangely, they’ve done the opposite from three, literally, the opposite, going from 9th in opponent three-point percentage to 18th.

Weird team, these Blazers.

March has been particularly unkind to the Blazers as their 3-6 record this month has led to the dreaded players-only meeting. Now what if I told you the Blazers points allowed per 100 possessions in March was exactly the same as when they were 25-7? Well… I’m telling you that. The Blazers March DRtg is 104.8, the smoking gun again, is their plummeting offense:

110.1 from November to December 31, now 104.7 over nine games in March.

Their opponent field goal percentage has fallen as well since their high-point, while opponent three-point percentage is near a season-low of 33.7% (good enough for 6th in the league). Pace-adjusted, the Blazers are only giving up the 16th most points per game, they’ve leaped 10 teams in that respective category but have seen their fortunes turn to dust.

The next time you’re shaking your first at another blown Blazers defense set, remember what Don Nelson first said: “the best defense is a good offense” Or maybe Mao Zedong said it first. Whatever, the Blazers were atop the NBA when their defense was bad and their offense was elite. The defense is still bad, but their once-elite offense is showing cracks and with LaMarcus Aldridge‘s uncertainty going forward, we may soon see the end of the road for the reeling Trailblazers.

All statistics provided by NBA.com/stats unless otherwise stated. 

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