Blazing a defensive trail

Maligned for years, Portland’s defense has adopted the gambits and principles to thrive

The problem has festered for years now, one that Terry Stotts hasn’t been able to devise a solution for despite constant shuffling of independent variables within his basketball lab. The Trail Blazers’ defense hasn’t graduated beyond the embryonic stages, holding the team down as its flow, motion, move-blocker offense orbiting around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum has soared.

The Blazers have flip-flopped centers and coverage strategies to try to make amends for its ailing defense. They initially planted Robin Lopez in the paint to cast a shadow over the rim in a conservative scheme. That blueprint was aborted in the Portland Summer of 2015 Exodus, and the acquired Mason Plumlee took over the starting center spot, where Stotts tested his chops skittering along the perimeter in a more aggressive style before eventually having Plumlee slink back to the paint more in the mold of Lopez. Trail Blazers GM Neil Olshey punted on the Plumlee project altogether before last season’s trade deadline, knowing the nebulous returns of the venture were about to come with a hefty uptick in operating costs.

What Olshey stumbled into during the Plumlee trade negotiations lingers as the potential panacea to Portland’s crippling defensive woes. Ever since Jusuf Nurkic and his feisty demeanor and mammoth frame arrived in Portland, the Trail Blazers have quickly vaulted up the league’s stingy scale. In the 55 games, before acquiring Nurkic last season, Portland hemorrhaged buckets, ranking 26th in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions at 108.9, according to nba.com. In the 20 regular season games Nurkic played as a Trail Blazer before missing the month of April last season, Portland performed like the 12th best defense in the NBA at 105.4 points per 100 possessions.

Twenty games and a 582-minute sample of Nurkic in Portland was subject to small-sample skepticism last season, but an additional 23 games and 644 minutes of information in 2017–18 hasn’t seen a regression to the mean, but rather an even more audacious jump from the Trail Blazers defensively. They’re currently second in the entire stinking league in defensive rating at 101.7, just a notch below Boston’s offense-imprisoning penitentiary. (Ironically, the Trail Blazers offense has floundered, ranking 21st in the league. Nurkic is flipping up too many long-range floaters and hooks, Lillard’s shot selection has teetered on reckless at times even for him, Evan Turner is like the iceberg that sunk Titanic and Moe Harkless can’t even dream of the 35 percent threshold from 3 that infamously earned him $500,000 in incentives last season).

Even over a 1,000-minute sample size with Nurkic as the newfound linchpin, Portland is still treading the waters of doubt. That’s what an early-season schedule overflowing with drab scoring outfits will do. Through 23 games this season, Portland has played four games against top 10 offenses (Indiana-6th, Toronto-3rd, Washington-9th and without John Wall and New York-8th), while they’ve played two games apiece against complete duds like Sacramento (29th), Phoenix (28th) and Memphis (23rd). Such putrid scoring has bubbled over into other machinations of chance and randomness as opponents are shooting just 34.2 percent from 3, fourth worst in the league, versus the Trail Blazers with opponent 3-point percentage backed by almost nil corollary data in regards to sustainability.

However, that pitiful 3-point shooting is far from a total mirage. The Trail Blazers’ scheme is predicated on deterring the frequency of high-quality perimeter looks by nixing the demand for synchronized rotations to provide reinforcements when defending pick-and-rolls, handoffs, pin downs, etc. When would-be help defenders stay glued to 3-point shooters camping out in the corners and lifting to the wing as offensive actions unfold, teams just aren’t going to get up that many 3s versus Portland. Thus far this season only the Miami Heat, who have Whiteside retreat to the paint in a similar fashion, are allowing fewer 3-point attempts.

Defending pick-and-rolls and other actions with just two players is the nexus to sustained 3-point defense, and Portland has pledged to such an ideology with sacrosanctity, ignoring the strife prone to rise when opponents launch wide open midranger after wide open midranger.

Without rigid help defense dropping in from the corners and the weak side to clutter up driving lanes, crevices to the rim seep open in gobs, especially with a turnstile backcourt and frontcourt options who aren’t going to be misinterpreted for Draymond Green. Foes are zipping down those runways to the cup aplenty as the Trail Blazers are giving up shots at the rim at the sixth highest rate in the league, according to Ben Falk’s cleaningtheglass.com, but Portland deploys just enough gambits to survive, like an animal that plays dead or camouflages with its surroundings to swindle predators.

Over-and-drop conservatism is common throughout the league, but there are times Nurkic takes the concept to extreme levels, where he literally just chills a few steps above the restricted area almost like a shock collar has him fretting pushing the bounds of his territorial limits.

Sometimes such caution is necessary for Nurkic to play the angles of safeguarding the tin from the ball handler, while also being able to scurry back to the roller or the lurking dump-off man along the baseline.

Teams with smooth-shooting centers exploit Nurkic when he dares not leave the paint. Just about any 5 man is going to struggle versus the league’s most panic-inducing poppers, but the Blazers are especially prone to getting burned. Sometimes it calls for a deviation from their scant full-on help rotations with the defender in the weak side corner defending a spot up threat being forced to abandon his post to deal with the current risk at-hand.

Other times, Portland remains ardent trying to defend two v. two and calls for a late switch. Any delays on defense are damaging, but when scrawny guards are closing out on willowy bombers it increases tenfold with their contests barely even entering the shooter’s gaze. The Porzingod is unfazed by your futile attempts.

Porzingis is an anomaly, however (I’m out on the fictional horse nickname. We can do better. Send suggestions). There aren’t many backbreaking stretch 5s across the league, although it will be interesting to see if Stotts deploys tactics to bring Nurkic out higher consistently in some future matchups with popping bigs. Nurkic, along with Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh, in particular, will venture out to the perimeter a healthy amount, ditching over-and-drop coverage to meet the level of the screener and even spring a blitz at times.

In the more traditional drop format, however, Nurkic has earned the benefit of the doubt in assessing the time and space continuum in these situations; he’s gotten pretty damn smart about positioning himself to take away a clear-cut look for the ball handler and passes to the roller.

When he overextends his boundaries, however, he’s vulnerable to forfeiting a hard desperation rake of the drop-off man after a pass slips by him. Opponents sometimes target Nurkic with altered ball screening dynamics, really trying to put him through the wash cycle. They’ll have Nurk’s man run up for a ball screen, and the ball handler will begin his downhill attack before the screen even arrives, catching McCollum and Lillard slightly napping as Nurkic tries to put on the brakes and backtrack; dudes as big as the Bosnian Beast don’t halt their momentum so easily.

Nurkic has gotten more judicious with his fouling overall to elude the crippling consequences when those gaffes demand a hack. And he actually gets away with a fair amount of reaches and pokes at the ball as his hands are quite exquisite, a subtlety that extends to other members of the Blazers. McCollum finagles his way out of trouble regularity with such shenanigans when he gets switched onto post up monsters, Shabazz Napier is a reachy pest and Evan Turner pries possessions loose against some of the game’s best scorers with his anticipatory slaps. The lightning-quick reaches into the cookie jar is a nice boost for a Blazers team that is allergic to forcing turnovers, part of the trade off of their schematic frugality.

Still put yourself in too many positions where you’re relying on some Jesse James-like thievery and your bound to get caught at some point. Other methods of sustainability are required, and the Blazers, while not resolute in their help to the point where bodies are flooding in from the weak side, do break off morsels of help defense to aid those who are less fortunate. They’ll stunt and feign a body lean toward ball handlers and rotations that give opposing offenses a split second of pause. It’s more of a ruse than anything resembling ironclad principles, but Portland will coax a driving ball handler a handful of times per game to pick up his dribble a step or two early, turning a would-be rack attack (copyright Ian Eagle) into a tough floater or pull up from the paint’s dead zone.

Portland has discovered the safe space between committing too much help that opens up kickouts and sends the defense on a merry chase to dissolve of “advantage basketball,” and not offering enough, letting pick-and-roll tandems feast and off-screen shooters simmer.

Yet despite it all, Portland’s defense feels a bit murky. Nurkic isn’t a premier rim protector and has a lot of plodder-like qualities. Damian Lillard still isn’t good on defense despite showing more scrap this season and McCollum, God bless his effort trying to sprint through screens, still smacks into plenty and falls behind the play when opponents really test him.

Lillard and McCollum get grouped together for their defensive inadequacies, but McCollum’s on another level compared to Lillard, who is experiencing Kyrie Irving-style perception benefits after, you know, trying just a little bit on that end so far this season. Lillard placed the onus on himself before the season to avoid hypocrisy when preaching accountability in teammates; it’s hard to scold someone for laziness or positional errors, when you’re an even more egregious offender. So far, it’s been more like one of those New Year’s resolutions that sounds good, but actually doesn’t stick past mid-February; Lillard is still strolling his way smackdab into screens and gives up too often the moment he feels contact, be it a screen or a shoulder bump from his own man, forcing Portland to execute a bevy of late switches in pick-and-rolls. Playing defense is a drag, and Lillard does bear a sizeable load on offense, a burden that has sunk LeBron’s defense through the years and even infringed on the adroitness of Paul George and Jimmy Butler as solo stars last season. Not everyone can be a cyborg like Kawhi Leonard or Mighty Mouse like Chris Paul on both ends.

But Lillard, McCollum and the resurgent Napier don’t have to be defensive savants. Just play hard, lock and trail road runners around screens without losing too much ground and at least force ball handlers to use the screen when a behemoth lumbers up for a pick. Lillard, in particular, has crippled Portland’s defense on too many occasions in the past by waving to his man as he rejects a ball screen and zips into the paint unencumbered. Portland’s perimeter defenders have gotten better in that department, at least forcing their man into the help defense.

The capabilities to sustain a top defensive outfit are there elsewhere, especially with Al-Farouq Aminu back. The Chief, despite his hunched over stance, still manages to move well and broadens his defensive range with ferocious activity and a persistent unfurling of his wingspan. He can switch virtually 1–5 with the right matchups, a huge boon when Portland gets in a bind. His lengthy absence tossed Pat Connaughton into the starting lineup, a willing help defender who gradually became a law-abiding citizen following the defensive golden rule of middle denial. But Connaughton is a step slow, often siphoning Turner, an offensive sinkhole, into heavy minutes against top wing threats.

Aminu can take more of those matchups now (he made life damn difficult for Giannis the other night), and when he’s paired with Harkless, the Blazers ever so slightly begin to resemble those switchy Boston lineups. The Aminu-Harkless-Nurkic trio has been stingy with a 97.8 defensive rating, albeit in just 138 minutes, while the Nurkic-Aminu pairing has suffocated teams, allowing just 94.1 points per 100 possessions.

When having to navigate lineups during Aminu’s recovery, Stotts trotted out a lot of double big lineups with Vonleh at the 4. Generally, Portland’s bulked up frontcourts have run contrary to the statistical trend, however, of two-big lineups being even more unyielding when it comes to defensive efficiency. It’s forced Vonleh and even Davis to dabble in more perimeter-orientated matchups, an adjustment that has behooved Vonleh, who’s actually managed well in those cases, The constant footwork has made him less prone to the cement shoe plague that has inflicted him when dropping back in pick-and-rolls throughout his career.

Vonleh has beasted on the boards this season, and Portland has been a box-out haven overall as the Blazers rank third in the league in defensive rebound rate, an improvement over their league average standing the prior two seasons. It’s just another example of how Portland has trimmed the fat of its defensive inner workings. Rebounding, disciplined transition defense and not gifting opponents a bounty of trips to the foul line can go a long way. The Blazers have solidified all three categories. They rank fourth in fewest putback points allowed per 100 opponent misses, are allowing the fewest transition points in the league and hover at league average in opponent free throw rate, according to cleaningtheglass.com.

Snuffing out so many potential runouts has been a revelation from where Portland was last season when they ranked 20th in the league in transition points allowed per 100 possessions. Effort shows in transition, and the urgency has been there from Portland this season. When opponents sniff a numbers advantage, at least one Blazer turns on the turbo to even things out.

That takes recognition and commitment, but Portland also has engrained mechanics within its operation to thwart fastbreak chances at a more consistent rate. The Blazers’ offense may be toiling in 3-point bricks and a pile of midrangers, but Stotts’ circling offense naturally ensures floor balance, a precious commodity that stalls out an opponent’s revving engine. The whirling system calls for guards to rotate above the break to keep things flowing, an asset that goes beyond maximized spacing when a shot goes up. The Blazers rarely get caught with two guys spotting up in each corner as a big crashes from the dunker spot on a drive, leaving four players well below the foul line and opening the floodgates for a counter sprint the other way. Well-designed floor balance keeps the Blazers’ alignments more level, almost always leaving at least two players with an easy path back to stable defense.

In a way Portland’s defensive renaissance is an archetype for other cellar dwellers to follow on that end. The Trail Blazers’ results and statistical resume will likely swoon by some sort of regression to the mean. Although a hell of a December schedule will also likely assist the dip with Portland’s eased warm up period coming to an end. Still, the Blazers have engineered a more mathematically-sound shot profile by cutting down even further on opponents’ 3s for more midrangers in exchange, partially with more filtered help and partially with increased effort and fundamentals from dudes like Lillard and Napier. Back up those changes with acute detail in some of the game’s overlooked treasures such as boxing out and getting back on defense, and a formula for the long-awaited solution starts to take hold.

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