Photo Credit: Brennan Schnell via Flickr
With the rest of the league still scrambling to strike the right intersection between traditional analysis and number-crunching, the Portland Trail Blazers are planted squarely in the middle. Terry Stotts and his coaching staff are fully immersed in the analytics movement but with a game plan that is awesomely old school.
Help-and-recover defenses are tantalizing and— under the right circumstances— wildly effective but they’re an easy segue to defensive vulnerability; a phenomenon that plagued Portland last season. No longer a team that flies in the face of its own mortality, Terry Stotts has engineered a system that accounts for the defensive limitations of the Blazers’ personnel. You won’t see LaMarcus Aldridge or Robin Lopez attempting to stymie a pick and roll by blitzing it past the three-point line, a popular maneuver to stop ball-handlers which often results in vulnerable 4-on-3 situations below the arc. Electing also to avoid double teams and the tumultuous nature of smallball mismatches, these Blazers work to resist strenuous overstretching.
Rather, they opt for soft coverage in pick and roll’s. The big men hang back to clog the lane, stop penetration and encourage mid range jumpers while guards fight like hell to get over top of picks— a faction of the game in which Damian Lillard has improved from abysmal to slightly below average. Thirty-five games in, the strategy is bearing some fruit. The Blazers allow a relatively high accuracy from midrange (40 percent) but they’re also tenth in opponent attempts, duping offenses into taking low-efficiency shots. What the Blazers give up inside the arc pays dividends outside it. No team has allowed less corner threes. Notably, the Blazers, at 5.7 3-pointers allowed, are behind the stifling Indiana Pacers by just one decimal point. While most defenses in the league are predicated on flexibility—for example, the Indiana Pacers often hedge with David West on pick and roll’s but Roy Hibbert prefers to hang back —the Blazers offer an exceedingly uncomplicated approach which lends itself to an air of consistency: Every opponent receives the same coverage.
It’s a system that maximizes their potential while simultaneously capping it. Can Portland’s 20th ranked defense contort and compete with the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heats of the NBA? Probably not. But it’s a welcome deviation from last year’s team, which sported one of the NBA’s five worst defenses. Portland can thank a revamped bench unit and a Lopez’s better than advertised rim protection for a great deal of its success but it’s still the system that looms large. Other teams would be shrewd to take a page out of Stotts’ notebook here. There’s no doubt that an extensive defensive repertoire can make for an elite defense. But a good system does not a good defense make. Implementing a scheme that’s an analogous with the strengths of your players is essential, a philosophy the Blazers stay true to on both sides of the ball.
The Blazers’ one-track defense is met by a dynamic, versatile offense. In both accuracy and points, the Blazers are a top seven unit from both above the break and the corner three. In fact, they’re the best team in the league from above the break. And a dribbling paradox, the Blazers are behind only the Charlotte Bobcats when it comes to midrange attempts. These aren’t your Tom Thibodeau-era Chicago Bulls that were top five in midrange attempts over the past two seasons, however. The Blazers take and make midrange shots by design, not puzzling ignorance. Aldridge is one of the league’s premier midrange shooters and he’s in the midst of a career season. Lillard’s struggling from the floor this season but he hasn’t lost a step from midrange. Ironically, if the two sides ever stood in opposition to each other, the Lillard-Aldridge tandem would be perfectly suited to send the Blazers’ defense into fits. This is just another in the broad list of ways Stotts has balanced an analytically driven approach with realistic guidelines; in essence, cognitive dissonance with a definitive purpose. The Blazer’s remarkable shooting from all over the floor lends itself to another discord.
Thirty-five games in, we’re only beginning to legitimize the Blazers’ greatness. It’s as if we expect them to carry on as something of an 82-game vaudevillian sequence of endless coming out parties— all of which have an asterisk attached. Why? The reality is all too sensical: Portland is shooting at a historically unsustainable clip. The unsophisticated nature of their defense is a boon but its that same built-in advantage which makes it easier to scout and break down. To some extent, these Blazers will fall. But the goal—this season, at least— was never contention. No Icarus, Terry Stotts knows the Blazers aren’t designed to weather combustible temperatures. If the Blazers fly in the face of anything, it’s the logic that success is only measured by Finals appearances. Ironically, it’s through this graceful acceptance of fate; this compromise, that Stotts has concocted a formula to skyrocket the Blazers into a Western Conference powerhouse.
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