Risk Management in Rip City


Photo Credit: Joey Rozier via Flickr

I went a little overboard after last night’s Blazers vs. Clippers match up, writing some stuff that’s way too long for a Last Call contribution— a time-honored post game tradition we have over at Clipperblog. You can find a short version of this post, and the rest of last night’s contributions, brought to you by Andrew Han, Jovan Buha, Fred Katz and myself here. The long (not that long) version:

It’s time for the Portland Blazers to take a long, hard look at the kind of team they want to be. It looks like they’ve been gifted the luxury of skipping the steps between lottery and contention, but now that the well has dried up and opponents have caught up, it’s decision time: Adapt or fall behind.  

Over the past 13 games, Portland’s defense has completely fallen apart, giving up 108.4 points per 100 possessions. The Blazers stand squarely in opposition to the NBA’s movement toward stopping ball handlers at all costs. They won’t trap point guards and you won’t see their big men hedging out to the three point line. The strategy bore some fruit before defenses realized attacking Damian Lillard would get them almost any shot they wanted. It was supposed to be a low-risk, low-reward system to suit their personnel— LaMarcus Aldridge is an average defender, he’s not suited for perimeter defense and scrambling back to the paint. But even at their best, in early January, the Blazers were giving up 104.8 points per 100 possessions, which ranked them a shoddy 20th in the league.

The goal, guarding the pick and roll with the same amount of defenders as offenders, is sound. The Pacers’ conservative system has woven together the best defense in the league, but the model isn’t exactly foolproof. The Pacers can afford to drop back. No team knows better than Indiana how to maintain the tricky balance between funnelling defenders into a waiting Roy Hibbert or hedging pick and rolls to stymie them at their starting point. Indiana also has a starting lineup that features two of the best defenders in the league, Paul George and Hibbert, as well as stalwarts Lance Stephenson and George Hill. 

Robin Lopez is the Blazers’ defensive foundation, a solid backdrop on which they’ve built this philosophy. But Roy Hibbert he is not. It’s even harder to mimic Indiana’s conservative style when your starting point guard hasn’t met a screen that hasn’t smushed him. The Blazers tried to hide Damian Lillard on an assortment of non-attackers, too. Problem is, Wes Matthews and Nic Batum are neither strategic nor diligent when it comes to positioning themselves around screens. Essentially, bad perimeter defense on pick and rolls is the only achilles heel of a dropped back attack. Minnesota plays similar defense. The difference: Ricky Rubio can get around a screen, so even a forgettable defender like Kevin Love has time to hedge his bets. 

Portland has been eaten alive by perimeter talent lately. Kevin Durant did some Kevin Durant things, as Kevin Durant is wont to do, so I guess we can leave that  off the board. But Stephen Curry rocked the Blazers to the tune of 38 points and eight assists. George Hill registered a career-high 37 points, eight assists and nine rebounds against them. This is just the past ten games. Sure, Damian Lillard is burning these guys right back but that doesn’t take away from the larger problem. 

Portland’s defensive strategy isn’t going to do them any favours in the playoffs. If this team truly has championship aspirations, they can’t settle for an outcome that, in the best of times, will achieve normalcy— especially considering how right now, they’re far below average. It’s time for the Blazers to readjust their defensive expectations. The Blazers are getting burnt anyway, so why not try flying in the face of the sun?

Seerat Sohi

Seerat Sohi (@DamianTrillard) watches NBA basketball from the confines in her home in Edmonton, a small town on the outskirts of Siberia, because the idea of running around on ice always made her feel nervous. She oscillates between loving and hating the Bulls, depending on the amount of minutes Jimmy Butler plays on a given day. She also writes for Clipperblog (www.clipperblog.com) and Rufus On Fire (www.rufusonfire.com). Her request for the domain name DidSeeratSohiSleepLastNight.com was recently rejected, but that won't deter any future attempts.

  • Pingback: The 10-man rotation, starring why we started caring about the Dunk Contest, and why we still do | 247.com.ng()

  • Pingback: What We're Reading: All-Star Weekend Edition | Bulls By The HornsBulls By The Horns()

  • HB

    I think part of the problem is Damian Lillard’s defensive ineptitude. He has issues staying in front of his man without screens, and screens simply compound that problem. In isolation situations (78), he is allowing 0.9 PPP. In P&R situations against the ball handler (379), he is allowing 0.85 PPP.

    This predicament generally extends to all of Portland’s perimeter players. Now, Portland is attempting to mirror Indiana’s defense by opting not to hedge, hoping to have their players play their man straight. Indiana’s defensive philosophies revolve around “playing your man” and not compromising the team’s defense. This philosophy isn’t as effective for Portland for numerous reasons. As you’ve noted, Portland’s perimeter players leave a lot to be desired in terms of defensive positioning and ability. Hill, Stephenson and George are great at fighting through screens, and deciding whether to go under the screen or over it. Both teams elect not to have their frontcourt players hedge but there are differences in execution. Indiana’s bigs will position themselves higher, keeping them in range of both the screen setter and the ball handler, allowing them to contest the shot if needed. In contrast, Portland’s bigs will sag deep into the paint. In essence, Portland is allowing the midrange shot whereas Indiana is forcing the midrange shot. Both teams allow a similar number of midrange shots, but they’re at the opposite ends of the spectrum in defensive shooting efficiency. Moreover, as you’ve noted, the Pacers will elect to hedge the pick with a modest frequency, which also explains the glaring discrepancy between the two teams’ defensive efficiency, or in Portland’s case, lack thereof.

    Ultimately, defense comes down to intensity and focus on that side of the ball, which is severely lacking in Portland.