The most dominant storyline coming from the first week of Trail Blazers training camp and media day has been the overhaul of Portland’s defensive system.
On the white board in the Blazers practice facility reads the word “stance,” emphasizing the defensive ready position, in all capital letters.
Last season Grantland.com’s Zach Lowe’s unearthed a unique statistic when he was let into a new statistical database of the Toronto Raptors, centered on the use of SportVu cameras, now in the arenas of all 30 NBA teams.
The Blazers were second only to the Miami Heat in “blitzing” on pick-and-rolls, by sending their big man or player guarding the screener, to attack the ball handler. The Trail Blazers did so on 45 percent of pick-and-rolls they defended.
The Blazers finished last season with a bottom-five defensive rating, measured in points per 100 possessions, which accounts for the varying number of possessions in each game.
The main reason was that Blazers’ opponents feasted in the restricted area, second only to Milwaukee in opponents attempts from less than five feet from the basket.
LaMarcus Aldridge is cautiously optimistic about the team’s more conservative approach on pick-and-rolls.
“I mean, it’s kind of early. But I feel like we look good,” he said. “The guards are fighting the screen, and I feel like the bigs are really talking early. I feel like they are clogging the paint so I think right now it’s looking really good.”
Damian Lillard feels that the team is further along defensively this season than las year because the Blazers want to be better.
“For one, Meyers (Leonard) is in the paint fighting being physical blocking shots. Robin (Lopez) in the paint is obviously a big difference, changing shots, communicating,” Lillard said. “I think the bigs in the back line, just talking us through everything, helping us out. I think guys want to do it more so, now that it’s more of a priority. I think that’s why we’re further along.”
Lopez said that the emphasis on the team’s principles is greater with the Blazers than on other team’s he’s played for.
“Yeah, we’re trying to keep people out of the key and deter them from shooting threes as well,” he said. “If they shoot midrange jumpers and make them, you know it’s a good shooting night for them. That’s what we’re trying to encourage.”
The Blazers are trying to model their team defense after the likes of the San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers. These teams, when they guard a high pick-and-roll, tend to deploy their big men somewhere around the free-throw line.
The Blazers have emphasized having other defenders on the corners or wings to help down by the lane-lines to prevent penetration and provide support.
The goal here is to force opponents away from the paint and high-value three point shots into contested midrange shots, the lowest value shots in basketball.
This is also a system that plays more to Lopez’s strengths as he excels being closer to the basket rather than chasing guards around the court. By having their bigs hang back, they hope the dunk and lay-up parties other teams had in the paint won’t leave them woozy in the head again.
The Blazers guards on the ball were also to blame, and Lillard’s defense and how he guarded ball screens were a weakness during a great rookie season.
He says that with some veteran help and time, he’s much more comfortable against screens and with how to position himself.
“I’m excited about that,” Lillard said. “Earl (Watson) and Mo (Williams) have both been helping me on how to position myself, how to get into guys and kind of dictate where they go instead of letting them take me all over the place and make it harder. Having those two guys around have made it easier on me.”
At times last year, the Blazers offense played with machine-like efficiency.
Before they get there on defense, they’ve got to make it to average, and the growth process is beginning.
The more important question for the Blazers is this: Can they get the defense to where they need to get it from a disciplinary standpoint to make good on their renewed emphasis?
They need to do so to make their offense more than just an NBA League Pass treat, so the casual fan can appreciate it come playoff time.