Portland Trail Blazers Re-Writing the Book on NBA Defense

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Portland Trail Blazers Re-Writing the Book on NBA Defense
USA Today

Nothing about this season has been conventional for the Portland Trail Blazers

While Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and the rest of Rip City were supposed to be fairly competitive in the tough Western Conference, they weren't supposed to be this good. A nine-game winning streak that would leave them in the No. 2 spot was almost unthinkable. 

Yet here we are. 

While the Blazers can get rolling offensively when Lillard is hitting his perimeter looks and Aldridge is doing his thing with turnaround mid-range jumpers, that was expected. It's the defense that has been much better than anyone dreamed, jumping from a 109.2 defensive rating in 2012-13 (No. 26 in the league) to 104.5 this year, according to Basketball-Reference

And it's all due to a change in mentality.

The Blazers aren't content to use the typical scheme employed in the Association, one that revolves around packing players into the paint for as long as possible. Instead of protecting the rim, they're conceding easy attempts there and defending the three-point arc as aggressively as possible. 

This is new, and it's working. 


Giving up Chances at the Rim

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport

Usually elite defensive teams don't give up points in the paint. They do everything possible to shut down the area closest to the basket, forcing teams into taking less efficient options. 

The Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers, owners of two of basketball's best defenses, make a concerted effort to eliminate "points in the paint" from the opposing team's vocabulary, for example. They rank Nos. 1 and 2 in points in the paint allowed, respectively, according to TeamRankings.com

It's a strategy that Tom Thibodeau has perfected, and it's not-so-slowly gaining traction around the entire NBA. He tries to pack as many players as possible into the more vividly colored portion of the court, asking them to stay there so long that they're essentially daring referees to call them on violations. 

And even if they get whistled and give up technical free-throw attempts, it's still a strategy worth employing. Officials aren't going to make that call every time, so the benefit outweighs the cost by a rather large margin. 

Due largely to the Thibodeau influence, there's a pretty sizable league-wide correlation between overall defensive rating and points in the paint allowed. Take a look: 

Graphic created with Infogr.am.

Of all the data points in that graph, the Blazers are one of the biggest outliers. Despite showcasing a porous interior defense, they're still able to put together a pretty competent defensive unit. In fact, only the Los Angeles Clippers give up more points in the paint, but Portland has the No. 13 defensive rating in the NBA, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.  

Another way to look at this is through NBA.com's SportVU data

It shows that Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge have been attacked at the rim quite frequently. While the former is facing 10.4 attempts per game at the rim and allowing opponents to shoot 45.2 percent, the latter is holding the other team to 54.9 percent shooting on 7.8 shots per game. 

That's a lot of attempts. 

Lopez and Aldridge alone rank No. 4 and No. 20, respectively, in attempts at the rim faced per game. Together, no frontcourt can come close to being as heavily involved. Take a look at the combined attempts faced by the starting frontcourt for the top teams in the NBA: 

  1. LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez, Portland Trail Blazers: 18.2
  2. Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, Utah Jazz: 18.0
  3. Miles Plumlee and Channing Frye, Phoenix Suns: 17.8
  4. Marcin Gortat and Nene, Washington Wizards: 17.7
  5. Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones, Houston Rockets: 17.7
  6. Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia 76ers: 16.0

Unlike the other teams featured on that list up above, the Blazers actually are trying to make their interior defenders so heavily involved. 

Let's run through those six teams again, this time inserting defensive rating into the equation: 

Team Rim APG Against Starting Frontcourt Defensive Rating Defensive Rating Rank
Portland 18.2 104.5 13
Utah 18.0 108.6 30
Phoenix 17.8 101.5 6
Washington 17.7 105.4 19
Houston 17.7 106.4 21
Philadelphia 16.0 107.2 24

So, what makes Portland one of those rare teams that is able to face so many interior attempts and walk away without too many problems? It's not like they have truly outstanding individual defenders waiting in the paint, after all. 


No Three-Point Success Allowed

Gary Dineen/Getty Images

It's all about minimizing the impact of the three-ball. 

A three-pointer is the most efficient shot in basketball, as it only needs to be made at a clip of 28 percent to become more useful than a typical mid-range jumper. In fact, the NBA as a whole should be shooting far more threes, and you can read my full breakdown on why here

Portland is one of the teams that truly recognizes this principle, and it's actively trying to avoid having other NBA squads put up gaudy point totals by catching fire from downtown. 

Take a look at the teams allowing the fewest triples per game to their opponents during the 2013-14 campaign:

  1. Portland Trail Blazers, 4.8 per game
  2. Boston Celtics, 5.5
  3. Phoenix Suns, 5.8 
  4. San Antonio Spurs, 6.3 
  5. Indiana Pacers, 6.4
  6. Golden State Warriors, 6.4
  7. Orlando Magic, 6.5
  8. Utah Jazz, 6.6
  9. Toronto Raptors, 6.8
  10. Milwaukee Bucks, 7.4

To put that in perspective, the Philadelphia 76ers are giving up a league-worst 11.8 three-pointers per game. That's more than twice what the top three teams in the league are allowing on a nightly basis. 

But Portland's impressive nature guarding the perimeter continues. 

They're so good at closing out on the perimeter due to the refusal to crash around players in the teeth of the defense that no team is better at preventing attempts. The 16.2 attempts per game opponents are taking against Rip City is the top mark in the league as well. 

And beyond that, all 29 other teams in the Association are allowing opponents to drain triples at a higher percentage. The Blazers are holding the opposition to 29.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc, and the Boston Celtics are second—again—at 32.4 percent. That's nearly as big a gap as the one that exists between Boston (No. 2) and the Los Angeles Clippers (No. 10). 

It's not just a subjective statement to say that the Blazers boast the best three-point defense in the NBA, but rather a factual one. And it's all because they're determined to shut down the perimeter, even if it means forgetting about providing help for the interior defenders. 

Take a look at a few plays against the Brooklyn Nets if you'd like some visual examples: 


After switching on a pick-and-roll that involved Jason Terry and Paul Pierce, Damian Lillard finds himself in a mismatch. 

But the Blazers aren't going to help him out with a big man. Instead, they'll try trapping Pierce with another perimeter defender, knowing that the weak-side defenders will rotate over to prevent three-point attempts on kick-outs. 


That's exactly what happens, as Mo Williams is in position to dash out and prevent Jason Terry from shooting an open three-pointer. 


He doesn't get there in time to block the shot, but he does manage to contest the look, and "Jet's" shot clangs off the rim. 

It's a common sound when watching the Portland defense, and you could have heard it once more if you'd watched the next play as well: 


Williams begins the play on Joe Johnson, and you can immediately see Kevin Garnett coming up to set a screen. 


The pick is rejected, and Johnson drives to the baseline.

Seen this image before?

If you scroll up, you'll remind yourself of a slight variation, as the Blazers are once more trapping a wing player in the corner and relying on perimeter rotations to prevent three-pointers. The interior defenders aren't too worried about the paint, as you can see by the wide open space in the middle. 


Portland doesn't concern itself with Garnett, as he's not much of a threat from three-point range. Instead, Nicolas Batum is already attempting to cut off the ensuing passing lane, and Wesley Matthews is rotating over. 


Matthews deters Paul Pierce from firing away immediately, then he retreats to his original assignment as Batum closes out on the shooter. 


Another clang. 

It's a common theme for the Blazers, and it'll continue to be so long as they continue using this defensive philosophy. 


Will Other Teams Adopt This Philosophy? 

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Spo

This isn't too different from what some other teams are running throughout the NBA. 

The Houston Rockets don't worry about helping out on the interior, but that's for two different reasons.

First, they have either Dwight Howard or Omer Asik guarding the rim at all times, and both of them are better defenders of the paint than anyone on the Portland roster. Secondly, they're fine conceding shots at the rim because it lets them quickly inbound the ball and get out into a de facto transition game after a score. 

Gregg Popovich runs a slight variation in San Antonio, but the point is to force players into mid-range jumpers while avoiding any fouls at the rim. There's a reason that no team is allowing fewer free throws per field-goal attempt than the Spurs in 2013-14. 

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

The Phoenix Suns are also playing a similar defensive style, and it's worked fantastically for them. Although they're allowing nearly as many shots at the rim as the Blazers, they actually have the No. 6 defensive rating in the NBA. 

It all depends upon personnel. 

The Blazers don't have many players who you'd consider elite on defense. Instead, they have a bunch of versatile guys with complementary skills. 

Nicolas Batum can guard multiple positions, allowing him to switch on screens and guard both the interior and the perimeter. Wesley Matthews continues to develop as a perimeter defender, Robin Lopez is a pick-and-roll specialist and LaMarcus Aldridge is a solid interior guy. 

So, to compensate for the unit as a whole's lack of obvious strengths, the Blazers have started to use this system. They know that Lopez and Aldridge are competent enough in one-on-one situations that they can afford to do so. 

Will we see more defenses like this in the future?

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If a system like this continues to work for Rip City—and for the Suns as well, though there's not as much of a priority on neglecting the paint in the desert—it will gain traction. That's what happened with the Bulls' paint-packing strategy, after all. 

Teams are trending toward the three-point line, and Portland is simply ahead of the curve right now. The NBA game is about making proper adjustments, which is exactly what the Blazers are realizing and responding to.

Don't expect the rest of the league to adopt similar strategies overnight, but don't be surprised when you see more one-on-one matchups in the paint later in the season. Guarding the perimeter is a smart—and apparently effective—strategy. 

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