Whoever said defense was overrated may have been affiliated with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Fueled by a top-ranked offense anchored by superstars Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers have taken the NBA by storm, spurring championship hopes and expectations—without a strong or even adequate defense.
According to ESPN, the Blazers rank 19th in opponent field-goal percentage, a staggering placement given they're contending for the Western Conference's best record.
Offense has carried the Blazers this far. Defense has been an afterthought overshadowed by an overwhelming attack that varies in pace and direction, often torpedoing any who challenge it—for now, anyway.
There will come a time when Portland's subpar defense, if gone untouched, catches up with it. When the Blazers' high-scoring offense isn't enough.
When playoff basketball chews up their one-dimensional attack, before spitting them back out.
Rattling off "defense wins championship" cliches is no less effective than it is true.
Defense does win championships.
Not that we should discredit the offensive side of the ball. Scoring is important. You can't win if you don't score. But you won't win if you don't defend.
The last team to win a title while ranking outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency was the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers. Nearly 13 years have elapsed since then. This isn't a trend meant to be broken; it's a pattern meant to be followed.
Portland resembles Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns—sans the unrelenting and blistering pace—more than legitimate championship contenders on the defensive end.
Top-ranked offenses aren't everything, as Magic Mike's Suns found out. Between 2004-08, Phoenix never finished worse than second in offensive efficiency, securing the top spot twice in four years.
But the Suns never ranked higher than 13th in defensive efficiency, finishing in the bottom half of rankings in three of those four years.
And they never won a championship.
Pinpointing Biggest Issues
No one on the Blazers is posting a defensive rating under 104. No one.
Meyers Leonard—who has played all of 147 minutes this season—and Aldridge share the team's best mark with 104.
Far from intimidating? You bet. But not unsolvable.
On occasion, there have been things to like about the Blazers defense. They're holding opponents to 35.6 percent shooting from deep this season, and there have been games where they rotate to perfection and clog up passing lanes better than most teams.
"We tried to play good defense and then run," Nicolas Batum said following Portland's victory over the Dallas Mavericks, a game in which the Blazers defended well for three quarters before ultimately allowing 111 points, per The Oregonian's Mike Tokito.
Almost 37 percent of Dallas' offense (41 points) came in the fourth quarter, which was garbage time for Portland. But piecing together three quarters of staunch defensive sets isn't enough. The Blazers must maintain a semblance of consistency on that end.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), they rank in the bottom five of five different defensive categories, and just 14th when defending roll men off pick-and-rolls.
|Play Type||Isolation||P&R Ball-Handler||Post-Up||P&R Roll Man||Hand Off||Off. Rebound|
Via Synergy Sports.
Deficient pick-and-roll defense stands out above all else, because it accounts for nearly 20 percent of all plays Portland has defended.
Watching the Blazers in those situations, two things become clear. First, they're reluctant to employ double-teams during these plays. While this could be refreshing for fans of teams that switch and double too much—New York Knicks fans, you have my sympathies—sometimes it's necessary.
When one player cannot fight over a screen or a ball-handler has broken through the heart of the defense off a pick, help needs to be provided. Doubling early in pick-and-roll sets helps limit the amount of time help must be given, theoretically cutting off the more dangerous threat before he has an opportunity to attack the basket.
Second, their decisions off picks are questionable at best.
Portland's guards, and players in general, struggle to fight over screens. The West has a lot of big men who, even if they cannot do anything else, set hard, wide screens that make it difficult for diminutive players to fight over.
But the Blazers' issues go beyond that. Sometimes, a screen is just too good; others, more effort needs to be exerted.
Regardless, one of the things teams are doing to exploit them is forcing big men to match up against agile ball-handlers. Fear of allowing an easy two has Portland's towers—from Robin Lopez to Aldridge—playing passively, rarely closing out on players who are dangerous shooters.
A few of examples can be found in that win over the Mavs that Batum previously referenced.
First we have a nice screen being set by DeJuan Blair:
Lillard gets caught behind it, and this is one of those instances where that's almost unavoidable.
With him unable to get around Blair, Lopez needs to step up and cut off Jose Calderon. But he doesn't:
Lopez's body isn't even in optimal position. He's seemingly backpedaling toward the basket, preparing for Calderon to attack.
He needs to recognize Calderon is a deadly shooter who, if given too much room, will let 'er rip.
Our next example finds more of the same.
Aldridge gets picked off by Samuel Dalembert:
After already setting up a mismatch with Aldridge on Monta Ellis, the Mavs created another one, leaving Ellis to go one-on-one with Lopez.
Like he did before, Lopez sags off, putting himself in good position to cut off any dribble penetration, while leaving himself unable to contest a jumper:
Ellis, like Calderon, shoots. And hits.
Again, the thought process here isn't entirely wrong. But Aldridge needs to make more of an effort to get around Blair, and Lopez needs to realize that the guard—in this case, Ellis—has picked up his dribble and needs to be contested. Doubles could have been employed in either of these situations too, hopefully disrupting the ebb and flow of Dallas' offense.
Remedying their pick-and-roll defense won't act as a cure-all, of course. The Blazers will still have other areas of need.
Honing in on their greatest disadvantage, however, will make it so they aren't as vulnerable as they are now.
The Blazers' 20th-ranked defense is the second worst among all Western Conference playoff teams, ahead of only the Dallas Mavericks. They're also posting the fourth-worst mark of any NBA playoff team—Brooklyn Nets and Detroit Pistons are worse—which says something when you consider how horrific the Eastern Conference is.
What will that mean for them come playoff time, when the pace of play slows and defensive fortitude is at a premium?
Nothing good, that's for sure.
Six of the other seven Western Conference playoff teams rank in the top half of defensive efficiency. And four of those—Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder—rank in the top 12 of both offensive and defensive efficiency.
These are conference foes we're talking about. Potential postseason opponents.
With their current defense, how far can the Blazers go in the playoffs?
Last season, the Western Conference Finals saw the Memphis Grizzlies battle the Spurs. Neither team ranked lower than third in defensive efficiency. In 2012, when it was the Spurs and Thunder, both squads had top-10 defenses.
Zeroing in on last year once again, only one non-top-10 defense (Golden State) made it past the first round out West. One. And that's because the Warriors faced another team residing outside the top 10 (Denver Nuggets).
See the point?
The Blazers will not emerge from the highly competitive, unforgiving Western Conference if they cannot defend. In fact, the way the Western Conference is shaping up, they would be lucky to make it out of the first round.