Everything I hate about basketball is happening to the team I love.
As of the end of December, and of the twelve games the Blazers have played, they have given up less than 100 points, two times. While their offensive rating continues to rank at the top of the league (currently first), their defensive rating, which was at best, 17th early in the season, has now dropped to 23rd.
I hate teams that don’t play defense. My favorite teams of all-time include;
Each one of these teams, excluding the Knicks, also had a top five offense rating. With the exception of the Timberwolves, each one of these teams was very deep but the Timberwolves had the MVP that year in Kevin Garnett who has to be the tallest (read: longest), most mobile player to ever play the game. They also had good defensive wings (Latrell Sprewell and Trenton Hassell) with several big bodies that could plug the middle (Ervin Johnson and Michael Olowokandi). The Sacramento Kings team is probably the most surprising. Outside of Doug Christie you don’t think of their starters as defensive stalwarts. Peja Stojakovic and Mike Bibby? Hardly.
Some of my least favorite teams are the mid 2000’s version of the Phoenix Suns.
2004-2005 1st offensive and 17th Defensive Rating Ranking made it to the Western Conference Finals
2005-2006 2nd offensive and 16th Defensive Rating Ranking made it to the Western Conference Finals
2006-2007 1st offensive and 13th Defensive Rating Ranking made it to the 2nd round
2009-2010 1st offensive and 23h Defensive Rating Ranking made it to the Western Conference Finals
With the exception of the 2009-2010 iteration, even the Phoenix Suns teams with their great offensive game had a middle of the pack defense (although it is discouraging to note that when they had their best defense, 2006-2007, they only made it to the second round).
The Blazers are a lot closer to the Suns teams of the 2000s than they are to any of my favorite teams, and the difference is defense.
Why is the Blazers’ defense so bad?
A colleague of mine hypothesized that because the Blazers take so many jumpers (second to last in points in the paint) that it leaves them susceptible to fast breaks. According to www.teamrankings.com, the Blazers rank 13th in the league at giving up the fast break points with 12.7 ppg. This is hardly the worst in the league, and the top fast break defensive squad is the Charlotte Bobcats with 10 ppg while the worst is the Lakers with 17.2 ppg. The Blazers are seventh best in the league at giving up made free throws and second at giving up made three pointers, both decent marks. What is most concerning is that Portland gives up 49.1 points in the paint and is last in the league in that category.
Are the Blazers wings closing out too hard, trying to prevent the three-pointer? Are they simply poor defenders? I don’t think so. While Damian Lillard and Mo Williams at the point are not good defenders, too often are they getting picked off by screens. It seems that they aren’t leaving space to move up or go under the screen, something that I see point guards do a lot against the Blazers when Portland is on offense. It is too easy for the screener to set up. This is how opposing point guards are getting into the lane and either finishing or dishing off to the man open off of the rotation. Another remedy could be a slightly harder hedge from the screener’s defender. Opposing teams have been smart and are using a big man that can hit an outside shot off that screen a la Kevin Love, Ryan Andersen, Dirk Nowitzki and Channing Frye (all players on teams the Blazers have lost to) and the Blazers have mostly decided to stay with the screener, hoping the picked player could get around and it just hasn’t worked out thus far in limiting points in the paint.
If the Blazers do not remedy this in some way a first round exit could make for naught this terrific start to the season.