There’s no question that the Portland Trail Blazers made significant upgrades to their roster over the summer. They added a more formidable frontcourt presence in Robin Lopez, a highly serviceable backup point guard in Mo Williams, and a potentially intriguing prospect in Thomas Robinson. Through a series of carefully-orchestrated moves, general manager Neil Olshey managed to not only bolster a bench rotation that was literally the worst in the league last season, he did it without breaking the bank or coughing up any valuable assets. Depending on how the season progresses, he could find himself in the discussion for Executive of the Year.
But despite addressing some of their more pressing concerns, questions remain as to whether this team has enough depth to challenge for a playoff spot in the crowded Western Conference. The main point of concern is the team’s well-documented defensive struggles, which stemmed in part from the aforementioned lack of roster depth, but was also endemic among their franchise stars.
Collectively, the Blazers ranked near the bottom of the league in all major defensive categories last season. They were 26th overall defensively, allowing 109.2 points per 100 possessions. They ranked 21st in opponents points per game, giving up 100.7, and they were 9-31 when opponents scored 101 points or more. They ranked 28th in steals, 26th in blocks and 24th in rebounds.
No one is more aware of these shortfalls than head coach Terry Stotts, who has the unenviable task of establishing his team’s identity on defense this year.
“When I was in Milwaukee as an assistant,” Stotts said, “George [Karl] is a defensive coach, and he really wanted to have a defensive team, but the truth of the matter is that we had Sam Cassell, Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson, and we were an offensive-oriented team, and that was the way we needed to play to win. Denver last year, they had their identity. A lot of times, it’s a give and take until that identity is formed, and a lot of times it’s formed because of the success that you have.”
Through four regular season games, the jury is still out on the current incarnation of the team, but after two home games against projected Western Conference powerhouses â€“ the San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets â€“ a few trends have started to emerge. One noticeable change has been a renewed commitment to rebounding that extends beyond just the frontcourt players like LaMarcus Aldridge and Lopez.
“We all need to rebound to help our bigs out,” Wesley Matthews said. “The faster we get the ball, the faster we can get it up the court. If a guard can rebound, that’s one less pass needed to advance the ball up court.”
In their win against the Nuggets last week, Matthews came up with 12 rebounds, and in their home opener against the Spurs, Damian Lillard had seven rebounds of his own while Nic Batum grabbed 12 en route to his third career triple-double.
“We need to rebound as a team,” Stotts said. “You see Nic get double-figure rebounds twice, and Wes had double-figure rebounds (against Denver). If you force more jump shots, there’s going to be a lot more rebounds, and the guards can come back and get those. We had a pretty good preseason with our rebounding and our defense. I think for us to be a better defensive team, one we have to force more missed shots, and then we have to rebound those missed shots. It’s really not complicated. I think they go hand-in-hand.”
Lillard, in particular, has made rebounding one of his top priorities this season.
“We want to be a defensive-minded team,” he said, “and on other teams’ possessions we gotta go down there and crack down and help our bigs rebound. I think we’ve done a great job of it so far.”
The Blazers held their own on the boards against a lethargic Spurs team Saturday night, edging them out 39 to 34, but they also showed notable growth in several other key areas early on.
The Spurs, normally a lights out three-pointing shooting team, were held to just four total attempts in the first half (making none), shot 39 percent from the field, got just 14 points in the paint, and were held to zero fast-break points.
“We took care of the rim,” Stotts said. “We took care of the threes. Two-thirds of their shots were midrange jump shots. They only took four threes. The first half was an excellent first half.”
Though the Spurs came alive in the second half, a balanced effort on both sides of the floor helped keep them at bay. Newly-acquired center Lopez was particularly solid in his matchup against Tim Duncan (despite giving up 24 points), and the key was staying out of foul trouble. In fact, Duncan didn’t get to the free throw line at all. The Spurs as a unit took just eight total free throws, converting only five of them for a forgettable 62.5 percent mark from the line. Lopez also had a big block on Duncan down the stretch after the Spurs battled back to within striking distance.
“Like I said, you gotta make him [Duncan] work,” Lopez said. “He’s gonna get his shots, and at that point, I think, I didn’t have any fouls, or maybe one foul, so I knew I could be a bit more aggressive.”
Lopez as the defensive anchor in the paint allowed Aldridge to save his energy for offense, where he torched both Duncan and Boris Diaw with an array of turnaround shots, spot-up jumpers, and back-to-the-basket moves. He finished with 24 points, seven rebounds and two blocks on 11-for-17 shooting.
“It’s been great,” Aldridge said of Lopez’s presence. “He’s taken on the challenge of guarding the other center. He battled Tim [Duncan] all night. It’s been better for me. He blocked shots. He banged.”
Perimeter defense is another area where they Blazers must show dramatic improvement this season if they are to be competitive against the NBA’s elite offenses. Despite being the reigning Rookie of the Year, Lillard, in particular, has been no stranger to the criticism surrounding his spotty defensive efforts, but it’s a slight that’s given him added motivation to improve.
“Any time you get criticized about any part of your game, you wanna improve on it,” he said. “Last year, it was my defense, and it bothered me, so now I’m focused on it, and it’s more of a priority. I watched film to see what mistakes I was making, the guys who I’m gonna be playing against, to see how he’s been successful in the last few games he’s played. What it comes down to is just desire.”
From the start, Lillard showed much more energy and focus with his on-ball defense and when fighting through the pick-n-roll and chasing Tony Parker around screens, but as the game wore on, he had more and more trouble getting through those screens and frequently found himself out of position. It’s precisely those instances in which Lopez’s presence offers a sorely-needed buffer.
“When he’s not blocking shots, he’s altering shots. When he’s not doing that, he’s taking up space in the paint,” Lillard said. “When you see a guy that big down there it’s always gonna make you think twice.”
In terms of containing Parker, there were stretches were Stotts switched the defensive assignment over to Mo Williams, and the Lillard-Williams backcourt duo â€“ with Williams chasing around the other team’s point guard â€“ is likely a configuration we’ll see a lot this season as it serves a number of purposes:
a) it hides Lillard defensively for stretches
b) it allows Lillard to save his energy for offense, and
c) it keeps Lillard out of foul trouble (which was an issue in the Denver game as he matched up against another feisty point guard in Ty Lawson).
That type of freedom is partially what allowed Lillard to carve up the San Antonio defense for 25 points, seven assists and seven rebounds.
Though there were a lot of positive takeaways from the win over the Spurs, the Blazers faced another major challenge Tuesday night against a Houston Rockets team that entered the season as a legitimate championship contender. Going into it, Lopez knew he was going to be in for a long night against Dwight Howard.
“I’m going to get beat up a little, but I’m going to try to beat up Dwight, and hopefully that’s going to free up [Aldridge] to do his thing,” Lopez said.
Coming off a shellacking from the Clippers the night before and an all-around lackadaisical effort, Howard and the Rockets seemed eager to establish themselves early on. Despite a strong start, the Blazers quickly struggled to defend the Rockets on the pick-n-roll, giving up several easy alley-oop dunks to Howard and/or open shots and uncontested layups to James Harden.
Lopez did a solid job on Howard early on, but he picked up three quick fouls in the second quarter, forcing the Blazers to turn to second-year big man Meyers Leonard, who quickly established himself as a liability on both ends of the floor. Leonard, who played in place of injured backup center Joel Freeland, looked genuinely lost on defense and picked up a couple of quick fouls of his own. He finished the game with six points, two rebounds and three fouls in 14 minutes before ceding the Dwight Howard defensive duties to LaMarcus Aldridge, who didn’t fare much better.
Though the Blazers improved their bench considerably during the offseason, the Rockets exposed a potentially fatal flaw in their depth at the center/power forward position, so don’t be surprised to see them try to finagle some of their assets into a trade before the February deadline. In their current predicament, if Lopez finds himself in foul trouble against the league’s elite big men, which is a strong possibility, the Blazers are toast.
The Rockets, when they weren’t executing the pick-n-roll to near perfection, were outrunning the Blazers in transition. Despite the addition of Howard, the Rockets still like to run (they led the league in pace offensively last season), and they are a very difficult team to guard on the fast break with Harden and Jeremy Lin both running the floor after every change of possession.
The Rockets punished the Blazers down low, outscoring them 54 to 18 in the paint on a night when the Blazers fired up a trigger-happy 31 shots from behind the arc (on one possession, they took three consecutive three-pointers, missing all three). They also outrebounded the Blazers 47 to 30. Howard was virtually unstoppable as he finished the game with 29 points and 13 rebounds, while Harden added 33 points and seven rebounds of his own.
It’s impossible to overlook the fact that the Blazers lack the type of offensive presence that can make guys like Howard work on the defensive end and get him into foul trouble. Lopez’s offensive skill-set is virtually nil, and though Aldridge has shown considerable growth in his ability to get to the rim, he still prefers to play 10-15 feet away from the basket and relies mainly on his jump shot, which is nevertheless as deadly as ever.
Admittedly, four regular-season games is a small sample size, and Stotts, understandably, doesn’t think there’s any reason to start panicking just yet.
“I think people kind of settle into who they are after 20 games, and it’s not to say that it’s always gonna be that way,” he said. “Teams can get off to a slow start and change and improve over the course of the season, but I think a fourth of the way through the season you’ve kind of got a good idea of who you are and what you need to do to be better, your strengths and weaknesses.”
Both individually and as a unit, the Blazers are well aware of their deficiencies, and they also know that part of establishing their identity as a more defensive-minded team means bringing a level of focus and discipline on a consistent basis.
“We hold each other accountable, hold ourselves accountable,” Matthews said. “It’s a mentality. Don’t give up any easy shots, nothing at the rim. We’re gonna make you earn it when you get to the rim. No layups. We’re not gonna give up open threes. Everything you score is gonna be well-earned.”
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