The Portland Trail Blazers are going through a great run, having won 8 of their last 9 games on their way to a record of 18-10. Despite that, their defense still languishes in the bottom third of the NBA. Today Jason Quick from The Athletic interviewed Seth Partnowa former Milwaukee Bucks staff member, also of The Athleticabout Portlands defensive woes. [subscription required] The in-depth interview covers staff, coaching and schedules, highlighting the gears grinding behind the end of the track.
Partnow spares no words to answer the perennial question: Is Portland’s poor defense a coaching or roster problem?
FastLet’s get straight to the heart of the matter: Do you see the Blazers struggles as a reflection of poor coaching by Terry Stotts, poor roster construction by Neil Olshey or just bad luck in terms of injuries?
Partnow: I think it’s mainly the selection. I’m not saying you have bad roster construction, because from a defensive standpoint, if you give 56 percent of the limit to Lillard and McCollum, you’re going from a pretty deep hole. You can reasonably say that the offense those two bring (if they are healthy) is worth the tradeoff. But you must recognize that you are making the tradeoff.
If you fill in the rest of the rotation, you have two very negative defenders in Anthony and especially Kanter. I know Stotts has tried to say nice things about Kanters’ defense, but the center allows 66.7 percent edge shooting (more than 10 points higher than the center competition average) and has a track record as a bad rim protector with a terrible overall defensive impact statistics. Hood was medium to slightly negative in impact statistics for his career. Trent Jr. works hard defensively, but was a big negative in defensive RAPM his first two years and is in a similar position early this year.
… the thing that’s missing is resistance to attack. It’s all well and good for Stotts to want to play more aggressively, but how does that (or any other) schedule work when you can’t stay in front of the ball and rarely force turns? The latter is especially notable, given that Portland is currently ranked 21st in the opponent’s turnover percentage according to Cleaning the Glass. This would be the first time Portland hasn’t finished in the bottom five in that statistic since 2011-12
Later in the interview, Partnow describes successful NBA defenses, suggesting that they either play good defense for 48 minutes or play excellent with the first five and get by with a limited number of minutes from the bench. Portland does not have either option available:
What does not work is having a decent defense with top units and then tire fire at all other times. Lineups featuring both Anthony and Kanter have played just under a quarter of Portland’s non-garbage time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. Those groups give in 117.7 points / 100 assets, setups with Lillard but no Nurkic (with considerable overlap, of course) tell a similar story. Without their idealized floor personnel groups, this roster is defensive not competitive.
The article is quite important when it comes to understanding the workings and shortcomings of the grid. Read it if you can
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