Two months ago, the Blazers were both exciting and predictable — the feel-good story of the NBA season, but also a story with an ending we could see coming. They were 31-9 with the league’s best offense, an unsustainably awesome record in nail-biters, and a bottom-10 defense that would surely be their undoing in the postseason.
That they’re in the no. 5 spot in the loaded Western Conference, staring at home-court disadvantage in the first round, is not a surprise. But the route they’ve taken has been strange, and has made them a hard team to know as we approach the playoffs.
On the surface, they are who we thought they were, only worse. Portland is 13-15 since peaking at 31-9, and their defense is 14th in points allowed per possession — below the threshold for membership in the serious contenders club. Their offense, once a prolific 3-point bombing machine, has been medicore for two months; Portland ranks just 12th in points per possession since the 31-9 high-water mark, not potent enough for a so-so defensive team to make any noise in the playoffs.
But wait! What if Portland isn’t a so-so defensive team anymore? The Blazers rank an improbable sixth in points allowed per possession since the All-Star break, and they’ve somehow gone 7-2 in games LaMarcus Aldridge has missed with groin and back injuries in that stretch. Perhaps Portland has figured something out on defense, raising the possibility an elite team lurks if the Blazers can maintain their newfound defense and rediscover their go-go offense.
Sorting the real from the random is difficult.
The dip in offense is worrisome, and it begins with Aldridge, once a stealth choice for a no. 3 or no. 4 spot on MVP ballots. Aldridge’s post game has fallen apart since early February, when his groin issues flared up (ow!), and that fall-off has infected the rest of Portland’s beautiful game. Aldridge is shooting just 35.6 percent on shots from the block since mid-January, per Synergy Sports. Aldridge shot 41.5 percent on post-up shots over Portland’s first 40 games, so he was never an especially efficient shooter after catching down there, but he rarely turned the ball over, and he drew a ton of help. His turnovers are up, and 35 percent is just a disastrously low mark for a guy on pace to break the record for most midrange jumpers ever attempted in one season. Among 102 players who have attempted at least 50 post-up shots this season, that 35.6 would tie Kosta Koufos for 95th.
A lot of folks around the league wondered during Portland’s hot start what might happen if other teams stopped sending so much help at Aldridge, left him (mostly) in single coverage, and stuck closer to Portland’s shooters. The last two months have provided our first answer, and it has been bad for the Blazers.
Opponents were especially brazen leaving defenders on an island against Aldridge after he first returned from injury on March 1. Sometimes they send no help at all, even when Aldridge is working against shorter and lesser defenders. Here is Houston showing minimal concern for Aldridge, who is shooting one-on-one over Chandler Parsons on the block:
Ditto for these post-ups against Shawn Marion, Mike Scott, and Wesley Johnson — with snapshots taken just a split second before Aldridge launches his shot:
“More teams are playing L.A. straight up,” coach Terry Stotts says.
Aldridge at his best scrambles defenses. Teams double him in the post, send help defenders into his line of vision (and away from shooters) when he lines up a pick-and-pop 20-footer, and even shift their bulkier centers onto him if their power forwards can’t contain Aldridge’s post game. An Aldridge who doesn’t induce such scrambling is a different entity, and that ripples across the Blazers’ attack.
Portland’s assist rate has cratered after it started the season as one of the league’s most pass-happy teams; only eight teams have assisted on a lower percentage of buckets since mid-January, per NBA.com. The Blazers have, somewhat remarkably, been better on both sides of the floor since that time when Aldridge is on the bench. And they’ve taken many more 3-pointers when Aldridge sits — 21 per 36 minutes, compared to 15.5 when he plays, per NBA.com.
And that’s the thing: Portland’s 3-point attack hasn’t wilted much. The portion of its shot attempts coming from deep has dipped just a couple of percentage points, and the quality of its triple tries doesn’t appear much worse judging from the film. But the regression of Aldridge’s post game has hurt, and the Blazers are simply missing now; they’ve hit just 34 percent of their 3-pointers since the 40-game mark, down from 40 percent before. “I liked it better when we were scoring 120 points and winning,” Stotts says with a laugh.
You know when they’ve thrived from deep? In the nine games Aldridge has missed completely. Portland is 7-2 in those games after Thursday’s win against Washington, and they’ve hit 39 percent of their 3s — on a mammoth 29.7 jacks per game in those non-Aldridge outings. Stotts has gone small more, starting Dorell Wright at power forward, often playing Nicolas Batum there in even smaller lineups, and rejiggering the offense into a more free-flowing, pick-and-roll-heavy attack. Portland has been one of the league’s half-dozen best offensive teams over those two little stretches, and their smaller starting lineup has allowed just 101 points per 100 possessions in 144 minutes together— equivalent to a team just outside the top five in overall defense, per NBA.com.
It’s almost remarkable no one has written a hot sports take wondering if the Blazers are perhaps better without their alleged MVP candidate.
It’s also refreshing. Look closer at those nine games, and you’ll see some help from the schedule and injury gods. Portland got the Spurs in Aldridge’s first missed game without Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, though Patty Mills helped San Antonio sneak out with a win. They got Denver twice without Ty Lawson, Minnesota without Nikola Pekovic, and Brooklyn without any apparent desire to play competitive basketball in a 44-point white-washing.
They went 2-5 during Aldridge’s brief return, a sad stretch that included down-to-the-wire losses against the Lakers, Rockets, and Mavericks. And Portland was much better, on both ends, with Aldridge on the floor during those seven games, per NBA.com. In four games since Aldridge left the lineup a second time, Portland has feasted on one visiting mediocrity (Washington) and two lottery teams. Still: The NBA is a complex world, with tipping points that are blurry and constantly in flux. It’s fair to wonder if a limited Aldridge — less than 100 percent, drawing single coverage, and missing two-thirds of his post-up shots — becomes a drain on the team’s offense on the wrong nights. Regardless, with so many untested front-court players behind Aldridge, this particular Blazers team likely couldn’t survive without him on defense — especially against the bigger Western Conference teams.
There are other variables that complicate any easy assumption. Joel Freeland, Portland’s backup center, has been out since February 11, forcing the Blazers to shift Aldridge to center more and give more minutes to the untested youngsters Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard. (With Andrea Bargnani out, Leonard might be the unofficial league leader in confused spinning around on defense.) Mo Williams also missed time with a hip injury.
The rotation has been in disarray, and several of the losses have been toss-ups:
• The Pacers eked out a home win over Portland after George Hill did this to force overtime:
(Batum missed a decent look at a buzzer-beater after the timeout.)
• The Lakers stole a win on a gorgeous last-second lob play, followed by a Lillard miss at the buzzer.
• Batum missed a potential game-tying free throw in the waning seconds last week against Golden State.
• Aldridge missed what would have been a game-winning turnaround with two seconds left in Oklahoma City, and several close shots down the stretch, during a wild game against Dallas in which the Blazers rallied from 30 points down in the second quarter.
There have been others. Portland has played 31 games this season in which the score has been within two at any point in the last two minutes, easily the most of any team. They blitzed through those games amid a hail of Lillard clutchiness in the first half of the season, and they’ve mostly lost them since. Crunch-time performances don’t always regress to the mean — witness the Mavs’ years-long excellence, and Minnesota’s annual struggles — but extreme outliers like Portland earlier this season rarely last.
“We’ve had so many close losses,” Stotts says, “that it probably skews the perception a bit.”
He’s right: Spin things a different way, and Portland is an injury-riddled mess that has cinched up its defense at the right time. “Nobody is talking about our improvement on defense,” Stotts says. “It has been overlooked.”
The same schedule-based caveats apply here, too. Portland hasn’t exactly shut down a murderer’s row of offenses since the All-Star break; peak at the game-by-game numbers, and you’ll notice Portland has mostly shackled bad teams and struggled to stop those with scoring power.
Portland’s ultra-conservative scheme hasn’t changed much, either, though Stotts has allowed for some tweaks to better protect the basket. All season Portland has stressed staying close to outside shooters to limit opponent 3s, a strategy that minimizes outside-in help. That puts a ton of pressure on the defenders directly involved in a pick-and-roll or some other main action.
It has worked, but at a cost. Portland allows the fewest 3-point attempts in the league — including the fewest corner 3s — while also yielding more shots in the restricted area than everyone but the Lakers, per NBA.com.
The net result hasn’t been good enough, and the Blazers lately have tried to block off the middle a bit more aggressively. Look at Wes Matthews ditching Courtney Lee in the weakside corner to attend to a Marc Gasol pick-and-pop jumper on this play:
Matthews did the same thing against Zach Randolph, and Lee got wide open corner 3 looks on both plays:
These aren’t isolated examples. When help defenders have sensed a crisis in the middle, they have acted of late with a bit more urgency.
Here’s Batum at the center of the foul line — “the nail” in hoops lingo — as Damian Lillard deals with a James Harden isolation:
Here’s Lillard with a real no-no — conceding Danny Green an open corner 3 to patrol Tony Parker’s drive:
Matthews and Earl Watson (who plays for the Blazers, for real) are an extra step inside in patrolling some pick-and-roll issues on these two plays:
This doesn’t amount to a revamping of Portland’s scheme. The Blazers still want to play the same way, and Matthews, who cops to being an over-eager helper, improvises now and then. Hell, look how close Portland’s non-involved defenders are to Houston’s shooters on this James Harden–Dwight Howard pick-and-roll from their March 9 overtime game:
Barely a toe in the lane. The Blazers would prefer to maintain this shell defense, a sort of Pacers Lite. But when the shell breaks, the help has been a bit snappier of late.
Portland has also been doubling post-up threats over the last few weeks, something it explicitly refused to do early in the season. It’s also switched a lot, on and off the ball, when playing small.
Has all this worked? In a literal sense, sure. The Blazers have been a very good defensive team over the last month. They’re also allowing a different selection of shots. They began the year trying to force midrange jumpers at all costs, but found themselves too often allowing wide open midrange jumpers or watching offenses take the ball from the midrange area to the rim.
Since the All-Star break, opponents are jacking five fewer midrange jumpers per game, and they’ve redistributed some of those shots behind the 3-point arc. They are also bricking those 3s; Portland opponents have hit just 33 percent from deep since the All-Star break. The film shows the usual array of contested misses and open ones, with the latter often coming via kickout passes after some newly aggressive Portland interior help.
The bad news: Opponents are still taking almost exactly as many shots at the rim as they were before. (Note: Some of this may simply be due to Portland’s opposition, which since the All-Star break has featured a lot of teams that either take a ton of 3s or shots at the rim — San Antonio, Denver, the Lakers, Dallas, Houston, etc.)
So, what’s the truth? It will be tough to know until Portland gets its full rotation back, and it’s hard to sort the signal from the noise (HOLLA, FiveThirtyEight!) over their last 20 or so chaotic games. But Portland has always looked a half-step behind the West’s elite, and one thing is certain: If Aldridge can’t find his low-post mojo again, the Blazers are going to have to work very hard to score against dialed-in playoff defenses.