October 24, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) moves the ball against the defense of Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
As spectacular as it was, last year’s San Antonio Spurs dominance in the Finals blurred some of our memories of the 2013-14 season – and even the early playoffs. One of those forgotten teams, just one of San Antonio’s many spring victims, was the Portland Trail Blazers. Last year’s biggest surprise, their 21-win improvement came to a crashing halt in the Western Semi-Finals.
The Blazers thrived with a fruitful combination of otherworldly health, mid-tier star power and new-age strategy. A year prior, ESPN The Magazine’s Jordan Brenner told us all about the efforts of analytics manager Ben Falk, who recently accepted a VP job with the Sixers. During last season’s ascension, Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry further walked us through their success.
This was a very fun 54-win squad with many principles in analytics. Don’t you remember the first round against the Rockets? Remember LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard in the postseason? And doesn’t the narrative of San Antonio’s second-round throttling changed somewhat?
As the narrative goes, Portland had a great offense (111.5 ORtg per B-Ref, second) and a lousy defense (107.4 DRtg per B-ref, 16th). They supposedly weren’t able to compete in the playoffs. Yet, the defense was a vast improvement from Terry Stotts’ first season, when they ranked 26th. And it’s important to note how the team actually made a conscious effort to defend in a certain style.
Grantland’s Zach Lowe shared in February – within the context of analytics-aided league defensive strategy changes – that Portland schemed to take away opponent three-point attempts and force teams to inefficient mid-range shot. The Blazers were very conservative defensively, leading to low foul rates (a good thing) and … a near historically low opponent turnover rate (a not-so-good thing). In fact, per Basketball-Reference, Portland had the best record ever for a team with less than an 11.0% opponent turnover rate. The league average was 13.6%.
For some very elementary math, let’s imagine if Portland had forced turnovers halfway closer to average – at 12.3%. Here, opponents would have had 1.2 fewer possessions per game. That makes a substantial difference, potentially lowing Portland’s defensive rating under 106 and quickly approaching the top-10.
Yes, many other good teams play base conservative defenses with low foul and low turnover rates. San Antonio is perhaps the most common example. Portland just took those strategies to an extreme last season. They relied heavily on new acquisition Robin Lopez in the middle and lacked aggressive weakside help.
This is what lead to The Columbian’s Erik Gunderson pointing out how Stotts is looking for more consistency this season.
"“The things we are going to be emphasizing is giving up fewer transition points I think that and fewer attempts at the rim,” said Terry Stotts at media day. “Our defense at the rim was actually decent. We were top 5 in terms of percentage at the rim but we had too many times the ball got to the rim. Some of that was in transition. Understanding how we need to do with transition defense, understanding our weak side has to get better.”"
Portland is a potential candidate for regression this season thanks to the mighty West and last season’s uber-health. There isn’t much room for growth offensively (even if Aldridge is intriguingly experimenting with threes) and that puts the defense on a pedestal for any marginal improvements.
The offseason’s lone acquisitions were backup point guard Steve Blake and big man Chris Kaman. Sixth man Mo Williams is the main departure. This doesn’t seem to be a huge difference defensively, so it’ll be interesting to see if internal improvements can happen, or Stotts can re-develop his strategy to allow fewer opportunities for opposing offenses to score at all.