For all the chatter about the high-flying fast-breaking Blazers this year, it’s clear that the primary driver behind this fast start (#1 in SRS, 6-2 record against a tough schedule) has been defense. The Blazers are tied for 4th in the league in defensive rating, nearly five points per possession above league average. Last year, the defense clocked in barely better than average. So is this Blazers team, which has hovered around or slightly above league average in defense for most of Nate McMillan’s tenure, actually better at defense than previous editions? Or is it just a small sample size quirk? The answer is probably a little bit of yes and a little bit of no. Portland’s defensive improvement stems from giant strides in two of the four factors: effective field goal percentage and defensive rebounding. Let’s look closer.
Hitting the defensive glass in droves
Before the season I questioned how Nate McMillan would be able to get a decent offensive lineup on the floor without getting slaughtered on the defensive boards. Although the point about offense isn’t germane to this post, Portland has passed the test on the defensive glass with flying colors. The Blazers are leading the league by rebounding 76.8% of opponent misses. That’s all the more impressive, considering that they ranked a pathetic 24th in 2010-11, with a 72% rate.
This is a total team effort, as the guys you would normally consider the big glass-cleaners (Camby and Aldridge) are actually below their normal career rates. Batum’s activity has been extremely helpful here, as he’s setting a career high in defensive rebound rate by a mile, and Kurt Thomas has a little bit of “worst kept secret about him.” He’s been huge, allowing Camby to limit his minutes without the Blazers getting killed on the glass due to a tiny lineup.
Ultimately some credit also has to go to McMillan. Although personnel matters, team defensive rebounding truly is a hustle-board stat where teams that don’t buy in will get slaughtered while teams that put in the work will see results.
Very, very good luck on 3 pointers
The Blazers have also “improved” massively in effective field goal percentage defense. This year, they rank 9th, a big jump from their 22nd place showing last year. Unfortunately, this is likely to be mostly unsustainable. Currently Portland’s opponents are shooting a laughable 23.4% from deep. That’s 10% better than the league average. Last year the best three point shooting defense team was only 4.2% better than average. Additionally, Pelton finds that defending the three pointer is not really a skill. So everything points to a Blazer opponent getting hot sooner or later.
What will happen then? If we recalculate Portland’s eFG defense using the league average for three pointers instead of their actual crazy number, they fall from 46.2% eFG defense to 49.7%. That essentially wipes out the entire improvement in their defensive rating from last year.
Although the improvement in defensive rebounding rate is heartening and a step in the right direction, the apparent improvement in the Blazers defense at the moment is likely a mirage resulting from their opponents missing three pointers at a rate that won’t continue. Look for the Blazers defense to fall back toward average.