A very enlightening piece, as per usual, from Grantland’s Zach Lowe focusing on NBA teams that utilize conservative defensive schemes, their reasons for doing so and the risks involved. Lowe uses the Timberwolves, a team that rarely commits fouls, and the Trail Blazers, a team that almost never forces turnovers, as examples, highlighting the positives and negatives of each approach. Like most of Lowe’s work, it’s incredibly approachable for even the casual NBA fan who doesn’t necessarily have a background or interest in advanced analytics and basketball theory.
The entire article is worth reading, but I found this part particularly interesting …
The Blazers over the summer reconstructed their base defense to play a more conservative style, aimed at forcing as many midrange jumpers as possible. Their big men mostly sag back against pick-and-rolls, and they stick very close to opposing shooters dotting the perimeter. Some teams have those defenders along the arc dart into the paint to provide help, or at least the threatening impression of help, but Portland’s guys stay close to home.
It’s working! Only four teams allow more midrange jumpers than Portland, and nobody, not even the Bulls, allows fewer corner 3-point attempts per game, according to NBA.com. Rejoice, hipster doughnut-eaters of the world!
But wait … the Blazers, despite this fairly healthy shot distribution profile, are not very good at defense. They’re 22nd in points allowed per possession. They can pile up all the wins in the world, but they’re not sniffing a championship with a bottom-10 defense. There are a few things behind the struggle, but here’s a big one: The Blazers almost never force turnovers. They simply don’t do the sorts of things that produce turnovers — aggressive help in the passing lanes, frenzied traps, packing the paint to force risky inside-out passes around the horn. Portland has forced turnovers on just 11 percent of opponent possessions, per Basketball-Reference. That would be the third-lowest turnover rate in the entire history of the league.
Conservatism can be healthy for an NBA defense. Coaches preach it all the time: Stay home, don’t gamble, don’t reach yourself into a foul. Let’s force them into a long jumper, clean the rebound, and move on with life. If they make it, they make it. What can we do?
The Trail Blazers readily admit they don’t force many turnovers, as it’s not at all uncommon for Terry Stotts to point that out to the media when asked about his team’s defense (in fact, I think both he and Wesley Matthews made that point in their post-game comments after the victory versus the Knicks on Wednesday). But reading that the third-lowest turnover rate in NBA history was still surprising. The thing is, half of the teams with similar turnover rates that Lowe references weren’t half bad, which I think is kind of the point.
As for why the Trail Blazers don’t gamble, my guess, which Lowe addresses in the piece, is that while Portland’s bench is improved this season, there’s still enough of a drop off from the starting unit that the chance of getting into foul trouble isn’t worth the risk associated with forcing turnovers. That can seem like a self-fulfilling prophesy if you believe, as many do, that NBA teams known for playing tough defense get away with being more physical than their more offensive-minded counterparts, but I’m not sure there’s much the Trail Blazers can do about that.