Can Robin Lopez improve the porous Portland Trail Blazers PNR Defense?
Many pundits have given high grades to the Portland Trail Blazers offseason, as they made several intelligent moves to strengthen their biggest areas of need. One of these moves was to replace J.J. Hickson, playing out of position at Center, with Robin Lopez.
The Trail Blazers were one of the worst defensive teams in the league last season, rating 26th in defensive ratings, allowing 109.2 points per 100 possessions. One of the reasons for this is their inability to defend the pick and roll, as they allowed 0.81 points per possessions (PPP) to the ball handler (19th) and 1.07 PPP to the PNR roll man (28th), per Synergy Sports.
Lopez was one of the best defenders on the PNR roll man, according to Synergy, as he allowed only 0.58 PPP, which ranked 7th in the nation. From the surface, it appears as though Lopez will provide an immediate improvement in this area but the video shows that this may not necessarily be true.
Lopez PNR Defense
Let’s first look at how Lopez graded so well in these situations according to Synergy. When Lopez was defending the pick and roll, the Hornets (now Pelicans) relied on an ICE style of defense, which means that Lopez did not hedge hard on the ball but instead sags into the lane to cut off penetration.
This style of defense slows down the ball handler enough to allow the primary defender to recover while giving the big man the ability to recover to his man to take away the roll option. In this example, Dirk Nowitzki pops out for the pass from his teammate but Lopez has enough time to recover and challenge the long jump shot. It’s good defense mainly because the shot is missed but the defense played as well as it could. The strategy plays to Lopez’s strength and allows him to succeed by contesting the jump shot.
While this style of defense is vulnerable to allowing open jump shots, Lopez is often able to recover quickly enough to at least offer a partial contest of the shot. Plus, the open space is farther from the lane due to Lopez’s initial positioning, which forces the roll man into a long two point attempt. The Hornets used this style of defense on the pick and roll because Lopez would struggle with a hard hedge (as shown below by Portland), as he is not quick enough to stop the dribbler coming off the ball screen. However, he can take away the penetration lane, which slows the ball handler down and then he is in position to recover and contest the jump shot.
Portland PNR Defense
Portland’s main defensive strategy against the pick and roll is to hedge on the ball handler to slow down the action. The defense then has to rotate to the screener while the big man recovers after slowing down the ball. Portland struggled with this part of the defense, which led to many open jump shots for the screener. The frame below shows the beginning of the sequence, as the big man hedged high on the ball screen, forcing Ty Lawson to pick up his dribble.
Several things went wrong on many such possessions that led to easy, uncontested jump shots for the screener. First, the Portland big man was too slow to recover to his man after hedging and slowing down the player using the ballscreen. This allowed the screener to roll to the open area of the floor for a jump shot.
While the hedge on the screen did it’s job most of the time to stop the guard, it left the defense vulnerable to the roll man. Portland’s big had enough quickness that the hedge was effective but it put them too far away from the roll man to recover in time and the help was often late as well. If the third defender did get there to challenge the shot, the big man was able to shoot over the smaller defender. Many of these shots were 15 feet and in, which allowed the offense to avoid the dreaded long two point attempt.
Lopez’s fit into Portland’s defense
As seen from the examples above, the defensive strategy of the Pelicans and the Trail Blazers was nearly the opposite. The question heading into the 2013-14 season is how the new look Trail Blazers will defend the pick and roll and whether the addition of Lopez will improve this aspect of their defense.
The Pelicans used the ICE method primarily because Lopez would struggle on hedging on the guards due to his below average lateral movement. This would expose the defense if the ball handler was able to avoid the hedge or cause Lopez to pick up unnecessary fouls far from the basket. Therefore, the Hornets had Lopez sag into the paint, taking away the driving lanes of the ball handler and forcing the roll man into long, contested jump shots.
This type of defense played right into Lopez’s strengths and did not put him in a position outside of his comfort zone by forcing him to hedge hard on the ball screen. If the Blazers use him to hedge on the ball screen, it is likely he will struggle, which will lead to many easy baskets as the quicker guards easily dribble around him or cause Lopez to get in foul trouble as he tries to slow them down.
In short, although it looks like Lopez is an immediate upgrade to the Blazers poor pick and roll defense, the video shows that this is not quite a slam dunk. If the Blazers have Lopez hedge hard on screens, it is a strategy that will likely not end well for either the Blazers’ defense, as it will be easy to expose this weakness of Lopez, or Lopez’s minutes, as smart guards will be able to pick up cheap fouls on him as he hedges on the screen.
The best idea is to move to a style of defense Lopez is used to playing (at least in situations where Lopez is defending the screener) which would put Lopez in an area of strength and likely improve the Blazers pick and roll defense. Lopez showed with the Pelicans that he is comfortable in this style of defense and Portland adapting this will shore up one of their weakest parts of their defense. If they stick with their strategy from last season, they will struggle again against the pick and roll and could see one of their most important off season signings limited by foul trouble.
The addition of Lopez coupled with putting him in a defensive strategy he is used to and fits his strength will not completely solve the Blazers defensive woes, much less their pick and roll defensive struggles. Plugging in Lopez, the 7th best defender against the PNR roll man as categorized by Synergy seems to be an easy fix to immediately improve the Blazers defense in this area. However, the video shows that there are some other tweaks that Blazers need to work out before the season but the addition of Lopez gives them the possibility to improve their pick and roll defense.