It was somewhat a conflicted Terry Stotts this summer when it came time for him to address the defensive blueprint of this season’s Trail Blazers.
The Blazers’ coach admitted his team’s defense for much of last season was bad. Historically bad.
But after a February trade that brought in 7-foot center Jusuf Nurkic, the team’s defense dramatically improved – going from 26th out of 30 teams to tied for 10th in the NBA over the final 26 games, when Portland went 18-8.
All told, the Blazers finished the season with the 21st ranked defensive rating, just ahead of Cleveland and just behind Washington.
It left the sixth-year Portland coach feeling as if he was in the spin cycle, not knowing which team or which time frame to believe … and more importantly, whether it was his system, his personnel or just happenstance that led to the wide disparity.
“I think myself, and we as a staff, have struggled with where we are, and who we are, defensively,’’ Stotts said Tuesday after the Blazers’ first practice of the season.
Perhaps most vexing was his team had a similar Jekyll and Hyde defensive trait the season before, when only after three poor defensive months did a January turnaround on the defensive end propel the Blazers into the fifth seed in the West.
“So, was that success for real?’’ Stotts asked of the strong defensive turnarounds the last two seasons. “I mean, 25 games is a good sample size. So, do we do what we do better because we’ve shown that it can work? Or do we need to change things up?’’
Last season, as the team was foundering as the NBA’s worst defense in December, he did change things up by opting to trap teams like Chicago and Minnesota which struggled from the three-point line. The decision, in part, came from a suggestion from the team’s big men, who felt an aggressive trapping style better fit their skillset and strengths.
It worked for stretches, but not enough for Stotts to make a complete overhaul.
“There was a cry for us to be more aggressive last year with active bigs and that didn’t work, but you know, we tried,’’ Stotts said. “So it’s challenging to find, for lack of better word, a defensive system that is appropriate for us because we had one. And now, is that still the one for us, or not?’’
Stotts’ has more or less kept the same defensive system which he implemented his second season, when the team acquired center Robin Lopez. Because Lopez was a cerebral player and a fearless rim protector, Stotts used a pick-and-roll defense that kept his big back and invited the ball handler to take a contested mid-range jump shot.
Outside of the pick-and-roll, a Stotts’ defense is generally considered conservative: His team’s don’t gamble for steals, rarely double team and are more cognizant of staying with shooters than leaving to help stop penetration.
Those principles led to defensive stability for two seasons with the group of Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Lopez. And over the last two season, there have been stretches – about 20 to 25 games each season – in which the system has been effective.
“I believe in the system we had, with the people we had … you could be a good defensive team,’’ Stotts said. “Maybe we had better defensive players, I don’t know. But we showed that what we were doing, you could be successful.’’
So that leads us back to this summer, and Stotts’ dilemma about his defensive system. Was it the system? The personnel? Or simply the need to do what they do better, for longer periods?
“What weighed on me was the inconsistency,” Stotts said.
So it came down to a question for Stotts, one that even he is probably not sure of the answer.
“Were we a good defensive team last year or not?’’ Stotts asked rhetorically. “That’s probably the question. If we were a poor defensive team then maybe you make changes. But were the last 25 games with Nurk for real? Then we were a good defensive team. So that’s where the question lies.’’
By the time Tuesday’s first practice arrived, Stotts had made his decision: stick with the same defensive plan, with a few “tweaks” that will cater to certain player tendencies.
Also, he wants this season to improve upon the Blazers forcing turnovers.
“I’d like to be a little bit more aggressive … one of the things we have struggled with is turnovers. Can we create more turnovers?’’ Stotts said. “I think we can create more turnovers maybe by being more aggressive on the ball, but also maybe by being better on the weakside by having more focus and alertness.’’
When Tuesday’s practice started, it was with defense, a less-than-subtle reminder of its importance.
“I think our team is better committed to being defensive,’’ Stotts said, realizing as he said it that it might ring hollow. “I think you guys have heard that for six years now, it’s nothing new.’’
Notes: Rookie Zach Collins did not practice Tuesday because he was in the NBA concussion protocol after being elbowed in the jaw on Friday by Isaiah Briscoe. He said he expected to be cleared later on Tuesday and be ready to participate in Wednesday's practice ... Veteran big man Ed Davis took part in full-contact practice for the first time since February, when he left the team to have season-ending surgery on his left shoulder. "Ed had his bounce back,'' Stotts said. "Ed looked like the Ed from two years ago: he was lively, energetic … it was really good to see him out there.''