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Court Vision: The promise of Portland's revamped defense

Among the Blazers' new defensive tenets: Never doubling in the post, even if that leaves undersized guards like Damian Lillard (right) to fend for themselves. (Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images) Among the Blazers' new defensive tenets: Never doubling in the post, even if that leaves undersized guards like Damian Lillard (right) to fend for themselves. (Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)

• Blazers head coach Terry Stotts has overhauled his team's defensive scheme, a development that brings Portland within striking distance of the league average in points allowed per possession. That seemed relatively impossible at the outset of the season, but by making certain concessions and playing to defend against high-yield attempts, there could be some hope for the Blazers yet. Zach Lowe has the full breakdown over at Grantland:

Breaking down Portland’s defense by play type would seem to indicate massive problems. It's dead last in points allowed per possession on both post-ups and isolation plays, per Synergy Sports. Dead stinking last! And it's 23rd in points allowed when the ball handler in a pick-and-roll takes a shot, which would seem like a problem, since the pick-and-roll is the foundation of almost every NBA offense.

But this is all by design, to some degree. Portland is playing the odds in a way that reveals the very close interaction between its analytics-oriented front office and its numbers-friendly coaching staff headed by Stotts, who regularly cites wonky stuff like effective field goal percentage and defensive efficiency in casual hoops conversation. All those play types — post-ups, isolations, pick-and-roll attacks in which the ball handler shoots — generally yield low-efficiency shots. The good stuff comes when guys handling the ball, in the post or via the pick-and-roll, break down the defense and begin passing it around to wide-open spot-up guys and cutters near the rim.

Portland wants to do away with those passes, even if it means giving up some decent shots...And Stotts is fine with that. “We want to take away the 3-pointer,” he says. “We won’t double the post. And there’s so little post play left in the league, it’s really not a big number to me, going forward.” He might instruct his guards to dig down a little more aggressively in the future, but only when post-up players penetrate the paint on their way to a close shot — and never before then.

• These are brutal times in the Philippines, but it's heartening to see and hear ways in which our little game is making a difference. (More here.)

• An interesting turn in Orlando: Victor Oladipo will join the Magic's starting lineup for Wednesday's game against the Heat, though not at the expense of either Jameer Nelson or Arron Afflalo. Both veteran guards will remain starters, with Oladipo replacing Jason Maxiell. The new starting lineup (which also features Nikola Vucevic and Maurice Harkless) has played just four minutes together this season. This strikes me as a situational decision to combat Miami, specifically, though it would be a pleasant surprise if Magic coach Jacque Vaughn were to incorporate lineups like this one more consistently.

• The transition three-pointer gets a bad rap, but if used correctly -- as it is by these four fast-break shooters --it can be an incredible weapon.

• This quote regarding pace of play from from Raptors head coach Dwane Casey (via Eric Koreen of the National Post) struck me as a bit odd:

“I don’t know if we have natural runners,” Casey said. “Our guys are running at a gait that should put pressure on the defence. It’s a pace that’s comfortable for them. A lot of people get caught up in pace of play; I don’t.”

To clarify, Koreen framed Casey's comments through the Raptors' recent struggles:

Casey’s first claim does not hold much water. Lowry played on fast-paced teams in Houston, Johnson is one of the quickest runners among big men in the league, and Gay, DeRozan and Terrence Ross could run for days. (Whether they can make adequate decisions in transition is up for debate, though.)

However, Casey was grilled last year for his team’s defensive slippage. That was the same year the Raptors spent some of training camp working on becoming a faster-paced team. To expect Casey to ignore a very recent lesson is to deny a basic tenet of human nature. So, until the roster is overhauled or the Raptors make a coaching change, do not expect to see a significantly altered offence.

• An alternative to bringing Raymond Felton off the bench: Bring J.R. Smith off the bench instead. More importantly, though, the Knicks need to find ways to get Pablo Prigioni on the court as much as possible, particularly with the otherwise stale starting lineup.

• Chad Ford collected ($) an assortment of opinions from NBA decision makers regarding the top four prospects in the 2014 draft class, including this bit on Australian guard Dante Exum:

"I know everyone is so excited to see Jabari and those guys dominate," a fourth GM told ESPN. "I know the old guard is going to play it safe. But maybe I'm young and foolish, but I think Exum ends up being the guy everyone wishes they took in a few years. All of them are going to be great, but when you watch Exum, you see the ability to be a generational talent. My owner might kill me, but I think you take Exum, regardless of what the other guys do this year. Exum's already proved it to me."

I'm not sure there's a more ridiculous phrase in prospect scouting than "...regardless of what the other guys do this year..."

• This is a good encapsulation of the events that led No. 58 overall pick Robbie Hummel to overtake Alexey Shved in Minnesota's rotation. The early returns on that front are promising; Hummel is the off-ball cutter and hustle junkie that Shved simply isn't, and in that seems to make for a far better fit in Rick Adelman's offense.

Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, on the Sport VU optical tracking data set (via Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News): “In a lot of cases, [the data] confirms (what you're doing), so you know you're on the right track. Once in a while, you're surprised by something, and you can make that adjustment.”

I'll just say that what might be true for Popovich might not be true for others. It's easy for Pop, in a way, as so much of what he does is analytically sound. It makes sense that his approach (the distribution of minutes, targeted shot selection, the creation of lineups, etc.) would be backed up by the numbers; he's one of the best coaches in the league due to his intellectual curiosity, which extends into the realm of advanced stats but isn't limited to that arena alone. Others are not so curious, and the vast majority of the coaching profession isn't as sharp. Pop is about as good as they come, which might make it a bit simpler for him to deal with eye-in-the-sky cameras that largely corroborate his strategic choices.

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