Defense in the Paint: The Numbers Behind the Portland Trailblazers’ Rim Protection

By: John McCool

This season the Portland Trailblazers finished with 44 wins in a once again highly competitive Western Conference. Utilizing the strong guard play of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, who scored a respective 25.1 and 20.8 points per game, the Trailblazers managed to make the second round of the NBA playoffs.

During the regular season, Portland allowed 104.3 points per game ranking in the bottom third of the league.[1] However, the Trailblazers were exceptional at interior defense. On defended shots less than 6 feet from the hoop, Portland allowed only 55.9% of shots good for 4th in the NBA.[2]

The Trailblazers also posted a league leading 3.7% field goal percentage differential (Diff%). Field goal differential (Diff%) measures the difference between the normal field goal percentage of the shooter and the field goal percentage of the shooter when the defensive player is guarding him. For example, if Kevin Durant averages a 50.5 FG% but shoots 45% against Klay Thompson then Thompson holds a -5.50 Diff% against him. For comparison, the Hawks and Heat finished with -2.7 and -2.6 Diff% closely trailing behind Portland.  

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Throughout the season, Portland head coach Terry Stotts utilized a 10-player rotation. Each player logged at least 15 minutes per game when available. On the inside, center Mason Plumlee (6-11) alongside power forwards Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh defended the most interior shots. Here is a quick breakdown of the Trailblazers defense statistics within 6 feet of the basket.

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On average, Davis and Plumlee faced 9.7 combined shot attempts per game. In particular, Davis, selected 13th overall in the 2010 draft, ranked fourth in league in Diff% and allowed just 49.2 FG% on shots less than 6 feet. He contested 32.6% rim shots and saved 1.07 points per 36 minutes. Throughout his brief three-season stint in the NBA, Davis has already established himself as a part of a group of elite interior defenders that includes the Bucks’ John Henson and the Warriors’ Andrew Bogut.[3]

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In terms of Diff%, Davis and Plumlee allowed a respective -11.5 and -6.2 field goal differential. The Trailblazers also feature a steady supply of plus- rim defenders including Gerald Henderson and Allen Crabbe who posted a combined -7.65 Diff% in limited shots defended within 6 feet of the basket.

Another way to measure players’ overall interior defensive value is though points saved per 36 minutes (Pts. Saved/36). Miami Heat power forward Hassan Whiteside led the league in 2015-16 with 2.80 Pts. Saved/36. Comparatively, Davis finished with 1.07 points saved at the rim while Plumbee managed to save only .23 points per 36 minutes.

Portland’s success on interior defense is nothing new. In 2014-2015, the Trailblazers with Robin Lopez and Chris Kamen posted a -1.1 field goal differential ranking third behind the Bulls and Warriors.

In recent years, Portland’s front office has continued the cycle of bringing in above average rim defenders. The list includes the free agent signings of Kaman, Lopez, and Davis alongside draft picks Joel Freeland and Will Barton. In 2014-2015, Lopez played the role of Davis compiling a -5.3 Diff% on a team high 6.4 shots attempts per game.

Having versatile forwards, who are able to contest and alter shots around the rim is increasingly important as NBA teams move away from mid range jumpers in favor of three-pointers and shots within the paint. While growing number of teams are favoring “small-ball” lineups, the Trailblazers have benefited from the defense from their center and power forward positions around the rim. Portland’s production from McCollum and Lillard alongside skilled interior defenders has ultimately helped them become a dominant force in the West.

(Stats courtesy of basketballrefernece.com, NBA.com, and nyloncalculus.com)

 

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