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Can the Portland Trail Blazers Be Elite by Relying on Only Offense?

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, left, drives to the basket against Denver Nuggets' Randy Foye, right, and J.J. Hickson during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Saturday, March 1, 2014.  Lillard scored 17 points as they beat the Nuggets 102-96. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)
Don Ryan/Associated Press
Joshua J VannucciniSenior Analyst IIIMarch 3, 2014

Offense wins games, defense wins championships.

The above statement might be a little cliche, but it applies so perfectly to the NBA. The game is all about putting the ball in the basket while keeping it out of your opponent's. Only, some teams focus a little too much on the former aspect of the game.

Enter the Portland Trail Blazers.

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 1: The Portland Trail Blazers stand on the court during a game against the Denver Nuggets on March 1, 2014 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

With a 41-18 record, the Blazers have a solid lock on a top seed in the Western Conference. The team's dominant offensive attack, led by LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, has been the major catalyst in victories. The Blazers lead the league in points per game, in addition to ranking second in field goals made and three-point field goals made.

Portland's defense, however, is perfectly average. It's mostly due to the Blazers' tempo and style of play, but the team allows a dismal 102.9 points per game. That ranks Portland right alongside teams like the Detroit Pistons, the Sacramento Kings and the Denver Nuggets: all teams that are far from contending. 

The Phoenix Suns (35-24) are right there as well in terms of opponent points per game, but they also play a similar style.

It isn't just a case of pace of play, though, as the Blazers are regularly allowing strong offensive showings by opponents. Below are Portland's opponent averages and the respective league ranks, per ESPN.com:

 AverageRank
PPG102.925th
FG%45.413th (tie)
3P%35.713th (tie)
Opp. TOs11.730th

A strong offense and a so-so defense can lead to success, as evidenced by the Blazers placing third in the West. Yet Portland averages 45.2 percent shooting and 37.8 percent from long range, which is pretty much on par with the team's defense.

As such, if the offense fails, either by its own hand or strong defensive pressure, the Blazers don't have the ability to lock it up on the other end. Portland can be a tough opponent, but only if the offense is clicking.

The Blazers haven't shown the ability to recover defensively, which can pose a big danger heading into the postseason. Even the best offensive teams are reeled in during the playoffs, settling more for a half-court offense than an up-tempo one.

Teams in the past, such as the Steve Nash-led Suns in the late 2000s, tried and failed with similar styles of play.

Nash returned to Phoenix during the 2004-05 season, vaulting the team's offensive rating from 101.4 in the prior season (ranked 21st) to 114.5 (ranked first). Between then and the 2007-08 season, the Suns never ranked lower than second in offensive rating but were bounced from the playoffs every year.

Phoenix made it as far as the Western Conference Finals on two occasions, despite never ranking higher than 13th in defensive efficiency. The San Antonio Spurs sent the Suns packing in three separate seasons, and while Phoenix still managed to score at a high rate, the team was unable to contain San Antonio doing so as well. 

PHOENIX - MAY 05:  Steve Nash #13 of the Phoenix Suns drives the ball past Tony Parker #9, Tim Duncan #21 and Manu Ginobili #20 of the San Antonio Spurs during Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2010 NBA Playoffs at US Airways Center on
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Blazers are in danger of following a similar path. 

Portland has the tools to be a better defensive team, abounding in length and quickness at almost every position. Robin Lopez and Aldridge aren't overly athletic players, but they can remain opportunistic defenders in the paint.

Presently, the Blazers allow 46.1 points in the paint per game, courtesy of Team Rankings. That just edges the Suns for No. 27 in the league, which is, again, indicative of the pace Portland plays at. It's a number that must improve for the Blazers to be an elite team. A championship-contending team cannot allow its opponent to score almost half their points that close to the basket.

Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum need to be more involved in provoking turnovers, which would add a different dimension to the defense. Per Team Rankings, the Blazers score just 11.2 fast-break points per game.

PORTLAND, OR - NOVEMBER 25:  Damian Lillard #0, Wesley Matthews #2 and Nicolas Batum #88 of the Portland Trail Blazers stand on the court against the New York Knicks on November 25, 2013 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User exp
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

With the athleticism available in the backcourt, that number can and should be much higher. Batum and Matthews are the only players close to averaging a steal per game, but getting out in transition would make Portland much more potent.

The Blazers wouldn't need to gamble in passing lanes or anything to jeopardize the interior defense, either. As seen by Portland averaging a league-worst 11.7 opponent turnovers per game, the Blazers are simply allowing far too many completed possessions. 

Focusing on disrupting on the perimeter would also limit opponents scoring in the paint, as broken possessions lead to more offense. And that's what the Blazers are all about.

Portland is close to being an elite basketball team, but the lack of intensity and efficiency defensively is holding it back. The Blazers can no doubt be overwhelming when scoring the ball, but there will always be the question of just how well they can adjust defensively when they aren't.

And if Portland truly wishes to be an elite team, that doubt must be eliminated. 

 

Phoenix Suns statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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