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How Much Defensive Improvement Can the Blazers Expect?

Portland added a couple decent defenders in the off-season. Will it be enough to cure what ails them?

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Festus Ezeli and Evan Turner will join the Portland Trail Blazers lineup this fall. Both have been touted for defense. Today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question asks how much difference they’ll actually make.

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Your Exalted Highness of BE,

Earlier in this offseason, Turner's defensive ability was questioned regularly. He has some good numbers supporting him, but there are some who believe that he those numbers are significantly influenced by the great defensive team around him. There is reason to believe that he is less of a difference maker and more of a solid individual defender playing well within the team concept. Not that that's a bad thing.

Ezeli has even more impressive defensive numbers, he's a rim protection darling at Nyloncalculus. Second in points saved per game, sixth in FG% allowed, and third in contest %. Oh, and he's first in points saved per 36, ahead of second place by a whopping 64%!

But while he's criticized for his his injury history and recent playoff performance, it's rarely mentioned that these numbers have to be at least somewhat inflated by the great defensive team around him. Not to mention minutes played against bench units. So my question is, assuming good health, how much of those numbers are inflated and how much of that defense will translate to a weaker defensive team like the Blazers?

- AA

Ahhhh...the joys of trying to quantify defense. For all the statistical magic that’s overtaken our sport from the mid-oughts until now, we still haven’t come up with measurements that allow us to dissect that side of the ball the same way we do offense. Defense is like the dark side of the moon: we know it’s there, we can even describe it to you, but the interpretation is left to the imagination.

This isn’t accidental. "Good" defense depends on position, scheme, and opponent. A guard can defend perfectly by channeling his man into the arms of a shot-blocking center, yet the big man—not the wing—will get both notice and credit for that defensive play. The same guard can go for a steal, gaining it one time out of ten while blowing it the other nine, and the single successful instance will end up on SportsCenter. The simple play will get him a quiet nod of respect from the coach; attempting the highlight play could get him benched.

As you’ve noted, the quality of defenders around a player affects his defensive success. As Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony have proven, NBA scorers can generate points even if everyone around them is incapable of hitting a bucket. This doesn’t hold true on defense. Place a world-class defender next to four chumps—or sometimes even one—and his ability will go to waste. Like an amazing swordsman stuck on a hill surrounded by flat plains, he’s going to watch the offensive attack sweep around him, hitting everywhere he isn’t while he rattles his sword in vain.

All of this makes predicting defensive impact perilous. Evan Turner will certainly be a better defender than Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum have been so far. Will improving that single position be enough? Will Turner even sub for them primarily? If the Blazers go with three guards and shift Al-Farouq Aminu to power forward, will he be able to defend as well in his new position and will Turner defend as well as Aminu did at small forward? Will they need to change their style in order to accommodate these lineup shifts and if so, will last year’s performance from the incumbents mean much? Generating those simple questions took about half a second. The Blazers have to answer far more over the course of the season to come.

I do think that the quality of Portland’s overall defense—which you cite as weaker than their previous teams’—will affect Turner and Festus Ezeli differently. Wings get fewer opportunities to defend when playing with weaker teammates, as opponents attack the softest defenders. Rim-protectors, on the other hand, get more opportunity when the players around them fail to contain their men. This is also known as the Theo Ratliff Effect. (Or, if you prefer, Early Przybilla Syndrome.) If Ezeli can stay healthy, I foresee plenty of hopping out to contain screen plays accompanied by a fair number of blocked shots. He’s good at both. Whether that makes glass is half empty or full depends on your perspective. The Blazers need those things desperately; they’d be better off if they didn’t.

The Blazers certainly have a chance to better themselves defensively this year. Three issues will confront them as they try to turn the potential for better defense into tangible results and a better overall team.

  1. The question you raised: Is the improvement enough to overcome the current defensive weak spots?
  2. Do the Blazers have enough of a combination of offense and defense to keep momentum rolling while they play their better defensive lineups or will they have to choose between scoring and stopping the opponent...a futile prospect when great teams do both at once?
  3. Defense isn’t just about skill, but continuity. Players have to trust each other, knowing where the other defenders will be without having to look. That’s not going to happen overnight. Sometimes the evolution takes multiple seasons of positive reinforcement.

Given that, I expect defensive improvement this year but I don’t necessarily expect a dramatic shift in effectiveness even with Ezeli and Turner on board. That’s less about their individual prowess and more about the difficulty of that kind of transformation.

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--Dave / @DaveDeckard / @Blazersedge