The current iteration of the Blazers is a whirling dervish of ball movement and outstanding guard play. It’s also been pretty bad at defense. The central question for the franchise has been whether you could build a NBA Championship-caliber defense with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum running the show.
At times, it appeared doubtful. Everyone wanted the elusive rim protector who could fix and balance out the roster. But the Blazers’ rim protection statistics weren’t that bad. Would a new big down low make that much of a difference? There was only one way to find out.
Enter Jusuf Nurkic.
Nurkic’s Statistical Impact
- Defensive Rating Before Nurkic: 108.9 (No. 26)
- Defensive Rating with Nurkic: 105.9 (No. 13)
In a way, this understates Nurkic’s impact because the bench has still been a raging dumpster fire. Nurkic’s On/Off numbers are astounding. With Nurkic on the floor, Portland allowed 103.7 points per 100 possessions, which would rank fifth in the league. Without him, Portland has allowed 112.9, worse than the last-ranked Denver Nuggets (oh, the irony).
The better comparison is what he’s done with the starting lineup. If we contrast his numbers with Mason Plumlee’s, the statistical difference is more meaningful.
ON/OFF statistics are noisy but Nurkic and Plumlee were in similar contexts. The systems and the players around them were largely the same. Strength of schedule differences could account for some of the discrepancy but the effect is massive. Portland went from bottom-ten to top-ten in every major defensive category except turnovers.
We can get even more precise by comparing the combination of Lillard and McCollum with each center using NBAwowy.com:
*note: DRTG varies across sites based on how they calculate the number of possessions
A few things jump off the page. First off, Portland’s rim protection numbers hardly changed. The shooting percentage they allowed at the rim is almost identical. They actually allowed more shots around the rim with Nurkic than with Plumlee.
What really changed was the 3-point line. When Nurkic arrived, Portland’s best lineup combination was much better at preventing threes. At the same time, the opponent’s 3-point field goal percentage plummeted from 41.6 percent (!) to 34 percent.
What’s strange is that Portland hasn’t changed how they contest 3-point shots. Roughly the same proportion of 3-pointers have been contested since Nurkic arrived.
However, opponents are shooting very differently. Before the trade, they were shooting a league-best 42.9 percent on wide-open threes (defined when the defender is more than six feet away). Since Nurkic arrived, that number has dropped to 36.5 percent.
Theoretically, that number should be mostly random. How could the defense affect the shooter if they’re nowhere near him? That would give some statistical credence to the idea that Portland was unlucky earlier in the season and that they were better than their record.
It would also indicate that Nurkic’s defensive impact has been inflated. Opponents seem to be regressing to the mean after he arrived. One could argue that 3-point shooting is the real driver in the change of Portland’s fortunes and Nurkic’s arrival simply coincided with that shift.
I made a similar argument two weeks ago, claiming that Portland’s offensive surge had more to do with the guards getting hot than Nurkic’s arrival. That applied to the offense but streaky shooting fails to explain the improved defense. We can see that from simply watching the games, but there’s also statistical evidence as well.
First, those contesting statistics are for the entire team after Nurkic’s arrival. They include shots when Nurkic was sitting on the bench. That’s important because the opponent’s 3-point percentage ended up much higher when Nurkic went to the bench. When Nurkic was on the floor, opponents shot 33.4 percent from behind the arc. When he sat, they knocked down 40.2 percent, roughly the same percentage the team allowed before the trade. Clearly, Nurkic’s presence is allowing the team to cover the 3-point line much better.
Second, the Blazers have allowed fewer 3-point attempts since Nurkic’s arrival. There’s been a distinct change in the shot distribution of other teams. Shot distributions are much less noisy for obvious reasons. Opponent’s might get hot and cold but if Portland is preventing certain shots in the first place then those changes should be sustainable.
The Big Question
All of this points to a real difference in rim protection. The rim protection statistics may be similar but the way Portland is getting them is different. With Plumlee, the Blazers had to send extra bodies into the paint opening up the outside. This led to lots of extra fouls, artificially deflating the opponents’ shooting percentage at the rim. With defenders scrambling, it was much harder to box out and opposing big men would snag offensive rebounds from the chaos.
Now, Portland can get those same rim protection statistics by relying on Nurkic. Defenders can stay home and they don’t need to hack everyone coming down the lane. Since the trade, Portland is sixth overall in avoiding fouls and No. 10 in preventing offensive rebounds. When players can trust someone to control the middle they can focus on the perimeter; the entire system begins to function.
This has major implications for the offseason and the draft, as the defense fell off a cliff when Nurkic sat. Fouls shot up and opponents were much more efficient from deep. If Portland is serious about building an excellent defensive team, they’ll need another legit rim protector to come off the bench.
But that is a smaller issue. The big question has always been whether Dame and CJ could be a part of a championship-level defense. Nurkic has only played 20 games but the early signs point to “yes.”
Nurkic didn’t just save the season—he saved the long-term construction of the roster.