The Portland Trail Blazers are marching their way through their preseason schedule in fine form. Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic are garnering praise. Portland is trying out new schemes on offense and defense. For a roster that didn’t make major changes over the summer, observations are getting downright optimistic. How much of that will last into the regular season schedule and how much is preseason hype?
Today we evaluate a trio of trends, digging beneath the observations to ask what’s at stake and whether momentum can last.
More Motion on Defense
Up until this season, Portland’s basic plan has been to stay home on defense. They’ve tried to keep a big man cemented near the rim, banking on their guards staying in front of opposing scorers without help. Results have ranged from terrible to decent depending on personnel and time of year, but at no point has the Blazers’ defense sparked.
If preseason is any indication, the Blazers intend to employ more switching and help defense in their schemes. Increased mobility is the key. Zach Collins adds defensive range. Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless are fleet of foot for “big” forwards. Meyers Leonard can move, and the push towards fitness for Jusuf Nurkic continues unabated.
Speed will allow Portland’s bigs to move and recover, freeing up more options for them to help, or wings to help each other while the bigs shift to cover gaps. The Blazers won’t adopt scrambling as a mainstay; it’s too much of a departure, they’ll fatigue too quickly, and it’s not a percentage move. But desperate perimeter defenders should receive a little more help instead of getting stuck guarding the league’s best scorers one-on-one while teammates lock up players who weren’t threats to begin with. Selectively targeting opponents based on their range and skill is smart and should provide color to an otherwise mundane defense.
Even with a new plan in place, the basic issue—point of attack defense—remains unchanged. Collins and Aminu aside, most Portland defenders aren’t intimidating even when they do get to the right spot on the floor. That won’t magically improve no matter how many times they switch. Opponents are also going to test Portland’s resolve by pulling bigs away from the bucket and making them switch screens, and/or whipping the ball around to avoid help, forcing five Portland defenders to move together. If the Blazers don’t have concentration, dedication, and a team-wide commitment to moving their feet, the new plan will have as many holes as the old one.
Nik Stauskas! Gary Trent Jr.! And...Nik Stauskas! The Blazers went out and got three-point shooters this summer. Terry Stotts is set to become the Oprah of Threes, one for you...one for you...one for everybody!
In theory, this should precipitate plenty of good things. It’s a call-back to the early Stotts days when threes and layups were the only acceptable shots. Three-pointers are worth 1.5 times as much as a normal bucket. Hitting them opens the floor for guard penetration and all kinds of good things.
In practice, well...the Blazers got Nik Stauskas and Gary Trent Jr. Both have potential but neither strikes fear in the hearts of opponents. We don’t know if either merits floor time yet, let alone extended time.
Stauskas averaged 12.8 minutes per game last year for the Sixers and Nets. In that time he generated one (1) made three-point shot per game. And that’s his strength. He has other tools, but they’re counterbalanced by his unremarkable defense. He may be an acceptable signing, but he’s unlikely to become a season-changing one. Nor are the rookies. The “Big Difference-Makers” may not end up making that much of a difference, simply because the Blazers can’t afford to keep them on the floor.
The Resurrection of Jusuf Nurkic
Nurk Fever may not be back in full swing, but the AMA is suggesting you get your shots in October, which should be good through May. Symptoms include chuckling at flexed bicep pics, sweating as you remark that Nurkic looks “lighter”, and quoting hopeful (but probably in need of context) stats about what a good rim protector he is.
A light, mobile Nurkic is key to Portland’s hopes of success. As mentioned above, the new defensive scheme is predicated on big-man agility. Take Nurkic out of the middle and Portland has trouble taking up paint space. Take Nurkic out of the game and they have zero credible scoring threats taller than 6’4.
Nurkic’s pre-season performance is not a mirage. Blazers fans are seeing what they need to see. But that “need to see” works both ways. Wanting something to be true does not make it so for the player or observers. Flashes of brilliance have never been in short supply with Nurkic. Sustained effort, stamina, and focus have.
Nurkic looks lighter on his feet. How will he look in February? If the Blazers score through other players, will he still be hustling hard? If the Blazers score through him, will the ball be moving still? How will his body hold up? These questions have never been answered satisfactorily in Nurk’s career. They have a chance of being answered this season, but that remains only a chance until it’s done.