After years of relatively poor defense being carried by the offense, the Portland Trail Blazers are finally pulling their weight on “D”. It might sound strange, but as the 2018 NBA Trade Deadline arrives, the easiest need for Portland to address is on the defensive end. Incremental improvement in that area would pay higher dividends than could be imagined a year ago, While everybody else is ogling a third scorer, don’t sleep on the potential of a defensive-minded wing to help the Blazers. Even though Portland’s overall defense has improved, their point-of-attack defense still lacks. They might be able to fix that today.
Portland still carries plenty of needs—two-way wings and salary relief for some of their mistakes in 2016 are just a couple—but those problems aren’t unique to the Trail Blazers; half the league needs salary relief and every team seems to need more two-way perimeter players. Point guard defense isn’t as scarce across the league and Portland may be able to put together a trade to accomplish multiple goals while boosting their defense at the most important position on the floor.
Team-building aficionados obsess over the value of a rim protector at the center position, but many coaches will tell you that defense at the point of attack is more important. Containing and deterring penetration altogether makes rim protection less essential. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum aren’t fantastic in this department and rely on Jusuf Nurkic protecting the rim behind them, so an upgrade in this department might be a target for the Trail Blazers at the deadline.
Noah Vonleh ($3.5 million this year) fits the bill perfectly as a salary dump candidate the Blazers could lose without changing the ceiling of the team, but he’s not a positive asset who will bring back a defensive point guard. However, Ed Davis ($6.4 million) might have some real value on the market, especially for teams who need a cheap upgrade at center. Shabazz Napier is another candidate. He’s played well this year but is not a high-end defender at his position.
An expensive target for Portland could be Indiana’s Cory Joseph, who makes $7.6 million this season and has a player option for next season. He would be a full Bird free agent if Portland wanted to bring him back this summer. It seems unlikely Portland could avoid the tax and acquire Joseph, unless Indiana was in love with one of their higher-paid players. A Davis-Napier package may not entice Indiana since they have little need for a backup center, but perhaps a three-team deal is workable.
Toronto is another interesting partner for Portland—the Raptors have an immensely deep bench but already look to be over the tax next season before paying out a new contract for Fred Van Vleet, who has stepped into a much larger role than expected this season. He and Delon Wright fight for backup minutes behind Kyle Lowry, but perhaps the Raptors would be interested in a trade involving one of those guys as a way to consolidate their bench. All reports out of Toronto indicate that the team loves both young guards and doesn’t see them as in each other’s way for minutes, but there’s a chance Portland could pry one loose with the right offer. Wright would be especially interesting for the Trail Blazers as a versatile defensive guard who could play with either Lillard or McCollum and defend the opposing team’s most threatening guard.
Portland has spent themselves into a bit of a hole over the past few years but there are still small moves at the margins that would make them a better team for the remainder of this season and the playoffs. Upgrading with a defensive point guard to contain penetration and raise the ceiling of the team’s overall defense would do them well, but finding that player and making a trade happen is more difficult due to their financial situation.