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Big Man Foul Trouble Could Put a Kink in Trail Blazers Defense

On paper, Portland is deeper at center this year than they’ve been in years. Foul trouble could render the point moot.

NBA: Miami Heat at Milwaukee Bucks Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

Hopes are rising as the 2019-20 NBA regular season approaches for the Portland Trail Blazers. Fresh off a Western Conference Finals appearance, armed with new veterans, the Blazers hope to sail smoothly into another deep run. Nothing in the NBA is guaranteed, though, so this week we’re looking at nine questions the Blazers will have to answer if they’re going to be successful in the coming campaign.

Question #7: Can the Centers Stay Out of Foul Trouble?

With the 21st pick of the 1988 NBA Draft, the Portland Trail Blazers selected power forward Mark Bryant out of Seton Hall. Bryant had everything you could wish: size, decent footwork, commitment and work ethic, basketball IQ, plus a reasonable offensive repertoire and room to grow. His training camp performance was so impressive that then-coach Mike Schuler inserted Bryant into the starting lineup, a rookie on a veteran team.

Bryant would develop the skill set and smarts to play 15 seasons in the NBA, the consummate journeyman. From his first appearances, though, he also developed a characteristic that would dog him throughout his career: a penchant for foul trouble. For whatever reason—mobility, aggressiveness, or reputation—Bryant became a magnet for whistles. Once the attraction was established, it was hard to get rid of.

The Trail Blazers sport a couple of centers who could also fit that description this season: Hassan Whiteside and Zach Collins. They currently sit first and second on the depth chart at the five spot. If they’re going to remain there, they’ll need to keep their hands out of the cookie jar.

Whiteside’s 4.1 fouls per 36 minutes puts him 41st among qualifying players in the NBA, but he’s 8th among all players who started 50 or more games, 5th among starting centers. Zach Collins ranks 24th among all NBA players in fouls committed per minute. Nor do the Blazers necessarily get relief when Jusuf Nurkic returns. He’s 25th overall—right behind Collins—second only to Dewayne Dedmon among starting centers.

The relatively high foul production of Portland’s incumbent pivots indicates, in part, the pressure the Blazers put on that position defensively. They could usually count on the now-departed Al-Farouq Aminu to stay in front of his man. Everyone else was either getting stuck on opposing screens or channeling into help. Even if their own man is an indifferent scorer, Portland centers carry plenty of responsibility helping teammates.

The already-foul-prone Whiteside is stepping into this crucible. In one scenario, he becomes a Theo Ratliff-like shot-blocker, adding a huge new dimension to Portland’s defense. (Ratliff, you’ll recall, joined the Blazers’ permissive perimeter defense in 2003 and immediately averaged a career-high 4.4 blocks per game.) In another scenario, he can’t move far enough, fast enough, or just isn’t in sync enough to shore up the position under increased defensive demands. If he’s a half-step behind, or just gets tired, fouls could mount up and his court time decrease.

Collins has already shown that he can handle the mobility requirements of Portland’s scheme. He’s got great defensive instincts and is more than willing to help on that end. He’ll need to mature in point-of-contact defense—straight up and while helping—to keep whistles minimal and stay on the floor.

Fouls are not going to decide Portland’s season. They will affect how consistently the center position is manned. Substituting anyone in the middle for Whiteside and Collins is unlikely to be positive for Portland’s defense. A slow leak of opponent free throws won’t help either.

Portland’s perimeter defenders are going to need to commit to working hard against screens this year, and stopping plays before they reach the center’s zone of responsibility. Portland’s centers are going to need to move quickly and defend with discernment. If either of those things fails, the Blazers’ deeper, developing center corps will have trouble living up to its promise.