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 #6: Who Plays Defense?
During the Trail Blazers’ run through the 2019 NBA Playoffs, guard Rodney Hood put on an impressive defensive display. It was not Scottie-Pippen-level transformative, but Hood held his own and created opportunities beyond those his heretofore-modest reputation would indicate.
The Blazers are going to need that kind of effort from Hood again during the 2019-20 regular season. They’ll also need it from Kent Bazemore. They’ll need Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to devote sustained energy at the defensive end. They’ll need Zach Collins to develop quickly. They’ll need Anfernee Simons not to turn into a sieve. They’ll need Anthony Tolliver and Pau Gasol to reclaim spring in their aging legs.
If the Blazers don’t get these things—a significant number of these things all at once—their defense is going to become a funnel pouring straight upon the head of newly-acquired Hassan Whiteside. As we detailed earlier this morning, that might not be the best development.
Nowhere will the Blazers miss their departed players as much as on the defensive end. Al-Farouq Aminu was the best defender among them. Moe Harkless, Evan Turner, and Meyers Leonard weren’t world-shakers, but they combined active bodies and, once acclimated, veteran know-how. The Blazers sported reliability, if not always excellence.
They don’t have that anymore, particularly at the power forward position. I wasn’t the biggest Aminu fan. I was fine with them not re-signing him, slightly relieved, in fact. In this way, though, they’re going to miss him...likely the other three as well. It’s not just a matter of skill, but continuity. When you play together 3-4 years, a guard getting stuck on a screen gets predictable; the squad compensates. When you’re new to each other, guards getting stuck on screens leads to dunks or and-ones.
If the Blazers are going to fall apart this year, it will be on the defensive end. This issue lies in the substrata, underpinning everything they hope to do. Defending is not vogue in the NBA as it once was, but the best teams still do it well. The Blazers want to be among the league elite. They need players stepping up, consistent commitment, and clear communication.
Even with their impressive run last year and their high-profile summer acquisitions, the Blazers will step onto the floor opening night with this aspect of their game largely unproven. The opening months of the season will become an extended shakedown cruise. Integrating Jusuf Nurkic when he returns will be another adjustment. Defense might be a work in progress much of the year. Portland can score enough to survive that. They need to enter the 2020 NBA Playoffs with a solid defensive identity, though. No matter how good the offense looks, they’ll not make it through the postseason unless they can stop the opponent on a regular basis.