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What’s Going Right and Wrong with the Trail Blazers Defense

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The Blazers are experimenting with new players and a new look on the defensive end. Here are three things going well so far and two...not so much.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers are known for many things: the brilliance of guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, three-point shooting, and team chemistry among the foremost. Traditionally, defense has not been a part of their portfolio. They’ve ranged from questionable to solid. Head Coach Terry Stotts has paced them into a conservative, percentage-oriented scheme designed to hold the fort while their offense makes a flanking move. It hasn’t always worked. Opponent offenses have become trains, inexorably chugging to their point total. The only question has been whether Portland’s high-octane scorers could get them past the crossing to Winsville before the locomotive broadsided them.

The first few weeks of the season have ushered in hope for change, The Blazers have adopted a more aggressive style…at times over-aggressive. They’ve resembled the class nerd busting a move at prom. “Whoa! Can he do that? I guess he is. It’s not bad! Or is it? It’s a little bad, but he’s giving it his all. Cool? Maybe? I wonder if this will end well?”

There’s no answer to the latter question yet. Giving up 120 to the Philadelphia 76’ers and Golden State Warriors in succession isn’t a good sign, but the season is still young and the roster slight. We can see what the Blazers are aiming at, even if they don’t achieve it nightly yet.

Playing Off Whiteside and Bazemore

Portland’s new-look defense centers around a couple imported players: Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore. They’re wholly different, but take a similar approach. If the ball comes anywhere near the middle of the floor, Whiteside is going to be on it. He thrives on blocked shots and stops. He’ll pursue anyone and anything in his area, to the point that opponents are consciously pulling up for jumpers rather than finishing at the rim. Bazemore gets the same gleam in his eyes when he sees the ball flash orange on the perimeter. He wants to poke, harry, and go.

In past years, when opponents drove, the Blazers channeled them politely into a center whose primary responsibility was to impede and rebound. This year, a driving opponent is a meat loaf sandwich in a pack of Dobermans, The Blazers don’t want to funnel as much as consume. You’ll see two, sometimes three players right up in the driver’s grill, trying to swat, swipe, or generally make them regret their sneakers ever touched paint.

Forcing Turnovers

Along with the full-contact, aggressive defensive approach comes an element all but missing during the Stotts era: forced turnovers. The Blazers still aren’t world-beaters. They rank 20th in turnovers per game forced with 15.3, 22nd in turnovers per possession at .143. Last year they came in 28th with 12.5 turnovers forced, 29th per possession at .121. If these numbers hold, it’ll be a significant improvement.

Turnovers are not a great indicator of defensive success, but lacking them entirely isn’t great. It’s the defensive equivalent of Monica saying to Mr. Furious in Mystery Men, “I don’t find you threatening...at all.” Opposing teams have been able to relax, knowing they can get any shot they want with enough patience. Now they have to worry just a little bit about the risk factor of making an extra move versus taking the shot now. In those decision-making cracks grow the seeds of good defense.

Generating Fast Break Points

One of the by-products of creating disruption on the defensive end is the opportunity to generate fast break points. Portland’s production has been predictably anemic in years past; they finished 24th in the league last year with 10.9 fast break points per game, 30th the year before with 8.4. So far this year they’re generating a respectable 15.3, good for 10th in the league, nearly doubling their production of two years ago.

Easy buckets won’t turn a season any more than forced turnovers will, but the Blazers don’t need to turn the season on those hinges. They still have Lillard, McCollum, the halfcourt offense, and rebounding to fall back on. They need an edge to translate their core strengths into a few more wins. Transition points have the potential to do that.

Cost #1: Defending the Three

Not all is rosy in Defense Land, however. The same aggressiveness that allows the Blazers to shift into high gear also leaves them vulnerable when momentum is misdirected. Multiple opponents have found themselves wide open--unconscionably open--for three-point looks as the Blazers have collapsed or lunged looking to create pressure. Whiteside is prone to pursuing, but not recovering, The players that trail to help him get lost after two passes, sometimes after one.

The Blazers rank near the middle of the league in three-point defense; their foibles haven’t caught up to them in the aggregate. But they’ve been opponent agnostic. Bad teams and good have found the arc undefended. Great teams are going to watch tape, then exploit the Blazers’ aggression—and Whiteside’s lack of mobility—to a barrage of triples.

Cost #2 Fouls

Fouls tend to spike early in seasons as player get used to new teams and points of emphasis from the referees. Close, aggressive defending has elicited plenty of whistles against the Blazers. Only two teams—Phoenix and Philadelphia—earn more personal fouls per game. Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers also crowd below the Blazers in fouls per possession. Philly, Utah, and L.A. are projected to be among the best defenses in the league. Portland is not. Earning more turnovers and fast break points will not help much if the Blazers give back their earned edge at the foul line.