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Why the Trail Blazers Can’t Play Better Defense

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Portland’s defense is worse than even their copious injuries can account for. There might be a reason.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers are renowned for offense, courtesy of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and a strong team attack. Defense? Not so much. This is especially true in 2019-20, as the Blazers are giving out 30-point quarters like candy and boasting a 113.6 opponent scoring average, bottom-third in the league. Everybody wants to know why, other than obvious injury woes. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

Another loss. Another bad defensive effort. What is going on? I think injuries is most of it but I’m also seeing things that just look like nobody cares. It’s disheartening. Is it really only having one player above 6-8 or is there more to this than meets the eye? I’m not sure how much more I can watch.

Hunter

Injuries have certainly played a part in Portland’s defensive woes. You can’t lose Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, and half of the rest of your frontcourt without suffering. Defense depends on continuity and experience. The Blazers haven’t had much of either.

The “one player over 6’8” phenomenon explains part of the problem. Rebounding is the biggest factor there. Portland ranks 27th in the league in defensive rebounding. When they force misses, they’re never quite sure they’ll see the ball. That’s a big issue, one only true power forwards and centers can solve long-term.

Lack of height doesn’t explain everything, though. Portland’s defense against screens has gone from questionable to downright horrific. Their inability to close out at the three-point arc—often standing and watching while opponents set up wide-open shots—evokes incredulity. You’d think being smaller and quicker would help in both scenarios. If the Blazers have defensive speed, we’re sure not seeing it.

Nor can their woes be chalked up to simply “bad defenders”. They have a few. Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Carmelo Anthony aren’t known for their prowess on that end of the court. But this isn’t too far out of line with most NBA rosters.

Every player on every team defends, including Portland’s big three. Outside of acclaimed defensive players, effectiveness of individual defense relies largely on the cohesiveness of the team. Last year the Blazers operated as a unit. Lillard and McCollum looked much better on defense. This year the roster is fractured and they look much worse.

Defense is neither democratic nor fair. Some NBA players need teammates to watch out for them. Other players make a living watching out for those players. Teams tend to thrive on defense when a whole lot of mid-rotation players compensate for, and protect, star scorers. Stars will notch their 20 no matter what, based on individual ability. Whether production translates to success depends more on the team.

We call players who fill in for the stars “blue-collar” or “glue guys”, but what we really mean is, “Players who will make the extra effort to make the team structure sound around the scorers”. This is how you make $12 million per year scoring 12 points per game.

Stars get used to, and in some ways have earned, their favored place in the system. Charitably, we can say that they’re expending energy through brilliant offensive moves, conserving it on defense. This is true. Less charitably, stars don’t need to defend better than they do in order to prosper. You can’t be a sieve, but making one or two decent moves from the chairman’s seat then letting others fill in the detail work is a time-honored tradition in more fields than basketball.

The “filling in” looks subtle on the court. Who is shading towards a dribbler instead of their own man? Who’s running in to double, then hustling back to the arc to contest? Who’s moving, whose hands are up all the time, who quietly seems to be near every play on their side of the court, even if you don’t see them actively mixing it up? Taking two steps and shadowing the play is the hallmark of players who expect help on defense. Keeping their head on a swivel and never stopping until they check out are the hallmarks of the players who do the helping.

Let’s run down the list of active players for the Blazers.

Damian Lillard is THE chairman. Other players move around him and are responsible for helping in any way necessary to make his contributions matter. He’s improved defensively over the years, but defense isn’t his primary responsibility. Nor should it be.

CJ McCollum is a 20-point scorer and elite offensive player. That’s how he makes his living. He has a right to expect help on the defensive end as well.

Carmelo Anthony is a Hall-of-Fame player around whom every team he joined before the age of 33 was centered. Everyone else’s job was to compensate for him no matter what.

These are the highest-minute players in Portland’s rotation. All of them rightly expect and deserve others to fill in on the defensive end.

The obvious next question: who does the helping?

You can’t just ask who is capable or who should have the desire. The answer to those questions is, “Everyone!” Rather ask who has been trained, has made it their mission, and makes their living in this league making other players look good on defense? Whose DNA is imprinted with the defensive continuity chromosome? Whose next contract depends on it?

Hassan Whiteside is a good defender in his own space. He will attack penetration and block shots like nobody’s business. He does not make his living quietly assisting others, nor does he cover the court. When the need for help presents itself and he’s in the area, he will provide more than enough. He does not seek out those opportunities or act on them.

Kent Bazemore is an aggressive defender on the perimeter. He hounds dribblers, creating turnovers or fouls. He was one of the primary players on his last team and, despite his prowess, is not really one of those “glue guys”. If anything, he should probably be shooting and scoring more. Again...decent individual defender, not quite the answer.

Zach Collins was a good help defender and strong candidate to grow into the defensive-assist role. He’s injured.

Jusuf Nurkic’s biggest development last season was his ability to do exactly what his teammates needed on defense. He’s injured too.

Anfernee Simons isn’t experienced enough to defend well individually, let alone blossom into a team defender. Anthony Tolliver looks slow and spent. Rodney Hood is down. So is Skal Labissiere, and he needs more work anyway. Mario Hezonja doesn’t bear mentioning. Nassir Little is a strong candidate to grow into the role, but he’s a 19-year-old rookie.

Portland fields zero healthy players capable of making others look good on defense and willing/experienced enough to do so. They sport two executive chefs, a semi-retired executive chef, and a celebrity alum from Top Chef who just wants to cook his own dishes. They have no sous chefs and only a couple experienced line cooks. Everyone else is learning on the job. With multiple people calling out orders from the tickets and nobody actually prepping mise en place or, you know, cooking food, the kitchen is a mess.

Contrast this with last season. Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless knew their roles with the Blazers. Aminu, in particular, was an active giver on the defensive end. The franchise bumped against a ceiling starting them and were wise to make a change. Still, they were the sous, capable of jumping on any station that needed help. Nobody has even come close to replacing them.

This isn’t likely to get better this year. More experience for the younger players will help, but also ask how many seasons it took Aminu to settle into his role. They’ll need to patch up the lineup with more than just another four months of young guys running bad “D”.

If and when the Blazers do bring in a significant player via trade or free agency, this is one of the factors they’ll need to consider. If they bring in someone with star-player needs on defense (as opposed to star chops) they’re going to need to surround him with excellent team defenders...and even that might not work. More likely defense will need to be a consideration in any trade or signing. A player who can hold his own defensively seems like a necessity at this point. A player who can help others as well seems like a dream.

Let’s hope the front office can figure out a way to fulfill it.

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