The Portland Trail Blazers have had an interesting first week in the bubble. They’re 2-1 with an important victory over the Houston Rockets on Tuesday and are still ninth in the West. With Memphis seemingly falling apart even before the Jaren Jackson Jr. injury, there’s a good chance that, at the very least, they secure their spot in the play-in tournament and potentially the playoffs, assuming that they finish with a solid record and the other teams vying for the eighth seed don’t surge too much.
But even with the victory against Houston, there’s one glaring issue: the Blazers have a defense problem. It’s something that was well documented before the bubble season began and it’s something that apparently continues to be problematic. Through three games they have a defensive rating of 116.6 (bottom-five of the league at the writing of this article). Teams are making over 16 threes a game on them, and at a 40% clip. It’s just like before they came to Orlando.
Luckily for Portland, the offensive production has been stellar enough that they can keep up with opponents in these games, but just praying that you can outscore your opponent isn’t exactly a foolproof strategy. Just like before the restart, the Blazers have to find a way to become a stronger defense if they’re going to “not waste their time” like Damian Lillard wants.
The hope was that the defense would improve with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, and that has been the case to an extent. Nurkic has anchored the paint well with 10 blocks through three games and Collins has played with the intensity that most Blazer fans expected. But that hasn’t translated to overall team success defensively, something that can be attributed to the fact that it doesn’t matter how good these guys are inside if they can’t guard on the perimeter. The Celtics game specifically showed how these shortcomings can hurt this team.
The Blazers have to run lineups that are truthfully awkward at best. There’s almost always two 7-footers out there at any given time and none of the big men on this team are exactly suited to guard smaller, quicker players. I noted last week that Collins was the best big man at defending the 1-3 spots, but his limitations were exposed against the Celtics on Sunday.
This was not an uncommon sight. The Celtics — specifically Jayson Tatum — were exactly the kind of team that could expose Portland’s deficiencies on defense. The moment Tatum switches onto Collins he knows he has an advantage in terms of speed and overall craftiness. The Celtics in and of themselves are the ultimate mismatch for Portland; they’re a team loaded with players 6’7” or taller who are all versatile enough offensively to either get by guys or launch it from deep. At least they’re in the Eastern Conference.
It also doesn’t help that the style of defense Portland plays opens the team up to get rained on from three. Terry Stotts has implemented a drop style pick-and-roll defense that asks perimeter defenders to fight over screens while the big man drops back to defend the paint. It’s a pretty common defense, but it’s one that can also get exposed against the wrong matchup.
Yeah, Kemba Walker can do that, folks. And Stotts is notorious for sticking with it for as long as possible. He infamously did so last year against the Warriors in the conference finals as Golden State unleashed their barrage on Portland. He even had an uncharacteristically terse response to a question about his decision to do so. It’s not something that’s likely to change in the near future.
It doesn’t help that the Blazers don’t have a defensive stalwart on the perimeter, either. Gary Trent Jr. (who has been on fire in the bubble) is the closest thing Portland has to a reliable perimeter defender. The rest of the team is mediocre at best. Lillard and CJ McCollum have never been amazing, Carmelo Anthony is notably bad (except apparently when making clutch plays against the Rockets), and no one on the bench really fares much better. The team’s best defenders are overwhelmingly interior-oriented.
Even then, the Blazers aren’t perfect there. Hassan Whiteside has been bad in that respect. He’s looked disengaged ever since being moved to the bench in favor of Nurkic and Collins. He’s always been a flawed player who can still put up big stats, but those flaws have been exacerbated in this restart.
Tatum gets the switch on the PnR with Smart but Dame plays real solid defense not giving any ground. Whiteside -- on the other hand -- bites hard on the pump fake from Kanter. pic.twitter.com/0HKB3czcbh— Richie (@RichieRandall) August 2, 2020
Falling for an Enes Kanter pump fake is an all-time “Are you kidding me?” move from Whiteside. If you’ve watched Kanter play (which Blazer fans surely did last year), then you know his offensive value is almost entirely dependent on what he can do in the paint. Kanter didn’t score on that play, but biting on that led to Collins drawing his third foul by the end of the first quarter. Collins is too valuable right now to be put in positions like that.
Above is another quick example of Whiteside following the ball in pursuit of a block. Technically he does a good job staying in front of Gordon Hayward while waiting for Mario Hezonja to recover, but Hayward lures him in too easily when he pulls up to feign a jump shot. It’s an easy bucket for Kanter at this point, and it’s made possible because Whiteside craves the block so badly. It’s all stuff that Whiteside has done the whole season, but the drop-off from Nurkic to him has been significant in these first few games.
There is also the fouling problem. The Blazers have committed the fifth-most fouls in the bubble at 82, and that’s with one less game played than three of the four above them. Granted they had an overtime game that helped bump up that total, but it’s still a problem. Some fouls occur to make up for mistakes like Whiteside’s, and some are fouls that happen because of overcompensation for a perimeter player’s mistake. However they may occur, they have been occurring quite often.
We don’t need to waste too much time on this because fouls in the bubble in general are way up. Teams were committing an average of 20.6 fouls per game before the suspension and are averaging 25.1 fouls now in Orlando. But it’s worth mentioning because the two people this adversely affects the most are Nurkic and Collins. Nurkic fouled out in his debut and Collins is averaging around four fouls a game on the year. If they’re the team’s best defenders, then it behooves the Blazers to find ways to keep their big men in the game for as long as possible.
Games like the Houston victory are not the norm. The Rockets had an uncharacteristically off shooting night where they hit only 36% of their threes despite quality looks. It was a matchup that worked greatly in Portland’s favor as their 7-footers gobbled up rebounds and deterred drivers in the paint. It was a welcome change of pace from the previous games where teams just bombed it in from three. But still, it was an anomaly.
The Blazers can’t keep giving teams opportunities like this and expect to be fine. Adjustments have to be made if they want to really challenge teams in the playoffs. It’s tough to pinpoint what you can change rotation-wise, and it’s thought experiments like this that make you think about how great it would be to have Trevor Ariza right about now.
An interesting thought is giving the energizer bunny that is Wenyen Gabriel some minutes and letting him roam the floor. He’s a big fouler, but he also has the speed to keep up with a wide range of players. Nassir Little — who has yet to play in the seeding games — could also provide a boost at the 3 and 4 spot defensively, or at least a change of pace. Stotts benched Hezonja in favor of Anfernee Simons on Tuesday which is...a choice, but it shows at least that he’s looking for answers.
The answer to solving these defensive woes isn’t exactly clear, but one thing is: the Blazers have a defense problem, and the sooner they solve it, the better.