The Portland Trail Blazers are flying high in the midst of a three-game winning streak. They haven’t separated themselves from the Western Conference pack, but nobody else has either. This is fortuitous. Considering their new personnel, the Blazers were likely to stumble through an adjustment period to start the season. They appear to be weathering it in decent shape as the rest of the league struggles too.
Robert Covington and Derrick Jones, Jr. stand tallest among Portland’s new players, if not in height, then significance. The starting forwards were expected to revolutionize the team’s defense. They haven’t exactly done that; development takes time and Portland’s problems are persistent. Yet there’s a greater sense of comfort and hope with Covington and Jones, Jr. on the floor than the Blazers have experienced in years. When the defense does click, it’s impressive.
Today Dave Deckard and Dia Miller step into the fog of early-season forward play, asking what difference, if any, Portland’s new forwards have made.
Dia: It’s hard to look at this team and think that they wouldn’t be making a difference. We have talked on the podcast so many times about how good this team looks on paper, and there was some question as to if they’d live up to that, especially in those early games. But it seems more and more like they are starting to look like the team on paper. Last season our defense was one of the worst in the league. I don’t think it’s currently among the best, but it’s definitely improved. We are seeing defense that isn’t just scoring 200 points a game (One of your best lines, Dave!).
Dave: Well, it has to beat, “Would you like to come over and see my crazy-mad whittling skills?” For some reason that one never works.
The Blazers are allowing 115.9 points per game, 25th in the NBA. That doesn’t necessitate scoring 200 to win, but it does necessitate averaging 117, which is still pretty high. Some of that can be explained by pace, though. The Blazers are 7th in the league in that category, above their usual showing of somewhere between 13th-19th. They’re playing a bit faster and taking care of the ball. Their defense just hasn’t quite caught up yet. It’s starting to, though.
A week or so ago, the Blazers looked bad defensively. Playing the Kings helped. (I’m being facetious, but weaker opponents have made them look somewhat better.) Portland ranks 19th in field goal percentage allowed, 7th in three-point percentage allowed, and 10th in opponent offensive rebounding percentage. Those numbers are all up. They still lag behind in free throws allowed; they’re 28th in the league at 27.1 per game. If they can shore that up, they’re actually looking pretty good.
I’d say the forwards are a large part of the base for that defense, and that growing experience together has been part of the improvement. Jusuf Nurkic rounding back into form has been the actual catalyst for the change, but without the starting forwards, there wouldn’t be nearly as much TO change.
Overall, I’m satisfied but skeptical. Steph Curry aside, Golden State, Chicago, Minnesota, and Sacramento aren’t exactly known for picking apart defenses. I want to see Portland defend a couple teams that know what they’re doing before I pronounce the reformation permanent. This is a decent start, though.
What do you love (or not love) about Covington and Jones Jr. individually?
Dia: You mean other that Covington’s infectious smile and Jones Jr.’s impeccable taste in colorful shoes? I have to start with this, because you know, it’s me here. I love these two already. I love their personalities and how they seem to seamlessly fit into the team’s DNA. That being said, Can we talk about Jones Jr’s ability to actually fly? The man is looking at the hoop the same way I look at my 3 year old—from the top.
Dave: He goes at the rim the same way I go at fruit-covered cheesecake: flying towards it at high velocity, intent on smashing it down.
Dia: It’s so fun to see, and truly something I don’t remember seeing in Portland in the recent past. Not only that, but his quickness and agility combined with his size makes for potentially a great defender. I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention his recent block on LeBron James against the Lakers. It would be one thing if that was an isolated event, but I expect to see more like that this season.
Covington seemed to have a hard time initially with offense, but I felt like even early on, he was playing more aggressive defense than I’m used to seeing from the Blazers. Before the off season moves were made, I wrote an article about how we needed a 3 and D player. I actually specifically mentioned Covington. He’s been exactly that, and I truly think he's just going to get better with this team and really find his place.
This is one of the things that I love about these conversations we have, Dave. I’m over here with my unicorns and rainbows, cool shoes and happy smiles, and you bring the statistics and the specifics.
Dave: In a general sense, sure, but I want to ride a unicorn sometimes too. Unfortunately that thing is bucking like a rodeo bull when we talk about Covington’s three-point shooting. He’s at .341 for the season, which is slightly better than he did last year but below his career average and not near enough for the Blazers. So far there’s been no correlation between him shooting well from distance and the Blazers winning. (He’s shot over 33% four times; the Blazers are 1-3 in those games.) But over the long haul, that will be an Achilles heel.
For reference, the Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless duo shot 35.3% and 33.0% for their Blazers careers, respectively. Covington and Jones, Jr. need to exceed that. This is true no matter how good their defense is. Let’s face it, they’ll help, but even they won’t turn this team into a defensive powerhouse. There are too many holes, as constructed. They need to make the defense better (check, so far...at least in the last few games) and not become bad options on offense. Jones, Jr. will be able to run the baseline, but if he can’t also hit deep, a playoff opponent will take that away. Covington is going to be open at the arc. He has to hit.
Right now Covington and Jones, Jr. are at 34.1% and 30.4%, respectively. That’s lower than their predecessors. Even if Covington gets 2 steals per game and Jones, Jr. soars through the lane like my heart at the mere sight of Princess Jasmine and her TOTALLY AWESOME TIGER, they gotta fix the shooting.
Cheesecake, Princess Jasmine, and the Blazers. We can hang it up now. This is the perfect post.
Dia: Disney princesses and comfort food. The fact that we can work these things in shows great skill in my humble opinion. I feel a little bit like Covington and Jones Jr. were the bandaid over an injury that actually needs stitches. They’re holding us together but if we don’t start to pull it together, we are going to have bigger issues down the road. We needed immediate help on defense and we got that in these guys. Their offense needs to step up, like you pointed out, but here’s where the unicorns come back around— I would bet on the fact that it will. I think we are going to see them come into their own, find their way with this team and, just like we have seen before, become even better players. Should I throw in a “Friends” reference? The one where the Blazers win the championship? I think now we really have the perfect post.
Dave: Not Friends... My Little Pony! Ok, so the Blazers always had great relationships with each other, like Applejack and Rainbow Dash eventually did, but they were never quite able to defend the pony paradise because their team wasn’t complete. But with this season’s new additions... eh, you get the idea.
That said, Captain SoarsAlot and The Defensive Stallion better be hitting their threes, otherwise those shiny new friendship marks are going to become demerits.
Last question. Has what you’ve seen so far from Covington and Jones, Jr. given you confidence in the only thing that matters—Portland’s ability to progress in the playoffs—or do you need to see more? Or do you think the team still NEEDS more, either from other players they already have or even more additions?
Dia: You lost me at Pony Paradise.
I know where you’re going with this, and I really sometimes wonder if I’m genuinely this positive or if I’m actually delusional. But truthfully, I think we have the pieces we need. It’s just a matter of getting them to fit together properly so we can see the big picture and that beautiful trophy and diamond-encrusted rings that come with it. This team has skill and heart. Adding Covington and Jones Jr. made us stronger, there’s no doubt in my mind. Now we need it all to come together like I know it can. Me, my Rose colored glasses, and unicorns are waiting, glass half full.
What about you, dear readers? What difference do you perceive with Covington and Jones, Jr, on board? Share your thoughts and aspirations below!