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Quarter-Season Trail Blazers Awards: Best Defender

After 20 games, who is developing into Portland’s defensive stalwart?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers have hit the quarter mark of their 2021-22 NBA Season with a 10-10 record. Given expectations of improvement, that’s not terribly encouraging. But not all is dark and gloomy. Several Blazers players have shown bright spots over the first 20 games.

As is our tradition during Thanksgiving weekend, we want to honor those performances with our quarter-season awards. We’re going to run down five categories, offer players who might be considered prominent in each, and invite you to comment on your favorites and the reasoning behind your choice.

The next award up is Best Defender. Truly, given Portland’s performance so far, nobody should qualify for the honor except the final horn. That’s the only thing that stops Portland’s opponents from scoring. But the Blazers are adjusting to a new system and are, at least in moments, playing hard, so let’s advance some candidates.

The first is a hold-over from the Most Improved Player category: Nassir Little. This is the first season Little is playing in a relatively-secure rotational role. He’s still learning his way around the floor, opponents, and sets. He’s not always in the right position. The difference between him and nearly all his teammates is that even when he’s not in the correct spot, he still recovers and makes plays. That seemingly endless drive, combined with a bit of youthful moxie, gives Little an intangible quality that makes him stand out. Big blocks, big steals, big pressure...these are becoming Little’s hallmarks.

Larry Nance, Jr. was brought on as a highly-skilled utility big, capable of playing either the four or five positions. Just as critically, he’s capable of defending from either spot, with a small asterisk. He’s not a brilliant post defender in isolation, especially when matched up against big-bodied centers. In today’s NBA, those are few. In most other situations, Nance, Jr. acquits himself well. He’s lithe and mobile, qualities all but missing from Portland’s big-man corps. He doesn’t play the man as much as the spaces between men. That fits in nicely with Coach Chauncey Billups’ defensive designs, which require centers to move from above the arc to the rim, as well as switching across the key to help. Nance, Jr. may be the only Blazers big who both gets it and is able to fulfill those requirements. He doesn’t have the same motor as Little, but his persistence is evident. He resets on every play, no matter what happened on the last possession or what the scoreboard says. That intentional amnesia makes him seem lighter, and ultimately more effective, on the defensive end.

Jusuf Nurkic is the third candidate. He’s having more trouble than Nance, Jr. adapting on the defensive end. Former Coach Terry Stotts’ system was like elementary school for centers. They operated relatively independently of their guards, icing down into the lane on most screens, trying to delay penetration or stop it at the rim. Under Billups, Nurkic has to roam out to help his guards, coordinate with them, then also recover to catch drivers late when the defense doesn’t work. It’s a tall job, especially since the guards don’t help him much. Nurkic’s success has been spotty, a game-to-game affair. He’s not the defender the Blazers need with this lineup. When he gets frustrated, it’s evident in his play. But he makes this list because he goes out every night gamely giving it a try, also because he’s become a Hoover on the defensive glass, vacuuming up rebounds to the point that you just expect him to get every one. Effort gets a round of applause even when execution can’t.

Though nobody should win this award yet, Nance, Jr. combines the heart, mobility, and savvy of the other two in a recipe that works well enough. He’s going to walk away with the honor at the quarter-season mark.

Agree? Disagree? Comment below, and stay tuned for the rest of the awards coming soon!