The Portland Trail Blazers brought in Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. this summer for one thing: Defense. Theoretically, both players provided an interesting dimension offensively; Covington was supposed to be a knockdown catch-and-shoot guy and Jones an ever-present lob threat. But those were just toppings on the defensive sundae.
We’re now halfway through season one with the two wings and the results offensively have been subpar (even with RoCo’s superb Monday night showing). But what about the defense? Have they made a positive difference in Portland on that end? Let’s dive into it.
If we start with team numbers, it hasn’t been a great start so far. The Blazers are ranked 28th in the league in defensive rating with a number of 115.7. That’s a good two points higher than the Washington Wizards, who have been absolutely atrocious on that end for the past two seasons. It’s also higher than the 114.3 number they posted just a year ago.
Those aren’t encouraging numbers, but they deserve a little context. The starting lineup currently features Covington, Jones, and three generally subpar defenders. Damian Lillard has never been particularly great on that end, Enes Kanter is one of the worst defensive bigs in the league, and while Gary Trent Jr. always tries hard, the numbers are not kind to him. (Seth Partnow and Jason Quick’s piece on Portland’s defense from last month does an excellent job tackling this issue.) Portland just doesn’t have a ton of stellar defenders.
Both Covington and Jones have been solid defensively. Let’s start with Covington. He’s 10th in the league at 1.6 steals per contest and fourth in deflections per game at 3.5. Trevor Ariza and Jusuf Nurkic were the only two Blazers who came close to that number last season. He would’ve easily been the best defender in Portland last year.
Block numbers are particularly intriguing to think about. Covington has averaged 1.2 blocks per game this season. That number has only gone up recently. Over the past 10 games he’s averaging 2.5 blocks per game. That more than his average from Houston, where he put up 2.2 per game as their center. He’s one of the best rim protectors in the league not just for his height, but among all players.
The advanced numbers back up his defensive impact as well. When Covington is on the court, the Blazers allow 7.2 fewer points per 100 possessions per Cleaning the Glass [subscription required]. That puts him in the 91st percentile among all players. The amount of possessions that end in a turnover with Covington on the floor also goes up 1.4% when he’s on the floor, which ranks in the 84th percentile.
Jones, Jr. has also been an overall positive for this team defensively. His numbers don’t look as impressive as Covington’s, but his impact is apparent.
Jones Jr. is currently averaging 0.8 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. He has a block rate right now of 2.1%, which is obscene for a wing. It puts him in the 98th percentile per Cleaning the Glass. He’s generally good at deterring opponents’ shots as well; teams have an effective field goal percentage that is 1.8% lower when he’s on the floor. Portland is also a better overall perimeter defense with Jones on the floor, with teams shooting 10.3% worse from three.
Put it all together with Jones and you have a team that gives up 4.1 points per 100 possessions less when he’s playing. Combine that with Covington’s numbers and you would seemingly have a recipe for at least an average defense in the NBA. So why are the Blazers still so bad as a team?
Well, this team is really light on good defenders. The main reason I wanted to show Covington’s and Jones’s defensive numbers is because they look fantastic compared to everyone else. Let’s focus on just the starters. Teams score 5.2 more points per 100 possessions when Lillard is on the court and shoot 1.8% better as well. He is by no means a great point-of-attack defender, and that’s fine because he makes up for that with incredible offense. But it really hurts this team defensively.
Next, let’s go to Kanter. Teams are scoring 2 points more per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor and shooting 2.6% better. That puts him in the 35th and 16th percentile for those two categories respectively. If you just watch him out there, he suddenly has two left feet whenever tasked with guarding anyone attacking the rim. It’s just difficult to watch.
Finally, let’s tackle the Gary Trent Jr. conundrum. Trent already has a reputation as a solid defender, but that doesn’t always hold true. His numbers are pretty meh, with teams scoring only 0.2 points per possession less and shooting 0.1% better (a negligible number). That’s good for the 51st and 48th percentile respectively, which isn’t that good.
Trent struggles with forcing turnovers, blocking shots, and getting boards. His block and steal rates of 0.3% and 1.1% rank in the 13th and 32nd percentile. His rebounding numbers of 2.2 per game and 2.5 per 36 minutes are very low for his position. He also ranks 709th out of 735 eligible players in DRAPM. Trent always plays hard on this end and has an energy matched by few, but energy doesn’t always equal positive results.
It’s not worth going over the bench players’ numbers because they’re all just really bad. The important thing is how this relates to Jones and Covington. Well, the truth is that both of these guys are better suited as help defenders rather than lockdown guys. Jones tries to do it by taking on the tougher assignments and letting RoCo go free safety, but that’s not what Jones does best. That means that they usually need at least one of two things: A solid point-of-attack defender or a defensive anchor in the paint. They have neither of those things right now.
The closest they got was with Nurkic and McCollum healthy. Nurkic started to get back in shape in January, posting the best defensive rating on the team. McCollum had the third-highest defensive rating on the team at 113.9. With Nurkic out on the floor, teams averaged 6.4 points less per 100 possessions. With McCollum, that number was 7.1. Lineups with Nurkic specifically were at least average on the court defensively.
When Covington and Jones had Nurkic and McCollum ready to help, they were able to at least be average defensively. McCollum became passable while Nurkic remained a good anchor that could propel Portland to average. But as Partnow noted to Quick, you can’t be average one moment and then a tire fire the next. You have to be either on another level offensively (which the Blazers have been at times this year) or be very good offensively with above average defense.
Overall, it’s just going to be a slog for Covington and Jones until Nurkic and McCollum get healthy. Even then, it probably won’t solve everything considering the Blazers were 26th in defensive rating before those two guys’ injuries. This team just doesn’t have all the pieces to be a good defensive team. Despite that, having Covington and Jones has still made them a little bit better.