After a fairly active offseason, there was renewed hope that the Portland Trail Blazers could put together a competent NBA defense. They traded for Robert Covington, one of those players that Blazers fans had been hoping for years that president of basketball operations Neil Olshey would pull the trigger on. They also signed Derrick Jones Jr., a player who is also known as a decent overall defender and above average team defender. Add those two into a lineup that features an anchor like Jusuf Nurkic and on paper you have the recipe for a decent defense.
Instead, Portland’s defense has regressed even more. Nurkic’s wrist injury back in January — and the subsequent two months missed because of it — didn’t help things. But even then it has not been what the team, or Blazers fans, have hoped for.
So what has been the cause of all these woes? How does Portland go from one of the worst defensive teams in the league to one of the worst in NBA history after theoretically getting more weapons?
Let’s start with the basic defensive numbers. As I mentioned above, the Blazers are statistically one of the worst defensive teams in NBA history. They are allowing 115.7 points per 100 possessions, which is the second worst mark in the league, just above the Sacramento Kings. It was as high 117.6 before their big wins these past two days.
Transition defense is one area where the Blazers have been pretty meh all year. Portland allows 14.2 fastbreak points per game, which is 27th among all NBA teams. Recently they’ve been especially bad, giving up 27.7 fastbreak points in their last three games. When you watch the Blazers defend in transition, you will find either a lack of care in regards to getting back or a lazy foul just to stop the break depending on who’s out there.
Teams thankfully aren’t just pouring in threes against Portland like they did last year. The Blazers still allow the highest three-point percentage from the corners, but teams aren’t hitting threes at the 38.2% clip overall that they hit last year against Portland. Instead, it’s at 36.9%, which is still 18th in the league, but a marked improvement from last season.
But the defense overall this year has still been bad. In terms of personnel, there’s one place you can look to find the biggest committers of defensive nonchalance: the backcourt. Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Anfernee Simons have all just been not great to bad this season. They are three players who have never been known for their defensive prowess, and that’s been especially true this season.
Per Dunks and Threes’ estimated plus-minus stat, Anfernee Simons is one of the worst defensive players in the league at -3.0 in defensive estimated plus-minus. Lillard isn’t that much better at -1.6, a number that’s bad even for players who carry such a heavy offensive burden (i.e. Trae Young, who is also at -1.6 in defensive EPM but has a reputation as a much worse defender). McCollum’s numbers are technically the best at -0.6, but that’s still not exactly an inspiring number.
DARKO, a box-score score projection system that is updated daily, is also unkind to these players. McCollum only sits at -0.1, which isn’t actually a horrid number. By DARKO’s standards, that puts him firmly somewhere around the mean for most NBA players. But Simons and Lillard’s numbers are bad at -1.6, which puts them among the 15 worst players in the league in that stat.
There is a slight caveat to Lillard’s numbers given his incredible offensive load. His usage rate of 30.9% is among the highest in the league, and in this offense he’s asked to almost always create something while having the ball in his hands. Sure, he has McCollum to theoretically assist on that end and now Norman Powell, but the bulk of the scoring responsibility still falls on Lillard’s shoulders.
That burden can be a lot for a smaller guard who’s not necessarily built to be even an average defender. Lillard’s build is compact, and his wingspan isn’t incredibly impressive. That makes it more difficult to contain defenders in general. Add that to his general energy-conserving attitude on defense, and you’re not going to get a good effort night in and night out from Lillard.
While the guards are the biggest area of concern defensively for the Blazers, there is one player who stands out as a sieve in particular: Carmelo Anthony. DARKO has Anthony at -2.3, which is by far the worst number on the Blazers and is also lowest in the league. EPM has him at Trae Young-level at -1.5.
He’s just bad and lazy on this end. Anthony is not quick enough to stay in front of anyone and he’s often late on rotations, pointing often to other teammates to make up for a mistake that he made. Anthony plays defense kind of like Lillard, except worse and without having the excuse of carrying an incredible offensive load. He’s just a clear negative on this end.
With all these clear negatives, are there any positives defensively to take away? Just a few. The first is that Nurkic has been pretty solid defensively in the limited minutes he’s played. DARKO has him at +2.5 in DPM, which is actually good for fourth in the league behind Rudy Gobert, Draymond Green, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He also comes in at +2.6 in defensive EPM, the 14th best mark in that stat.
Robert Covington has also been an overall boon to the Blazers defense. He is still a deflection god with a league-leading 224 this season and is averaging 1.5 steals and 1.2 blocks per contest. He’s at a solid 2.2 in DARKO DPM and 1.2 in defensive EPM. He’s by far the best team defender for Portland is arguably one of the few players who consistently gives a hoot defensively night in and night out.
The problem with having these two players as your most competent defenders is that both of them have serious limitations. Nurkic’s size is great for stopping people in the paint; it is not ideal when he’s forced to switch onto a player considerably faster than him, which is most guards and wings. And while Covington is an impressive team defender, he’s not a point-of-attack lockdown guy by any means. He’s not going to take LeBron James or Steph Curry on from halfcourt if they’re dribbling right at him and do particularly well. RoCo can help make the lives of players of those ilk more difficult, but that’s about it.
So where does the blame lie? It can be spread all across the organization. Blazers head coach Terry Stotts has not done much to install any confidence in his ability to coach a good defense. He often makes jarring decisions like playing Melo with Enes Kanter (a player who we didn’t even touch on because he’s not the biggest problem, but just know he’s also bad) together and going into a drop defense against incredible shooters (just watch Game 1 of the 2019 Western Conference Finals). He hasn’t exactly been an incredible defensive mind, and his voice seems to have grown even more stale this year.
Blame also falls on the front office. Olshey has never really put together a team where all the players complement one another defensively. He brings in guys on the fringes of helping, expecting them to serve as the panacea to all problems, but never makes the swing for a player that would truly make a difference, like a competent POA defender or a destructive frontcourt menace. Bringing in Covington and Jones Jr. didn’t solve anything; it just gave Portland guys who help in specific areas while never addressing the larger issues.
Speaking of players, some of the onus falls on them as well. Having guys like Lillard and Anthony loaf it on defense doesn’t exactly emit a winning defensive culture. Lillard has said numerous times himself that the team needs to come out with energy on the defensive end (despite being one of the biggest perpetrators of defensive indifference). We saw what happens when they decide to play hard against teams like they did against the Pacers and the Grizzlies (although having Simons hit nine threes against Indiana also helps). The more consistently this team plays 48 minutes with energy and focus, the better.
They’ve done that these past couple games. Before Tuesday and Wednesday, this team looked apathetic, dropping five games in a row before coming out and steamrolling these past two teams. They needed to do that because it showed that against fringe playoff competition, they know they can both a) play decent defense and b) still put up some of the best offensive numbers in the league. These last two games have shown they know how to do it when they absolutely need to.
But even then, I’m not 100% sure whether this week’s iteration of the Blazers is here to stay or if we’re just waiting for a reversion back to what it was before. That might make me a pessimist in regards to Portland, but the truth is they haven’t always inspired a ton of confidence. I really hope these past two games mean Portland has turned the corner, because what it was before was not pretty.