It’s no secret that the Portland Trail Blazers’ biggest issue over the last two seasons has been their defense, something that needs to be fixed in order to become championship contenders. Given Damian Lillard’s recent comments on the state of the team, it seems more likely than ever that big moves will be made to attempt to fix the Blazers’ defense heading into the 2021-22 season. There are potential additions the Blazers could make in free agency in order to improve their defensive ceiling during the off-season. However, for the sake of being realistic, only players that have a real shot of becoming a Blazer will be talked about, meaning no stars and no restricted free agents that are likely to have their offer sheet matched by their current team.
Noel is one of the biggest fish currently in the sea when it comes to defensive specialist big men. Noel spent last season splitting starting duties with Mitchell Robinson as a member of the New York Knicks, and averaged a massive total of 2.2 blocks per game in just 24.2 minutes. When looking at advanced metrics on the defensive end, you only see more evidence that supports Noel’s defensive expertise. He finished third in the league in defensive win shares, led the league in defensive box plus minus, and held his opponents to just 41.7% from less than 6 feet from the basket.
Although Noel excels in the paint, he’s not totally lost when it comes to guarding on the perimeter. When he is switched onto guards, he is passable at defending them in one on one, which is about all you can hope for in a big man against the crafty guards in today’s game, and his length allows him to get a contest on shots that smaller defenders wouldn’t have a chance at.
Noel would be the perfect backup center for Jusuf Nurkic for the Blazers. The Blazers have missed that real defensive anchor in the middle ever since Nurkic’s injury in 2019. Before that injury and its resulting setback, Nurkic was growing into one of the better defensive centers in the league. Noel could rejuvenate the Blazers’ defense and provide momentum shifting plays with blocks or defensive rebounds leading to opportunities in transition. Although this piece is about defense, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the offensive fit. Noel would be an amazing roll man for Lillard providing a lob threat in his rolls to the basket, and a big body in order for Lillard to get the space he needs off of screens.
Despite his small stature, standing only 6’1”, McConnell has made a name for himself as a scrappy defender. McConnell defends at an extremely high level and would be perfect in a reserve guard role backing up Lillard and McCollum. McConnell is, by all accounts, an irritant of a defender, averaging 1.9 steals per game last season, which was good for second in the league, finishing only below Jimmy Butler.
McConnell prides himself on annoying ball handlers throughout the game and is the type of player to get himself in the opponent’s head. He would give the Blazers’ defense another dynamic, as it has been a long time since the Blazers have had a real defensive minded player in any guard spot, starting or off the bench. His quick hands leading to deflections, partnered with Robert Covington’s ability to do the same, as the two finished first and second in total deflections last season, would allow for the Blazers to disrupt the opposing teams’ offense and could lead to fast break opportunities going the other way.
In the Blazers’ lineup, McConnell would also serve as a secondary playmaker, being able to cover the playmaking duties while Lillard sits or allow Lillard to work more off ball when the two share the court.
It’s tough to shake the mental image of Green getting torched by Trae Young the last time we saw him this season. However, Trae did that to everyone this post-season, so there is no knock on Danny Green to be had. Green was the third best perimeter defender on the 76ers last season, which sounds much worse than it actually is, as Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle are the two ahead of him and both may be top five perimeter defenders in the league.
Green is the stereotypical player when you think of the term 3-and-D role player, as his role is to guard the opponent’s best player, then sit in the corner and run off screens to get open for three. Green is a big two guard at 6’6” who is capable of playing and guarding the three due to his length and frame. He has made a name for himself as a defensive stopper, who historically excels when he has another elite defender to direct his assignment into, which the Blazers have in Robert Covington, one of the league’s premier help defenders.
Green would fit into a Blazers lineup seamlessly, as he could fit into the starting lineup next to both Lillard and McCollum in the three spot and could slide up to the two whenever one of the two starting guards sit. His defense at the guard-wing combo spot would allow him to be able to match up against the opposing teams’ best wing player and would enable the Blazers to be able to hide either Lillard or McCollum on a weaker offensive player. Green also could open the floor up more as one of the best shooters currently in the league.
Brown may be one of the most puzzling players in recent memory. He stands just 6’4” but was often seen playing as a center for the Nets late last season and into the playoffs, and he succeeded greatly in that role. Brown hangs his hat on defense and has turned himself into an incredibly scrappy and tenacious defender for his size. He can match up against players much taller than him, and he has been successful in those matchups often.
Brown can be slotted into almost any position on the court and would be an effective player at that position. His height suggests guard, but his play style suggests a forward who can play the five occasionally, and this combination has made him invaluable to the Nets’ success as a plug and play player who can easily be inserted into any lineup they needed him to fit with. He can guard whichever player he finds in front of him due to this unique combo of size and tenacity, with his small stature being enough to throw off many bigger offensive match-ups, and his size and wingspan being enough to overpower other guards.
With the Blazers, Brown would be a great addition to the bench unit, being able to play pretty much any position, and he could be inserted into almost any lineup the Blazers could dream up. He would be able to provide hustle plays with his gritty play, and that could lead to increased fast break chances. On offense, he would function as a slashing and cutting finisher who could also provide a lob threat for the Blazers.
Tucker had an excellent chance to showcase what he is capable of on the defensive end during the Milwaukee Bucks’ recent playoff run. Tucker guarded names like Jimmy Butler, Devin Booker, and Kevin Durant for roughly 93 minutes total this playoffs. When looking at Tucker’s head-to-head matchup against Durant specifically, there is a clear picture of defensive excellence. Kevin Durant had one of the great single series performances in NBA history against the Bucks, averaging 35.4 points on 49.7% from the field and 35.2% from three; however, when guarded primarily by Tucker, those numbers dropped significantly to 45.5% from the field and 30.8% from three. Tucker may have won that series for the Bucks, as his tenacious defense on Durant seemed to shift the momentum to the Bucks in Game Six.
Tucker is one of the best stoppers in the NBA currently, despite the fact that he is 36 years old. He still remains one of the only players that would be trusted to guard Kevin Durant one-on-one for long stretches at a time, and one of the only players that would actually be effective in doing so. His primary use comes at the four spot; however, he can play and guard three through five when necessary, and where he is matched up can easily be shifted based on who he is best suited to guard.
With the Blazers, Tucker would most likely come off the bench, but he could also start at the three next to Covington and Nurkic, and Tucker would serve as a secondary option for both when they take a seat as to not lose too much defense when they do. On offense, Tucker doesn’t provide much but is fairly reliable as a spot up shooter operating out of the corner, as he shoots 35.9% from three for his career.
I couldn’t, in good conscience, include Richardson on this list, despite the fact I think he’d be an amazing defensive fit in Portland. However, I couldn’t leave him off completely due to this fit, hence the honorable mention appearance. Richardson has a player option worth $11.6 million for next season, and I have a hard time seeing him declining that option, just because I don’t think he will get a contract worth more than the $11.6 million his player option is offering. Richardson had a great defensive season as a part of the Dallas Mavericks this past year and was one of the lone bright spots on a Mavericks team that finished 21st in defensive rating this past season.
If Richardson were to decline, he would fit perfectly as a backup two or maybe a starting three for Portland, as his 6’6” frame allows him to guard both guards and some smaller forwards. He would give the Blazers another option when it comes to guarding players like a Devin Booker or James Harden type, as the current game plan has been to throw historically less-than-great defenders like Lillard and McCollum to the wolves in match-ups like that. He would give the Blazers another body to throw at the elite guards and wings that populate the league, making it just that much more difficult for them to score against Portland.
How many of these players do you like? Would you add any to the list? Chime in below!