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New Trail Blazers Face Old Defensive Questions

Portland has been trying to up their defensive game for years. Have they finally got the players to do it?

2022 NBA Finals - Practice and Media Availability Photo by Mercedes Oliver/NBAE via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers are knee deep in their preseason exhibition schedule as the journey towards the start of the 2022-23 regular season progresses apace. Optimism reigns at the start of a new year, with a new lineup and new potential configurations breathing life into what had become a fairly stale roster.

That same sense of newness also opens up questions for the Blazers that simply didn’t exist for the last decade when Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum remained pillars of constancy.

Over the next couple weeks, we’re going to examine some of those questions, particularly ones highlighted as important by Blazer’s Edge staff and readers.

In our inaugural post, we asked how Lillard would fare following abdominal surgery and his 32nd birthday. Next we talked about the arrival of starting power forward Jerami Grant, who operates in the territory between good and great, seemingly with a long-term lease, and explored the single gift Anfernee Simons needs to bring to the table in order to make a difference. We wondered whether the Blazers would ever find a stable, workable role for center Jusuf Nurkic. We also talked about the traffic jam at small forward and how the team might resolve it (or not).

Today we’re going to look at the issue that the Blazers have been trying to solve since time immemorial: defense. Portland had one or two seasons in the mid-2010’s at the high end of mediocre on the defensive end. Other than that, defense has been a liability. No matter how hard they tried, they just couldn’t put it together with Lillard and McCollum taking the floor. The guards couldn’t stop penetration or ball movement. The centers were either too slow to cover the ground left by their backcourt teammates, not good enough defenders to make a difference when they did, or both.

Every time Portland fired up the outboard engines and tried to streak towards contention, defense became the anchor, dragging across the bottom and slowing them down. The offense had to generate so much horsepower to make up the difference that there was no way to sustain momentum. Other boats were always faster.

This year, the Blazers have made three critical changes that they hope will reel in the anchor chain and let them finally pick up speed. McCollum is gone, replaced by Anfernee Simons in the starting lineup. Portland also acquired forward Jerami Grant and wing Gary Payton II during the off-season. They’re banking on this trio to spearhead the desperately-needed shift.

Changing of the Guard

Simons is more of an upgrade than a game-changer. In theory, that might be enough. The Blazers had eight years of the Dame-CJ backcourt. They tried every configuration imaginable around their stars. They changed styles of play and schemes. They ran the experiment into the ground, well past the point of exhaustion. When they traded McCollum, they knew for a fact that nothing was going to close the defensive loopholes those two guards brought to the floor.

Simons may not be any better. He’s taller and more athletic than McCollum, but whether he can get after it on defense remains to be seen. For now, any chance is better than no chance at all. If Simons can end up average, even, the team would be ahead.

There’s a good possibility Simons won’t, however. Josh Hart isn’t an all-world defender, but he’s clearly better than Simons at this stage of the game. The fear is that removing a second ball-handling scorer from the lineup would leave defenses able to key on Lillard, so Portland will still take Simons’ question-mark defense over Hart’s period. Truthfully, they need an exclamation point. They don’t have that player yet, though.

If Simons doesn’t prove superior to McCollum on the defensive end, Portland will be left in the same situation as before, depending on their guards to score more than 20 apiece in order to keep up with the constant leak of points on the other end. That’s not likely to turn out better in the new calendar year than it did in the old.

Forward Progress

The Blazers do sport a couple aces in the hole this theory, at least. Grant is a good defender, younger and more spry than any of the veterans the Blazers have plugged into the power forward position since Al-Farouq Aminu was new. Payton is hard-nosed and tenacious. He never gives up on a play. He can, in theory, defend three positions.

Though Portland got them at a discount, both Payton and Grant were valued. This will be the first time in recent memory that the Blazers aren’t trying to resolve their defensive problems on the cheap with veteran specialists. They got real players, in or near their prime, to turn this around.

Here’s the hitch. Grant isn’t Draymond Green, or even Khris Middleton. He’s not going to come out in a blazing streak, providing a rallying point for his team on the defensive end. He can’t turn a game by himself defensively. Neither can Payton. Either can take a tough defensive assignment and look good. Both of them are solid, sustainable defenders overall when locked in with teammates. But you can’t just wave a magic Grant/Payton wand over the court and make everything better. They aren’t elite defenders.

That whole “linking with teammates” thing brings up the main issue: a defensive chain is only as good as its weakest link. Neither Grant nor Payton will be that link, but those links still exist. “It ain’t gonna break at this position,” is not the same as, “It ain’t gonna break.”

The Blazers still field a pair of starting guards with questionable defense. Their center is a fine backstop but isn’t a lane-dominator, a shot blocker, or a guy you want out at the three-point arc closing on threes and having to recover on screens. Two really good forwards still only comprise 40% of your players on the floor. Dam 40% of a river and all the water still gets through.

One of two things will need to happen for Portland to succeed defensively this season. Either their key players will need to get better across the board or Head Coach Chauncey Billups will have to find the magic scheme that turns this batch of mid-range ingredients into a five-star dish. Both are tall orders.

Failing that, the Blazers are still a big move away, at minimum, from getting the answer to their age-old question: if a good defender holds his ground, but the play happens around him, does he make a difference?