The Portland Trail Blazers have lost four of their last six games, allowing some truly astonishing point totals in the midst of their futility. They don’t seem crisp defensively. They look like a shadow of their early-season selves, when it appeared they had turned a corner on that end of the floor. This has given rise to plenty of questions regarding Portland’s defense in the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag, including this one.
What happened to the improved defense we saw earlier in the season and why isn’t Coach Billups taking more heat for the Blazers recent poor performance? Billups said something during a presser last year that stuck with me. He said something to the effect of “It’s not my job to motivate the players. They should already be motivated.” It looks to me like the Blazers could use some motivation. If it’s not Billups job then who’s is it? Some of that responsibility lies on the team captains shoulders too. But I always thought motivation was a big part of coaching.
It’s a valid question, at root. Portland’s defense has slipped over the past month. Here are some of the figures:
As you can see, the Blazers have fallen in almost every category. The lone exception is fast break points allowed. To their credit, they’ve made marginal improvement there. They’re still bottom-third in that category.
During this period, the Blazers have made adjustments. They’re defending screens with Jusuf Nurkic differently than they were before. They’re also helping from different positions, some adjustments coming by opponent, others seem to be more permanent. They’re not playing as much zone as they used to either, at least if my eyes are accurate.
These adjustments haven’t helped. Under these conditions, questioning the coach is merited.
But there’s one mitigating factor that should keep us from pinning Portland’s defensive slippage on Chauncey Billups alone: injuries. Missing players have created a cascade that the team is having a hard time working its way out of. I’m not sure any amount of coaching could compensate for it at the moment.
Portland’s starting lineup wasn’t built for defense first. Jerami Grant can defend. Josh Hart is game, though undersized at small forward. Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons aren’t defenders. Jusuf Nurkic has to be put in the right position in order to defend well, thus some of the defensive adjustments mentioned above. The Blazers have tried to squeeze every bit of defense out of their starters by simplifying Nurkic’s to-do list and liming the space he has to cover on the floor. Fair enough. That was an important adjustment. But it’s not sufficient.
The bench was supposed to be Portland’s fail-safe for their defensive woes. Their middle-rotation players are made to defend. Justise Winslow has been the prime example, particularly early in the season. He’s been tasked with guarding four positions. Gary Payton II is a defensive hawk who can guard any player between point guard and small forward. Nassir Little is a rangy, aggressive defender at either forward spot and can sometimes defend opposing shooting guards. In case of emergency, there’s the Keon Johnson glass. He has the instinct and athleticism to defend, at least.
Now look at Portland’s injury list. Johnson was out with a hip injury between November 7th and December 4th. He’s played in Portland’s last seven games but only three times did he earn 15 minutes or more. Winslow is out. Payton II remains out. Little is out for the foreseeable future.
Winslow’s injury is recent. He played through November and December. Doing so, he became the “one man cures all” solution to Portland’s mid-rotation talent drought AND their defensive issues. I like Justise Winslow. I think he’s done a great job in Portland. He’s not equipped to handle that much responsibility. Few NBA bench players would be.
Functionally, the Blazers field their starters, then have to dip into a cadre of very young players, mostly forwards, some cast-offs from other rosters. These players would make superb 10th-12th men. As primary players off the bench, tasked with stopping high-octane opposing guards...woof. That’s just not going to happen.
The Blazers have to compensate somehow. They do this by playing their starters longer minutes. As they do so, the starters fatigue quicker, particularly on extended road trips. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, and the defensive effort becomes worse. Portland falls into a defensive shame spiral that it’ll take years of therapy to sort out.
It’s a good bet Coach Billups would like to call down the bench for Payton or Little during the middle minutes of the game, keeping his starters closer to 30 minutes than 38. He can call all he wants. Those players aren’t coming. Summoning Trendon Watford, Drew Eubanks, and Shaedon Sharpe doesn’t have the same defensive effect. And there you go.
Chauncey Billiups may not be a good defensive coach. He has plenty to prove this season on multiple fronts. But even if he were, it wouldn’t be showing up right now.
I hate to end multiple Mailbags the same way, but I’m going to urge here what I’ve urged in several others: wait and see. Give the team time to make another set of adjustments with a fuller roster. Let’s see how they’re doing in early March, then again in the 2023 NBA Playoffs against a targeted opponent that they’re forced to defend in specific ways. We’ll know much more about this young rotation and their inexperienced coach after those events than we do now.
I’m betting that, health allowing, the Blazers get a bit better on defense between now and spring. The playoffs will be the real litmus test. Give them a chance to unfold before passing firm judgment.
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