The Portland Trail Blazers have struggled through an 8-12 stretch after a hot, 10-4 start to the 2022-23 NBA Season. Defense is an oft-tabbed reason for the decline.
Gary Payton II is an apt defender and may be scheduled to make his debut for the Blazers this week. Blazers fans are excited about the possibilities, but should they be? That’s the subject of this edition of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
You’ve written at length about Gary Payton’s potential role when he joins the lineup in the next few weeks. But what do you think his impact will be? As in - “In an ideal world, here’s how the team’s effectiveness improves due to GP2’s presence”, and then, “Worst case scenario, here’s what happens when GP2 finally plays ...”
I’m asking specifically because my hope has been that having him on the floor would be transformative for our backcourt defense. You essentially couldn’t dribble the ball within 6 feet of him last spring. I’d love some of that in Portland. But you seem a little bearish on his potential impact on Portland’s results. Thoughts?
There’s a yes and no to this.
Payton will help Portland’s defense almost instantly. He carries a combination of attributes that nobody else on the team possesses singly. He’s a guard, an apt on-ball defender, and he’s experienced. Right now the Blazers are cobbling together backcourt defense with converted forwards and/or inexperienced players.
Head Coach Chauncey Billups will know he can call Gary Payton’s name in virtually any defensive situation involving a player 6’6 and under. He’ll know that player will be defended as well as possible, individually. Payton won’t be intimidated by the situation or the opposing player’s talent. He’ll be able to move around the floor, interrupt dribbles, force contested shots, deny the ball too. Payton is an aggressive defender. He can transform a play instead of just following it. That’s the main difference between him and everybody else on Portland’s roster...the intangible “it” that makes him special.
The Blazers just don’t have those qualities right now, even from their best defenders. Justise Winslow drawing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the deciding play of the December 19th Blazers-Thunder game was the perfect example. Winslow was the best defender Portland could field in that situation. Gilgeous-Alexander made a stab towards the basket that Winslow had to account for. He retreated half a step to cut off the lane. Before he could recover, Gilgeous-Alexander stepped back himself and shot an open baseline jumper for the win. Winslow was too slow, not experienced enough. Like many Portland defenders, he was able to follow the action and react to it [mostly] correctly but not dictate it.
If Gary Payton II had been healthy, he would have drawn the assignment against the opposing point guard. The result might not have been different, ultimately, but the Blazers would have had a better chance than the 6’6 Winslow did.
That’s a situational example, though. The best-case scenario for Payton. The worst-case requires a look at the overall picture rather than a specific play, tailored for Payton’s skills.
Payton’s potential negative impact centers around the question, “Who does he displace?” The Blazers field four likely candidates.
Damian Lillard needs to play fewer minutes. Anfernee Simons could be replaced for a few too. Taking either one of those players off the floor leaves Portland without a secondary ball-handler and playmaker. Payton can do a little of that—he’s not incompetent—but not much and not to the level of the starting guards. This isn’t the end of the world, but the team will lose something in addition to gaining something when Payton comes in.
Replacing Josh Hart is also a possibility, but Hart is defending better than any other player in this quartet and the improvement at small forward would be marginal.
Payton could also replace the minutes of Shaedon Sharpe. That would provide the most utility. But Sharpe is seen as the future of the franchise. If Payton displaces him, it won’t be for long.
Note that none of these scenarios is ideal. The question for Portland isn’t just benefit, but margin gained. They’ll get better with Payton in the lineup. How much, though?
This brings up the final question: is any one defender capable of solving Portland’s defensive issues? I would say, insofar as it’s possible for another player under 6’6 to have an impact on this already-small roster, Payton is the guy to do it. We could start looking at the league’s premium defenders for an even more striking effect, but the Blazers probably couldn’t get those guys.
But Portland needs more than just backcourt defense. That’s the most obvious gap, but not the only one. They don’t have intimidating, impact defenders at the big positions either. They don’t have shot blockers or lane-closers. Payton will make it harder for opposing dribblers to get the first step, but he doesn’t change what happens at the end of the play. Nor can he help Portland’s five-man rotation recover to the three-point arc when the ball goes back out.
The Blazers will require more than one defender to fix their woes. Improvement from Simons and Sharpe still matters. Finding the right spots for Hart and getting a game-changing center on the defensive end might too. Payton might set Portland on the road to recovery, but he won’t be their cure-all. They also have to ask if they can augment or replace other players without the same cost Payton brings to the backcourt. That’s a huge key to improvement too.
For now, though, the hope is that Payton PLUS Winslow PLUS Little might equal enough defense to ,make Portland’s offense count, turning close games into more comfortable margins. It’s a significant step in the right direction. Payton could also help immeasurably in the right playoffs matchup. They’re going to need more than just one guard to complete the journey, though. Let’s see what they have in store after Payton returns.
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