The Portland Trail Blazers are off to a somewhat-expected, but still semi-disappointing, 3-8 start to their 2023-24 NBA season. Everyone knew Portland was entering a rebuilding phase after they traded Damian Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks over the summer. Watching the fallout is still painful.
Today we’re going to look beyond the reality that the Blazers are losing, exploring some of the reasons why and how. We’re going to use their own blueprint as the canvas.
Before the season started, the Blazers underlined several points of emphasis, aspects of the game on which they’d hang their season. Let’s see how they’re doing so far in the areas they identify as critical.
We’ll begin the day with the most-mentioned buzzword in Portland since 2016 or so: Defense. The Blazers have vowed to get better on the defensive end yet again. How are they doing?
Head Coach Chauncey Billups has vowed to emphasize defense from the ground up as his team grows into its next incarnation. The eye test will tell you that these new Blazers are covering more ground than their veteran predecessors. They’re putting their hearts into defending.
The Blazers are an impressive 9th in the league in defensive efficiency. That’s higher than they stood for most of the last decade. That said, the results are not consistent.
Portland is getting housed in the first quarter of most games. They rank 26th in the league in points allowed in the first period, at 30.9. After that, they slowly begin to reel in opponents. They’re middling in the second period, high-middle in the third, and rank first overall in fourth quarter points allowed with an impressive 23.4. That 7.5-point gap between the initial period and the last is Jekyll and Hyde material.
Several factors may come into play. The easiest explanation is that Portland’s starting lineup just isn’t that good defensively. Allowing the opponent early leads enables the opposition to coast through the later stages of the game, playing more reserves. That makes Portland’s defense look stronger, though it’s not in actuality.
Young legs could also offer an explanation. The Blazers keep going in the late quarters as other teams tire.
Once the initial starting shift is over, Coach Billups has shown a willingness to play (and even start for the second half) whomever is helping most. Portland’s bench players tend to be stronger defenders than the starters. The second-unit getting extended minutes may help explain why Portland’s defense gets stronger as the game goes along.
A deeper look into percentage stats tends to confirm that the initial impression—they’re not that good at defense—holds true.
For a supposedly-efficient defensive team, the Blazers give up a high field goal percentage: 47.9%, good for 22nd in the league. Two huge holes in the defense contribute. Portland ranks 28th in points in the paint given up with 57.5 per game, 30th out of 30 in fastbreak points allowed with 18.0. Portland gives up the kind of shots other teams have trouble missing.
The counterbalance to that is Portland’s 32.3% three-point percentage allowed, second in the league overall. That said, opponents are only attempting 31.3 triples per game against the Blazers. Portland might be so good defending the arc that opponents can’t even get shots off. Alternately, opponents might be feasting on the easier attempts just mentioned, leading them to forego three-pointers in favor of near-automatic twos.
Either way, the bright spot at the arc is not enough to outweigh the torrent of points being scored everywhere else. The Blazers appear decent, giving up 111.7 points per game, 12th overall. But they’re 24th overall in pace of play. If the pace ranking were closer to the points per game, the nice ranking would seem more solid. As it is, one suspects that the Blazers are “cheating” points off of the opponent tally by playing somewhat slower, yet still giving up a raft of fast break points and dunks, only mustering a middling ranking as a result.
Long story short, the Blazers do look better—or at least more active—on defense in several areas in the early season, but they’re a long way from proving actual defensive ability, let alone results.
Stay tuned for more analysis unfolding throughout the day!