The Portland Trail Blazers hold a 29-34 record after 63 games of the 2022-23 regular season, not exactly the spot they were hoping for. Defense is one of the main culprits cited for their poor performance. The Blazers are 26th in the NBA in field goal percentage allowed, 23rd in three-point percentage allowed, and 27th in defensive efficiency.
That’s not good.
Today we’re catching up on the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag, and a question that addresses exactly that.
Each trade or acquisition has ostensibly had better defense in mind, yet the team still ranks near the bottom defensively. How can this be? One would think we would be at least somewhat better than this. What problem(s) do we have that many other teams apparently do not? Injuries? Youth? Roster construction? Continuity? Effort? Coaching? Dame? All of the above?
Hoping you can clarify for the untutored masses,
Pick one from Column A, one from Column B.
Let’s start with the obvious one: height. The Blazers were never big. Their roster contains exactly three players above 6’9. Two of those don’t play, as they’re on two-way contracts. Jusuf Nurkic is the only regular contributor anywhere near 7 feet.
Nurkic hasn’t played since February 3rd and is only averaging 27 minutes per game when he does suit up. That leaves 6’9 Drew Eubanks manning the middle for extended stretches. He’s upped his game, especially blocking shots, but he can’t handle 7-footers and he’s playing less than 20 minutes per anyway.
After that, things get sketchy. The Blazers go small, with Trendon Watford (6’9), Jerami Grant (6’8), and Cam Reddish (6’8) as the biggest men on the court. Technically, those could be small forward heights. None of them are anything close to a true center.
Portland tries to solve this in two ways.
They run zone defenses, where players guard an area instead of a man. This allows them to collapse into the lane when opponents go inside, but they still don’t have convincing stoppers to impact the end of the play. The secret sauce is number of bodies, not quality of defender. It works, but at a cost. If the opponent on whom the Blazers collapse can pass even slightly, those extra defenders can’t get back out to the three-point arc to cover open shooters. When shots miss, players are clumped around the shooter instead of spread across the lane to grab the rebound, leading to easy put-backs for opponents.
When Portland runs a man-to-man, they try to switch whenever they get into trouble. On screen plays, defenders don’t try to stay with their original men. Instead Player A picks up Player B’s assignment and vice-versa. This allows them to stay close to opposing scorers. But again, to what end? Proximity doesn’t make them inherently better end-of-play defenders. Also, wise opponents track Damian Lillard and pull him into screens with scoring forwards, who then go down into the lane. That leaves Portland’s 6’2 point guard defending a 6’8, bulky, offensively-apt opponent. Dame is really good stopping opposing guards in the post, but that kind of assignment is too much.
Getting Nurkic back would help, but even then the benefit has limits. It speaks less about Nurkic’s prowess, more about how even an average center helps in this complete height nightmare.
Nurk is pretty good right at the rim, especially when he has time to track the play. But when guards let dribblers through too quickly, Nurkic isn’t going to stop them. Nor is he quick enough to close out at the three-point arc. Portland’s defense will get better with him on the floor, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be good.
Nor is Nurkic the only gap in the lineup. The Blazers came into the season with Justise Winslow defending three positions on the regular. He’s played in only 29 games. Gary Payton II was the Big Solution to the guards’ defensive problems. You know how that story went. Nassir Little had shown aptitude as a big-splash defender in seasons past. Evidently Head Coach Chauncey Billups doesn’t trust him more than the 17 minutes per game over 42 appearances he’s gotten.
Speaking of guards, Anfernee Simons has not been able to step up defensively. He didn’t have to be all-world, just better than his predecessor, CJ McCollum. Despite his athleticism, that hasn’t happened. Rookie Shaedon Sharpe hadn’t played organized ball at a high level before this season. Defense will be the last aspect of his game to develop, and it hasn’t come close yet. His court recognition just isn’t there, nor individual instinct.
The Blazers have acquired young, quick athletes at the wing positions to try and remedy the situation. Cam Reddish has nice quick-twitch and movement ability. Matisse Thybulle is a proven defender who, like Payton, is noticeably different from teammates the second he steps on the floor.
Two players aren’t enough to cover a five-man job, though. And their potentially-positive effect is going to be nerfed a bit by their newness. Defense takes coordination, trust, and enough experience to be able to anticipate what your team is going to need as you all react against a vacillating offense. Players often take weeks or months to get comfortable with each other. Becoming a well-oiled, seldom-failing machine takes even longer. Between the injuries, trades, rotation changes, inexperienced players, and schedule demands, the Blazers aren’t even close to that.
We don’t know what Coach Billups’ defensive ideal would be, but it’s dead certain that he can’t implement it under these conditions. In fact, you could almost watch the wishlist get pared down as the season progressed: changes between zone and man defense with wrinkles and stunts became heavy doses of zone alone, then a man-to-man that wilted like cotton candy in the ocean, and now just switching and praying. It’s like watching a teacher open a calculus book on Day 1 of class, then returning four months later to find him teaching basic mathematics to class that’s half full anyway.
If there’s an indictment of the coach, it’s that it appears that, at this point, the players aren’t really trying (outside of a couple obvious exceptions). It feels like the team has accepted the defensive malaise and just wants to score enough to rise above it. That’s not going to work, particularly when the same players that you insert to help the defense also limit your offense.
And therein lies the rub. Of the 12 players at the top of Portland’s rotation by minutes played—either presently or pre-trade—we’ve mentioned some kind of issue with 9 of them. Only two—Jerami Grant and Josh Hart—could make claim to being bona fide, experienced two-way players. Even then, Hart’s offense went bonk this season and he got traded. Everyone besides those two falls into one of three categories: scoring star (without as much defense), defensive specialist, or average role-player who really does neither in a standout fashion. The next players up to break that mold are too young to know about yet.
This leaves the Blazers choosing between offense and defense instead of producing both at the same time. The only out is gambling on the ups and downs of youngsters, who give both or neither depending on the day. It’s been a moot point anyway, because injuries haven’t allowed them to choose. They’ve just had to throw players into the rotation and hope for the best.
Had Portland’s roster remained healthy all season, we might have experienced something different. I don’t think they would have been great, but it would have been better than we’ve seen. That’s water under the bridge and past the cascade of the trade deadline now. Even if they get their players back, 19 games (soon to be 18) isn’t a ton of time to integrate and reverse course. And the playoffs are a bad place to try and learn how to defend.
No doubt the front office will look at this situation over the summer and reevaluate. Adding more defensive names to the roster hasn’t improved Portland’s defense much overall. They’re going to need to address the lack of height and depth at the big positions, also make some choices about how many non-defending scorers they can live with. Until then, we’re going to have to suffer along with them for a while.