The Portland Trail Blazers have different players, and different emphases, during the 2023-24 season than they have in years past. Not since 2006 have they experienced this kind of total reframing. Measuring progress in Year One of a rebuild is difficult. It’s always two steps forward, three-and-a-half back. But one Blazer’s Edge Reader has a question about structure and intent. Those issues take center stage in this edition of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
We’ve heard many players and [Head Coach Chauncey] Billups identify as a defensive team. That seems to be the focus and I’m not mad about it. This team is easier to watch than they were the last two years. At least they’re trying. My question is whether it will work. Can they get into the playoffs and a championship hunt was a primarily defensive identity?
The exact quote, as far as I understand it, is “A defensive team with great scorers.” The simplest answer to your question is that it remains to be seen whether either of those descriptions are true. If both bear out, then yes, that’s the exact recipe you want. Right now, though, they’re talking ideally. They’re trying to establish an identity, whether or not they live it out on a nightly basis.
I find the defensive approach compelling for a couple reasons. First, this team does have potentially good defenders. Jerami Grant and Matisse Thybulle are pretty well established as veterans, with Scoot Henderson, Toumani Camara, Jabari Walker, and Shaedon Sharpe all coming up behind. Which points out the second reason: the Blazers are in the developmental stage. Those young guys could go either way. Coach Billups is trying to imprint on them that, ultimately, defense will keep them on the court and the team successful.
Offense has a natural gravity; all of those players will want to shoot and score. The coach knows that defense has to be instilled or it won’t take hold. That’s why the emphasis with his young charges is critical.
Good defense is a necessary, proper base for the franchise and should be commended. The problem is, it’s not sufficient. Every player we just mentioned outside of Grant is either finding their way offensively or has bumped into clear limitations. Growing beyond those will be necessary if the Blazers are to flourish as a team.
It’s tempting to look at a player like Toumani Camara and say, “He’s going to stick, no matter what,” because of his defensive ability and eagerness. It’s true as far as it goes. But plenty of teams can boast defensive stoppers over which they’re hopeful. Usually those guys slot into the 7th-9th positions in the rotation. They’re also somewhat interchangeable. If you want one, you can pick one up.
The Blazers and their fans are hoping Camara develops into a good enough defender to stick in the starting lineup. If that happens, he’ll also need to develop consistent offense of some variety, a three-point shot or some other bankable scoring threat to keep him from being a total brick on offense. Otherwise opposing defenses will gain a natural advantage playing 5-on-4 against the rest of the team, limiting the advantage the Blazers get by playing him.
The same can be said, to a greater or lesser degree, of all Portland’s young players. The fewer scoring threats they field, the more pressure falls on their remaining offensive players. That’s why the “Great Scorers” part of their mantra also matters.
But where are those great scorers they keep referencing?
Currently one Portland player, Anfernee Simons, could claim to be a multi-level terror-in-waiting. He has the chops, the track record, the skills, and the stats to back it up. But notice that Simons is not among the potential defensive wizards we just listed. He’s one step down a path that the team dare not take: recruiting players with offensive or defensive ability, but not both. We all saw the results of that in the latter half of the Damian Lillard era. It didn’t work well.
Grant is a two-way player, but he’s a weird scorer. He’s a good off-ball three-point shooter. He also scores off the dribble, but he takes (and to his credit, hits) a lot of contested, twisting, multi-move shots. He’s not a dominant force like Kevin Durant, commanding a double-team every time he touches the ball. Opponents already figure they’re guarding him as well as possible. He’s just hitting tough attempts. You can’t scheme to defend that better. Thus on all but his most brilliant nights, opposing teams are going to live with the offense Grant produces. He’s not going to free up other players like a true, dominant scorer would.
Shaedon Sharpe has potential...he’s the great developmental hope on both sides of the floor. Deandre Ayton is streaky on both ends. Henderson doesn’t have a full offensive package yet and we don’t know what his final form will look like. Nobody else forecasts to be a great offensive player.
Add all of that up and it’s...something? But it’s far from a sure thing. We’re seeing why most every night the Blazers take the floor. They’re 29th in points scored per game despite ranking 16th in pace. The offense just isn’t there yet.
I truly believe that the defense-first approach is correct and that the Blazers, even in this early-growth form, have a legitimate chance to become a great defensive team. I love the roster in that sense.
I really wonder if, as currently constituted, they have the offensive firepower necessary to compete in this league. If not, they need to get some, because defense-only teams can’t win in this league anymore. The rules are too permissive, NBA offenses too overwhelming, to allow it.
Nobody’s going to shut down opponents on a nightly basis in 2024. Both teams are supposed to score like crazy, with good defense shaving the 5% off of the other team’s score that gives you an edge. If your team gives up that 5% to begin with because your offense is lousy, you don’t stand a chance. At best, your good defense puts you in a coin flip situation, and that’s on a good night.
The Blazers have a good start on a potential championship team with their collection of young, eager, hard-nosed defenders. We can see a clear road up the mountain from here, far better than we could if they sported a collection of no-defense-playing 20-point scorers. That’s a quick trip to Swamp Mediocrity.
But between here and that mountaintop lies a huge chasm, caused in large part by Portland’s offensive uncertainty. They’ll either need to bridge it by developing their current players well or fill it by drafting or trading for better scorers in the years to come. The caveat is, those scorers also have to pick up the defense, otherwise their draftees will carry them off the road.
Maybe the best way to put it right now is that Portland is headed in the right direction—the GPS is accurate, the travel plan well-thought-out—but they don’t have the gas or the horsepower to get very far along that trip yet. Either that or the rifle sight is aligned, but there’s no ammunition yet to actually reach the target.
Either way, it’s better than nothing, certainly better than having no clear path forward, which is where the Blazers found themselves over the last 2-3 years. But every NBA team is looking for those magical, offensively-skilled two-way players. How, or whether, Portland can produce them remains to be seen. Absent a magical Victor Wembanyama solution like the San Antonio Spurs lucked into, the Blazers will have to keep working hard to turn that road map into an actual excursion.
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