What’s going on with the Trail Blazers’ defense?
The Portland Trail Blazers they have lost four of their last six games, allowing some truly staggering point totals amid their futility. They don’t look sharp defensively. They look like a shadow of themselves at the start of the season, when it looked like they had turned a corner at that end of the court. This has led to many 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 getting more flak for the Blazers’ recent poor performance? Billups said something during a press conference last year that stuck with me. He said something to the effect of “It’s not my job to motivate the players. They should be motivated by now.” I think the Blazers could use some motivation. If it’s not Billups’ work, then whose is it? Part of that responsibility also falls on the shoulders of the team captains. But I always thought that motivation was an important part of training.
It is a valid question, at the root. Portland’s defense has slipped over the past month. These are some of the figures:
As you can see, the Blazers have fallen in almost every category. The only exception is allowed quick break points. To their credit they have made a marginal improvement there. They are still in the bottom third of that category.
During this period, the Blazers have made adjustments. They are defending the screens with Jusuf Nurkic in a different way than they did before. They are also helping from different positions, some adjustments coming from the opponent, others seem to be more permanent. They also aren’t playing as much in the zone as before, at least if my eyes are accurate.
These adjustments have not helped. In these conditions, it is worth questioning the coach.
But there’s one mitigating factor that should keep us from attributing Portland’s defensive lapse to Chauncey Billups alone: injuries. The missing players have created a waterfall that the team is having a hard time getting out of. I’m not sure any amount of training can make up for it at this point.
Portland’s starting lineup wasn’t built for defense first. Jerami Grant can defend. Josh Hart is game, albeit small as a forward. Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons are not defenders. Jusuf Nurkic has to be put in the right position to defend well, hence some of the defensive adjustments mentioned above. The Blazers have tried to squeeze every bit of their starters’ defense by simplifying Nurkic’s to-do list and limiting the space he has to cover on the floor. That seems fine to me. That was a major adjustment. But it’s not enough.
The bench was supposed to be Portland’s safety for its defensive woes. Their midrotation players are made to defend. Justise Winslow has been the best example, particularly early in the season. He is tasked with protecting four positions. Gary Payton II is a defensive hawk who can protect any player from point guard to forward. Nassir Little is a lanky and aggressive defender on any of the forward points and can defend opposing guards on occasion. In an emergency, there’s Keon Johnson’s glass. He has the instinct and athleticism to defend, if nothing else.
Now look at Portland’s disabled list. Johnson was sidelined with a hip injury between November 7 and December 4. He has played in Portland’s last seven games, but only three times has he earned 15 minutes or more. Winslow is out. Payton II is out. Little remains for the foreseeable future.
Winslow’s injury is recent. He played through November and December. In doing so, he became the “one man cure-all” solution to Portland’s mid-rotation talent drought AND his defensive woes. I like Justise Winslow. I think he’s done a great job in Portland. He is not equipped to handle that much responsibility. Few players on the NBA bench would be.
Functionally, the Blazers field their starters, then have to dive into a cadre of very young players, mostly forwards, some cut off other rosters. These players would make excellent 10-12 men. As main players off the bench, tasked with stopping opposing high-octane guards… wow. That’s just not going to happen.
The Blazers have to make up for it somehow. They do it by getting their starters to play more minutes. Doing so causes starter motors to fatigue faster, especially on long road trips. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak and the defensive effort worsens. Portland falls into a defensive spiral of shame that will take years of therapy to resolve.
It’s a good bet that Coach Billups would like to bench call 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 are not 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 a lot to prove this season on multiple fronts. But even if he was, he wouldn’t be showing up right now.
I hate to end multiple bags of mail the same way, but I’m going to urge here what I’ve urged on several others: wait and see. Give the team time to make another round of adjustments with a more complete roster. Let’s see how they do in early March, then again in 2023 NBA Playoffs against a target opponent that they are forced to defend in specific ways. We’ll know a lot more about this young rotation and its inexperienced coach after those events than we do now.
I bet, health permitting, the Blazers will get a little better on defense between now and spring. The playoffs will be the real acid test. Give them a chance to develop before making a strong judgment.
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