The Portland Trail Blazers are currently sitting at 17-16 through the first quarter of the season and are hanging on to the 7th seed in the competitive western conference. Boasting elite offensive talent, scoring the basketball has not typically been a problem for Portland. Defense on the other hand, has been a regular struggle for the Blazers in recent years.
This season has been different thus far as the Blazers have struggled on offense and have been playing better defense than anybody expected from them.
One of the lesser talked about surprises of the new NBA season is that the Blazers currently rank 3rd in defensive rating allowing just 102.77 points per 100 possessions. Now will Portland remain a top-5 defensive team all season long? Maybe not. However, even being in the top half of the league would be a significant improvement. The numbers show a better defense, but the question remains, how?
The impact of Jusuf Nurkic at this point is impossible to deny. After the trade late last season it was quickly apparent that Nurkic would be a difference maker on defense. With Nurk on the floor last season the Blazers outscored opponents 9.6 points per 100 possessions and a fair amount of that change has to do with his defensive presence. The acquisition of Nurkic also brought the Blazers from being the worst ranked defense in the league to finishing the season ranked 22nd in the league, not good, but also not last.
I am by no means making an argument that Nurkic is an elite defender, but he is good, and that’s better than the Blazers had previously in their starting center. Nurkic is a good enough defender to be trusted to be a presence inside the paint. Not nearly as often are we seeing Portland send help to guard the paint leaving a perimeter player open, and that has been critical for the Blazers.
Nurkic being good enough to hold his own defensively has allowed the others to be more effective on their own assignments, which has arguably made the biggest difference.
Lillard and McCollum have also looked better on defense and deserve credit for their efforts as well. The engagement has been notably different from the two starting guards. Dame and C.J. have been better about fighting through screens, and playing the passing lanes well. Ultimately offering more effort on defense than we’ve come to expect.
33 games into the season it’s starting to look like Portland and their improved defense is for real. Which is exciting news for Blazer fans everywhere considering the questions that have surrounded Portland. Regarding whether building a team around Dame and C.J. was doable considering their overlapping deficiencies.
Time will tell whether the Blazers can keep this up as their schedule gets tougher as the season goes on and they have to play the offensive juggernauts of the league. However the Portland Trail Blazers and their fans couldn’t have asked for a better start to the season on the defensive end of the floor.