Much was made at the start of training camp about the Portland Trail Blazers and the tweaks coming to Terry Stotts’ Flow offense. The Blazers suffered last season in both 3-point shooting and assists, and the team said during Media Day that some of their success this season could rely on boosting ball movement on offense. Numbers support these concerns, but what has conveniently been left out of the conversation in Portland is just how much the Blazers might struggle on defense this year.
Departed is bench stalwart Ed Davis, who was not only a leader on the court but in the locker room. Davis is now a member of the Brooklyn Nets, and his minutes will be eaten up by Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, and Meyers Leonard. The bet for Stotts and GM Neil Olshey is that Collins is ready to fill Davis’ role, and perhaps expand upon it with better floor spacing on offense.
Collins has done the requisite public relations service to that end, talking up his added 20 pounds of muscle and explaining to media how much he is expecting to contribute on that side of the ball in Davis’ absence.
“Defensively I want to make sure every single night the team can count on me to guard whoever and to be at the rim every single time if one of our guys gets beat,” Collins recently told NBCSNW’s Jamie Hudson.
To his credit, Collins surprised just about everyone with his defensive acumen last year. Blazers fans may have overinflated his value over the course of the season, but for a rookie big man Collins showed an innate sense of defensive vision and rotational ability. He was caught out from time-to-time, as you would expect for any freshman, but Collins showed real promise during minutes with Davis.
Yet the reality for Collins is that he was paired with Davis in 2017-18 for a reason, with Davis acting as the true rim defender as the Gonzaga product roamed. Collins always had Davis as a safety net, and rotationally he was free to create havoc against opposing offenders in the paint.
Therein lies the problem with relying on Collins to make a leap this season in Portland.
It’s no hyperbole that Stotts played Collins and Davis almost exclusively together a season ago. The two were part of Portland‘s best defensive lineups, with Collins never playing meaningful minutes that resulted in an acceptable defensive result without Davis, according to five man lineup data gathered from NBA.com.
That’s a huge weight on Collins’ shoulders this year. It’s also a lot to think about contextually when it comes to the gamble Olshey made in deference to ducking Davis and his potential luxury tax hit. There’s no doubt the front office genuinely believes Collins is ready for his role. But whether Collins can take the next step up is another thing altogether, added muscle or not.
For perspective, the Blazers finished eighth in the NBA in defensive rating last year, setting a record for the second-best season in Stotts’ career with the team. Portland's individual rankings when it came to important advanced statistics were middling, however. For example, the team allowed the 16th-best opponent percentage from the 3-point line. It was the same story when it came to opponent stats in the Four Factors.
Pouring over facts and figures is somewhat boring. Defense is notoriously more difficult to predict than offense based on statistics, and both individual and team metrics are somewhat unreliable. From an eye test standpoint, Portland will lean yet again on five players to anchor them against opposing offenses.
Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless, Nurkic, and now Collins are the core of Portland’s defensive lineup. Aminu and Turner stand as the Blazers best individual and team defenders, with each helping to rotate correctly more often than not. Nurkic is useful. Harkless and Collins, however, are larger question marks and could tip the scales as Portland tries to retain that Top 10 defensive ranking.
Harkless is still recovering from a knee injury suffered in spring, and stands as a huge variable on both sides of the ball for the Trail Blazers. At 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, Harkless gives Portland an athletic body that helps spell Turner in that wing defender role. As the team starts the season, his recovery could strain Stotts’ defensive rotations more that he might like.
The Blazers have certainly grown as a defensive team. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have turned into serviceable players on defense, but Portland suffers from the unenviable position of being top-heavy and its bench could be a real liability. It could get worse if Stotts is forced to play some of his younger players as a means to boost the offense. Any significant minutes for Nik Stauskas or Gary Trent Jr. will require some quick defensive adjustments from the coaching staff.
The real test on defense is for Collins to step into a position that will help the Blazers stay competitive without always having to outscore their opponents. There is already some worry that Portland won’t be able to do that, mind you, which is exactly why they have tried to install more ball movement on offense.
It’s more fun to watch what happens -- especially with this team and its stars -- on offense. The tweaks are coming, and they’re necessary. But Stotts, perhaps in some clichéd way, knows defense will be the thing that helps Portland win more games. It’s why the first practice of training camp, according to Collins, was focused roughly 75 percent on defense.
It’s also exactly what I’ll be watching closest all season long in Portland.