After another problematic outing Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Trail Blazers’ defensive rating is where it has been all season – 29th in the NBA.
The question all season has been simply, “Why?” Particularly since two solid defenders, Derrick Jones Jr. and Robert Covington, were added in the off-season and Jusuf Nurkic has been back in the lineup, albeit on a limited basis.
A commitment was made even before training camp to improve the defense. That just hasn’t happened.
It appears the team’s identity over the past few seasons has been built on its offense. And the result has been an efficient attack, often ranked among the top five in the league.
Defense, though, has seemed to be sacrificed to that end. For whatever reason, and in spite of all the rhetoric, it does not seem to be a priority. In an era where offense has taken center stage in the league, defense has become more difficult.
That means to play it well, it must be emphasized, practiced and become part of a team’s culture.
Norman Powell, who played for the Toronto Raptors’ second-ranked defense last season, spoke Tuesday night about the differences between the Raptors’ defense and Portland’s.
“I think we hung our hats on the defensive end in Toronto,” Powell said. “Nick Nurse and that coaching staff was really creative with different coverages, mixing it up.
“I like to say 'junking up' the game a little bit, you know, giving them different looks -- the offense having to second guess and think about what the coverages are… box and one, triangle and two, things like that.
“And guys are able to buy in at the defensive end, where it would lead to everybody being able to contribute at the offensive end. That’s just something that we’ve got to do here, you know.
“Not saying anything about the coverages, but just having that defensive mindset going into the game, being communicative and being tied together on a string. I thought those defensive teams in Toronto were really tied together and it's just something that we have to continue to do here.”
I’m not sure the Trail Blazer culture includes a defensive commitment that deep. And I’m not sure if that is a result of coaching emphasis or of players not willing to sacrifice an offensive emphasis for the largely thankless job of playing defense.
But this far into the season, it’s becoming obvious that the Trail Blazers aren’t “hanging their hats” on defense. And it’s keeping them from reaching their full potential.
Coach Terry Stotts has tinkered with gimmick defenses in the past but not often and, for the most part, Portland is very predictable in what it does at the defensive end.
There is the idea that their “clutch defense” – the last five minutes of close games – is one of the best in the league, but that’s deceiving in that, against the best teams, solid defense must be played a good share of the game or there will be no “clutch” situation at the end.
For now, though, there's another chance soon to show that Tuesday's game was a lesson learned. Portland meets the Jazz Thursday in Salt Lake City and will be facing the best team in the NBA.
What will the Trail Blazers hang their hats on vs. Utah?