The Portland Trail Blazers began this season with the stated purpose of improving their defense. Two solid defenders (Robert Covington and Derrick Jones) were added to the mix and the emphasis was said to be improving to at least the NBA average.
But talking about it is one thing. Doing it is quite another.
Which brings us to Sunday night’s Trail Blazer opponents, the New York Knicks.
The Knicks, perennial doormats of the league and a punchline for basketball jokes for years, will check into Moda Center with an 8-8 record. It took New York 32 games last season to post its eighth win.
A record built on much-improved defense -- again, something the Knicks have never been very good at doing.
More than that, the Knicks didn’t make any big-name free agent signings or major trades in the off-season. What they did do, however, is hire a coach known for his emphasis and knowledge of team defense in the NBA.
While the Trail Blazers were talking, the Knicks were doing -- with a lot of players previously known as mediocre or poor defenders.
Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers’ defensive rating is still just about where it always is -- No. 27 in the league.
And I’m pretty sure you could chalk these differences up to New York’s new coach, Tom Thibodeau -- who has made a career of coaching solid defense. And yes, I understand that Thibodeau has been shown to be a man who doesn’t have a long shelf life as a head coach, because he drives his players very hard. And I’m also guessing that it’s easier to get a no-star team with a losing tradition to make changes than it is to do so with the Trail Blazers.
But come on, this is ridiculous. There is some sort of happy medium here. No one expects the Trail Blazers to lead the league in defense. But No. 15 might get it done, considering the team’s offense.
And to add two solid defenders to this roster and to know that what’s still holding this team back from making a real playoff run is defense -- and still sit at No. 27?
That’s just not acceptable -- and the injuries don’t have anything to do with this. This is a problem with a defensive system and/or the level of its execution.
I’m not sure what is going on. Is this not being taught correctly? Is the proper emphasis being attached to its importance? Or is the team just turning its back on attempts to change?
I know that asking for change isn't good enough. Coaches often have to demand it, whether it alienates their players or not.
Sometimes I feel as if I’m the only one who is noticing this. The isolated games in which the defense has shown improvement have largely been against some of the worst teams in the league. All in all, there hasn’t been any measurable improvement.
What in the world is going on here?