PORTLAND, Ore. — Among the most surprising storylines of the young NBA season is the Portland Trail Blazers' transformation from one of the NBA's worst defensive teams into one of its best.
Take a look at the defensive rating for the Blazers the past three seasons:
2015-16: 20th (105.6)
2016-17: 21st (107.8)
2017-18: 3rd (99.2)
Defensive rating measures the amount of points a team allows per 100 possessions, so the lower the score, the better the defense. The Blazers are allowing about nine fewer points per 100 possessions this season, the third-best defensive improvement in the NBA this season.
Most improved defenses
Team 17-18 16-17 Diff.
Lakers 99.5 110.6 -11.1
Celtics 95.8 105.5 -9.7
Blazers 99.2 107.8 -8.6
Thunder 98.5 105.1 -6.6
Nuggets 104.4 110.5 -6.1
So, what gives? The Blazers talked all throughout training camp and during the preseason about focusing more on their defense. But that's nothing new. The Blazers, and just about every other NBA team, says that before the start of every season. What has allowed the Blazers to turn their talk into action this season?
Part of it is the Blazers' opening schedule of games. It has been a home-heavy schedule (nine of their first 13 games at the Moda Center), and the Blazers haven't played any of the NBA's best offensive teams yet.
Portland has played three teams ranked in the Top 10 on offense, the Raptors (3rd), Clippers (6th) and the Pacers (10th). The good news is the Blazers allowed only 99.7 points per game against those three teams, so they still played good defense, even against stellar offensive teams. The bad news is they lost two of those games. (Story continues below)
LISTEN TO KGW'S 3-ON-3 BLAZERS PODCAST
The Blazers have also benefited from playing seven of their 13 games against teams in the bottom half of the league offensively — the Thunder (17th), Grizzlies (18th), Nets (22nd), Suns (25th) twice, Jazz (27th) and Lakers (28th).
It will be interesting to see what happens when the Blazers have to take on one of the NBA's true offensive juggernauts, like the Warriors or Rockets, outside of the cozy confines of the Moda Center.
Blazers don't have a weak link
One reason the Blazers have been so good on defense is the roster doesn't have any weak links opponents can exploit. In seasons past, that wasn't the case. Whether it was Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Allen Crabbe or Mason Plumlee, all players who ranked among the worst defensive players in the NBA, opponents could easily find ineffective defensive players to attack.
That's not the case this season.
Four of the Blazers' five starters rank in the top 10 on defense among starting players at their positions. It has helped that two of the Blazers' biggest defensive liabilities, Crabbe and Plumlee, both of whom played major minutes for the Blazers while they were here, have been traded away. But an even more important development has been the improved defense of the Blazers' starting guards.
Last season, among 50 guards who started at least 50 games, McCollum ranked 35th and Lillard 39th. This season, among point guards who have started at least 10 games, Lillard ranks fifth. McCollum ranks seventh among shooting guards.
Every player in the Blazers' rotation ranks among the top 10 at their position.
Defensive rankings, by position
(At least 10 starts)
- Point guard: Lillard ranks 5th
- Shooting guard: McCollum ranks 7th
- Small forward: Maurice Harkless ranks 10th
- Power forward: No Blazers player has started 10 games at PF
- Center: Jusuf Nurkic ranks 4th
- Point guard: Shabazz Napier would rank 6th
- Shooting guard: Evan Turner would rank 2nd; Pat Connaughton would rank 3rd
- Small forward: Evan Turner would rank 3rd
- Power forward: Noah Vonleh would rank 1st; Al-Farouq Aminu would rank 2nd; Caleb Swanigan would rank 6th
- Center: Ed Davis would rank 8th
The Blazers are consistent (almost)
NBA defense is as much effort as it is talent, smarts and athleticism. The Blazers seem to be fully committed to being a good defensive team this season, and it's reflected in the consistency they show throughout the game.
Except for the second quarter.
For some reason, the Blazers have been terrible during the second quarter of games this season. It wasn't just against Toronto. The Blazers rank 24th in the NBA in defense in the second quarter.
Blazers defensive rating and NBA rank by quarter
- First quarter: 2nd (93.1)
- Second quarter: 24th (107.8)
- Third quarter: 5th (97.0)
- Fourth quarter: 3rd (96.3)
This means teams don't have many opportunities to take advantage of defensive lulls, because the Blazers rarely have them. They stay committed and on point most of the game. They just have to clean up that second quarter.
The Blazers also did not play well in their one overtime game on defense, ranking eighth out of the eight teams who have played overtime games this season, with a defensive rating of 175.1. Yikes.
Is Nurkic the key?
We've outlined a few reasons aside from Nurkic for the team's improvement in this article. So, it's not all about him. But it's hard to deny his impact.
The Blazers' defensive improvement didn't really start this season. It began last year after the team traded for Nurkic.
Portland traded one of the worst defensive centers in the NBA in Plumlee for one of the best. Nurkic ranks fourth among starting centers in defensive rating. Even though his blocks and steals are down this season, he still has a big impact on the team's defense.
The Blazers ranked last in the NBA in defense for most of the season last year, until they traded for Nurkic. During Nurkic's 20 games with the team last season, the Blazers improved to 7th in defense. Through 13 games this season, the Blazers rank 3rd on defense. That's 33 games, which is not a small sample size.
Can the Blazers keep it up? Nobody knows. They'll need to continue to emphasize it all season, and Lillard and McCollum will need to continue to demonstrate that they can be reliable defenders. But so far, the returns are promising.
Jared Cowley is a digital producer at KGW. Follow him on Twitter here.
© 2017 KGW-TV