PORTLAND, Ore. — The first week of the second half of the season has been similar to the first half for the Portland Trail Blazers. Bad Blazers defense and Damian Lillard heroics.
Lillard has been keeping the Blazers afloat all season. Portland's record — 23-16, with the ninth-most wins in the league — is better than it should be, considering the Blazers' negative point differential (-0.5) and estimated win percentage (.484 or a record of 19-20). The reason for that has been Lillard’s incredible play in the clutch, defined as the final five minutes of a game in which the score is within five points or fewer. Lillard leads the NBA in clutch points and is shooting 60.3% from the field, 53.3% from the 3-point line and 100% from the foul line in those minutes. Because of Lillard, the Blazers are 16-6 in clutch games this season. Only the Brooklyn Nets (17-7) have been better.
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Lillard has also helped the team win despite an abhorrent defense, which has been near league-worst all season. Somehow, it’s been even worse since the All-Star break. This season, Portland is allowing 116.4 points per 100 possessions, the second-worst mark in the NBA. But in the four games since the break, the Blazers are giving up 122.1 points per 100 possessions, the worst defensive rating in the league during that time. Portland's defense is bad on so many levels. The Blazers have multiple players that opposing teams target on defense. Players miss rotations. They don’t always close out with urgency. They’re often out of position.
It’s also true that the Blazers have been hit hard by injuries this season, including to Jusuf Nurkic, the player widely considered to be the team's best defender. Before CJ McCollum got hurt, he was having his best season defensively. McCollum ranks 20th in the NBA in defensive real plus-minus (DRPM). Nurkic, who is expected to be back in a week or two, ranks 39th overall. But since those two were hurt, the Blazers have only two players who play regular minutes rank in the top 100 of DRPM: Robert Covington, who ranks 50th and Derrick Jones Jr., who ranks 100th.
A look at where the rest of the Blazers rotation players rank in this defensive metric shows how much of an uphill climb it is for the Blazers to field an effective defense, especially without Nurkic and McCollum. The following ranks are out of 487 NBA players this season:
- Enes Kanter (198)
- Gary Trent Jr. (367)
- Carmelo Anthony (377)
- Harry Giles (381)
- Rodney Hood (386)
- Nassir Little (458)
- Damian Lillard (479)
- Anfernee Simons (487)
The hope that the Blazers and many of their fans have held to is the return of Nurkic. Since he arrived in Portland in 2017, the Blazers have generally been a good defense when he plays and a terrible defense when he doesn't. Over the past five seasons, the Blazers have allowed between 3.2 points and 7.2 fewer points per 100 possessions when Nurkic was on the court, according to Cleaning the Glass. Here’s a look:
- 2016-17: -3.2
- 2017-18: -5.1
- 2018-19: -5.5
- 2019-20: +10.4
- 2020-21: -7.2
Excluding the outlier data from the 2019-20 season, when Nurkic played only eight regular-season games, all in the bubble, the data makes it clear and it's worth repeating: when Nurkic plays, the defense is good. When he doesn’t, it’s not.
Before the Blazers traded for Nurkic in 2017, Portland ranked 26th in defensive rating. But in the 19 games Nurkic played after the All-Star break before he broke his leg, the Blazers ranked 10th in defensive rating. During the 2017-18 season, when Nurkic played a career-high 79 games, the Blazers ranked sixth in the NBA in defensive rating. The following season, Nurkic played 72 games and the Blazers ranked 16th.
And this season, in the 12 games Nurkic played before he was injured, the Blazers’ defense allowed 7.2 fewer points per 100 possessions. When Nurkic returns, the starting lineup of Lillard, McCollum, Jones Jr., Covington and Nurkic should be good defensively. For the season, that five-man lineup has a defensive rating of 107.5 in 188 minutes together. They should pick up right where they’ve left off or even improve on that number.
The Blazers will still need to find lineups featuring reserves that don’t hemorrhage points. As shown in the real plus-minus ratings, rotation players like Trent Jr., Anthony, Hood and Little all rate out as minus defenders this season. But the past five years dictate that once Nurkic returns to the Blazers' lineup, the defense should start to show notable improvement.
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