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NBA power rankings: Blazers' defense a glaring weakness early on

The defense and the poor early season play of Jusuf Nurkic are two areas where the Portland Trail Blazers must improve.
Credit: Ashley Landis
Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic (27) makes a pass during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers Monday, Dec 28, 2020, in Los Angeles.

PORTLAND, Ore. — After six games, the Portland Trail Blazers are 3-3 and the team's defense and the poor early season play of Jusuf Nurkic are two areas that must improve.

During the offseason, the Blazers focused on improving their defense, which ranked 27th last season. The front office acquired defense-first players like Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. and the coaching staff implemented a new defensive scheme to take advantage of its improved defensive personnel. But through the first six games, Portland ranks 28th in defensive rating.

Opponents are shooting well against Portland's defense, making 48.3% of their field goal attempts, which ranks 28th. And the Blazers are forcing only 13.8 turnovers per game, which ranks 24th.

The struggle of the team's starting center isn't helping the team's defense. Nurkic, the team's defensive linchpin, admitted coming into the season out of shape. Through the first six games, he's struggled to stay on the court and hasn't been effective when he's played.

Nurkic is averaging 9.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in just 24.3 minutes per game. In the past three seasons, Nurkic has averaged 15.1 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 27.1 minutes per game.

It's a far cry from what Nurkic showed in his return from injury last season, when he averaged 17.6 points, 10. 3 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.4 steals in 31.6 minutes per game in the Orlando bubble. To achieve their goals this season, the Blazers need Nurkic to return to form soon. (Story continues below)

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Here's a look at this week's batch of NBA power rankings and what pundits had to say about the Blazers:

ESPN: Blazers rank No. 12 (up 1)

What they wrote: It has been an up and down two weeks for the Blazers, but there wasn't much they could do about Sunday's game against the Warriors. After beating them in San Francisco two days earlier, they played Golden State again and watched Steph Curry go supernova with 62. The Blazers' bench is a question, particularly on the defensive end, with heavy minutes for Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter. But one thing that has been a bright spot to open the season is CJ McCollum's aggressive play. A notorious slow starter, McCollum has come out of the gates hot. — Royce Young

The Athletic: Blazers rank No. 15 (down 2)

What they wrote: Losing to Utah or the Clippers this season? Not a big deal. Beating the Lakers? That’s a great win. Torching Golden State? It’s happening a lot these days. Getting lit up for 62 by Steph Curry? It’s defensible because of his greatness, but that’s a bad loss by Portland because its defense is not very good right now. Everything is sloppy and this isn’t a squad built to force turnovers or get a lot of deflections. The Blazers still need time to gel like plenty of teams, but this effort to stop opponents from making shots is rough. — Zach Harper

NBA.com: Blazers rank No. 16 (up 4)

What they wrote: Just think: CJ McCollum (28.0 points per game) and Damian Lillard (26.3) are both in the top 10 in scoring, and they never get to play against the Blazers' defense. Before Stephen Curry got them for 62 on Sunday, Lillard (34 points) and McCollum (28) tore up the Warriors' defense two nights earlier. McCollum remains a mid-range assassin, but he's seen a big jump in the percentage of his shots that have come from beyond the arc (38% last season to 49% this season). He’s made 43% of his attempts and had one Lillard-esque, pull-up bomb on Friday. More 3-pointers are needed, because the Blazers' defense has now allowed two of the four highest scoring games of the season (McCollum has one of the other two) and ranks last in opponent field goal percentage in the paint (63.7%). The Blazers are home for 10 of their next 12 games, with only two one-game trips to Sacramento over the next 24 days. That stretch is pretty soft in regard to opponent strength as well, so if they fancy themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference, this is their time to rack up some wins. — John Schuhmann

CBS Sports: Blazers rank No. 11 (up 8)

What they wrote: Portland picked up an impressive win over the Lakers Monday and blew out the Warriors Friday, but suffered a bad loss to the Clippers and watched Steph Curry drop 62 points on them Sunday. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum continue to assert their dominance offensively, but they've been unable to get consistent help around them. The healthy return of Gary Trent Jr. and Carmelo Anthony should help in that department, but the defense is where the real strides need to be made. — Colin Ward-Henninger