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Blazers bad defense: Result of injuries or a bigger problem?

The Blazers have not only been overcoming injuries the last couple weeks but also consistent poor defensive performances to stay in the thick of the playoff race.
Credit: AP
Enes Kanter, right, and Rodney Hood, background, will play key roles in helping the Portland Trail Blazers overcome the losses of Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Trail Blazers continue to stay afloat in a crowded Western Conference despite a roster that continues to be decimated by injuries. Going into Thursday night’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Blazers have been 4-4 in their eight games without center Jusuf Nurkic and 3-4 in their seven games without CJ McCollum. The team is 11-9 so far this year, just percentage points behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the 5th seed in the West.

The Blazers have not only been overcoming injuries the last couple weeks but also consistent poor defensive performances. That was the main point of discussion in this week’s episode of KGW’s 3-on-3 Blazers podcast, hosted by KGW sports anchor Orlando Sanchez, alongside KGW's Jared Cowley, Nate Hanson and Max Barr. (Story continues below)

LISTEN: KGW's 3-on-3 Blazers Podcast

Overall, on the season the Blazers rank 29th out of 30 teams in the NBA in defensive rating, which calculates a team’s defensive efficiency, measured by how many points they give up per 100 possessions. Typically, teams that compete for NBA championships rank in the top of half of the league in defensive rating, if not the top 10. And the Blazers made it known during the preseason, the expectation is to make a deep playoff run.

So, it’s clear that if Portland wants to reach their preseason goals, the defense needs to improve. But is the current bad defense attributable to injuries and the roster head coach Terry Stotts currently has to work with, especially considering the importance of Nurkic, as well as McCollum this season, to the defensive side of the ball? Or is there a bigger systemic problem for the Blazers’ defensive woes?

The data shows that at full strength, this Blazers roster is certainly capable of being a league-average defensive team. While the team ranked 25th in the NBA in defensive rating through the first 12 games of the season, when Nurkic and McCollum were healthy, there was a stretch during those 12 games that suggested the defense was getting better.

Portland was on a four-game winning streak before Nurkic broke his wrist against the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 14. During that winning streak, the Blazers ranked 14th in defensive rating.

So, was that a sign of the defense coming together or was it a hot streak the team won't be able to replicate? There’s no way of knowing right now because of the injuries the Blazers are having to play through, which in addition to McCollum and Nurkic now include All-Star point guard Damian Lillard and starting forward Derrick Jones Jr.

What we do know is that until the team gets fully healthy again, which may not be until the second half of the season in March, the Blazers are going to have to outscore teams. They’ve been able to do it enough so far to stay in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. If they can stay in the mix when Nurkic and McCollum return, then the focus will be on the team’s defense. The Blazers must regain the defensive competency they showed during the four-game winning streak to be a team that has a chance of living up to preseason expectations. If not, the end result will be another season in Lillard's prime that gets away from them.

CHIME IN! If you have a question about the Blazers that you'd like us to answer on the next podcast, email us at 3on3blazers@gmail.com or tweet your questions to Orlando SanchezNate HansonJared Cowley or Max Barr.

LISTEN: KGW's 3-on-3 Blazers Podcast