Among Portland Trail Blazers supporters, the overwhelming points of optimism entering 2022-23 focused on their offensive potential. Supernova star Damian Lillard, back from injury, was healthy. Anfernee Simons asserted himself during Lillard’s extended absence and the two looked ready to form a prolific backcourt tandem. Jerami Grant, whose offensive prowess has expanded in recent years, was acquired via trade over the summer. Josh Hart made strides as a member of two separate teams in 2021-22.
Visions of a playoff revival were presumably founded upon a top-10 offense and struggling, albeit workable, defensive unit. Through 12 games, the Blazers are 9-3 with a 6-1 road record. They’ve knocked off the Phoenix Suns twice, Denver Nuggets, Miami Heat, and New Orleans Pelicans. Lillard has missed five games. Simons, Grant, Justise Winslow, and Jusuf Nurkic have combined to miss six more. And yet, here is Portland, nipping on the heels of the 10-3 Utah Jazz for the West’s No. 1 seed.
There is no explosive offense fueling this fast start. The Blazers are 16th in offensive rating, and Lillard’s hiatus unsurprisingly factors in there. He and Simons are also still discerning how to maximize one another together. Head coach Chauncey Billups’ offensive scheme keeps Lillard off the ball considerably more than he was under previous lead man Terry Stotts. That requires adjustments as well.
To make up for this, Portland is smothering teams defensively. Following three consecutive years of finishing 27th or worse, this team finds itself sixth in defensive rating. Only once since 1998-1999 have the Blazers ranked this highly (2017-18, when they finished sixth). Further, according to Cleaning The Glass, they’re third in half-court defensive rating (90.5).
Over the past few seasons, and especially since general Joe Cronin replaced the ousted Neil Olshey last fall, the Blazers have stockpiled multifaceted wings, all of whom are contributing to this stifling defense. Throughout much of the Lillard Era, that’s been a glaring weak point of the roster. They lacked wing-sized scoring juice and defensive versatility to complement Lillard and his former longtime running mate, C.J. McCollum. It is why Grant was brought in.
In 2019, Portland made the Western Conference Finals, due in part to the quartet of Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, Evan Turner, and Rodney Hood. Four years prior, before Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles in early March, they were third in the West at 41-19, with the Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and Arron Afflalo trio playing a key role. Healthy forward depth has been integral to some of Portland’s most successful seasons with Lillard at the helm.
This year, the likes of Grant, Winslow, Hart, Shaedon Sharpe, Nassir Little, Trendon Watford, Jabari Walker, and Keon Johnson have all cast their fingerprints on the defense. The first five are the ones typically receiving rotation minutes when everyone suits up, but each player has had moments through the first three and a half weeks of the season, which speaks to the talent of the roster, even on the backend.
That eight-player grouping has allowed Portland to go small when it wishes and selectively deploy the centers, Nurkic and Drew Eubanks. On various occasions, the Blazers have elected to end games without either one out there. In their opening win of the season over the Sacramento Kings, Winslow closed at center and stymied All-Star Domantas Sabonis inside. This week, Winslow and Watford have served as the centers during crunch time in wins against the Heat, Pelicans, and Charlotte Hornets.
At any time, Portland can trot out four wings alongside Lillard or Simons. The entire team is physical, plays the gaps well in help, and operates bigger than their listed height, especially Hart and Winslow. Part of what’s flustering opposing offenses is the schematic flexibility these undersized lineups adhere to. Usually, small-ball opts to switch everything. That’s the Blazers’ most popular scheme, but they’ll throw out drop coverage or a zone.
According to Cleaning The Glass, in 160 possessions without Eubanks or Nurkic on the court, the Blazers tout a plus-12.6 net rating and 96.2 defensive rating. These quintets, led by a bunch of rangy, synergistic, brawny wings, fly around to cause havoc (93rd percentile turnover rate) and close off airspace.
The communications and off-ball rotations are highly impressive. They constantly talk, point, and move to cover for one another; Lillard is chief among those fulfilling the communicator role (similar to what D’Angelo Russell does with Minnesota). They’ll seamlessly switch to siphon off openings. They complicate post-ups on perceived mismatches. The guards embrace and initiate contact. The cohesion and attention to detail are stunningly vital.
They’re likely in line for some regression, given their deficiencies on the boards (19th percentile defensive rebounding rate) and beneficial shooting luck (45.3 percent effective field goal, 0th percentile). But these dudes are balling and are by no means merely thriving because of fortunes outside their control. The tape is a pleasure to watch.
When Nurkic or Eubanks is in the game, they’re playing lots of drop, often near the level of the screen. Nurkic is periodically showing or switching, but the foundation is for the point-of-attack defender to fight over and Nurkic to hover around the level of the screen. Whether it’s the corner or at the nail, they’re also prioritizing aggressive help in the gaps, even from the strong-side. Some defensive principles advise against this and suggest staying at home on the strongside; the Milwaukee Bucks and their league-best defense, for instance, practice such tenets.
The stunt-and-recovers, along with the backside rotations on tags, have been stellar. Note the connectivity on all these possessions. The entire lineup is operating harmonically to quell ball-screen actions. Opportunities for clean field goals are rare. The backline help behind Nurkic has drastically improved since last season. He’s not left on an island because someone, or someones, are around to support him.
Nurkic’s primary reinforcements are Winslow, Grant, and Hart, who all sit among the top five in minutes for Portland thus far. These are the pillars of the Blazers’ defense. They are tremendous.
Grant’s brought a blend of size, mobility, and length at the point of attack they’ve coveted for years. His activity as a weakside rim protection is as precise as it’s been since his final year with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2018-19. Opponents are shooting 8.1 percent worse than their average within six feet of the hoop when he’s the primary defender, according to NBA.com. His ground coverage in a multitude of roles is enhancing the defense. He’s excelling as an on-ball stopper, off-ball chaser, and interior helper, all at 6’8 with a 7’3 wingspan.
Winslow, after a few seasons of unfortunate injuries, is back to wide-ranging and menacing defense. He’s the Blazers’ fun-sized 5 of choice, has assumed assignments from point guard through center and is a tyrant in the passing and driving lanes, the last of which is a particularly critical job in this scheme. He curtails post-ups against bigs, treats his arms like windshield wipers to deter jumpers, and is nearly impossible to move off his spot. He and Hart are the Bash Bros. with their penchant for contact, either absorbing it or inflicting it.
Speaking of Hart: he just flat-out rocks. The dude’s a gamer. Despite his condensed frame, he whirls around screens rather gracefully. He’s a heady interior helper. Much like Winslow, his help in the gaps and ability to close out effectively is integral to the defense; both rank in the 69th percentile or better in steal rate. Playing the 3 alongside Lillard and Simons, Hart’s rebounding (99th percentile in defensive rebounding rate) and brawn negate the challenges his 6’5 stature conceivably present. He plays bigger than his size, which enables some of these small lineups to work properly.
Each well-traveled wing is a heartbeat of the NBA’s sixth-ranked defense.
To augment the services of those three, along with all the other forwards on the squad, Billups is diagramming lots of zone. According to Synergy, only Miami (18.4 percent) dials it up more commonly than the Blazers (14.4 percent). They’re the lone teams to eclipse 7.5 percent. Portland’s 0.828 points per possession surrendered is fifth league-wide (Miami is third at 0.777 PPP, by the way).
Offenses are bewildered by this 2-3 zone because they Blazers get tricky with it. Rather than keep Lillard above the break, which is where guards tend to be, they’ll send a pair of long-limbed wings to engulf decision-makers up top. Lillard, instead, plays one of the corners and directs orders to his teammates — he seems to lead these efforts, along with Winslow and Hart.
The alignments are fluid, too. Depending on where the ball is moving and where offensive options are stationed, they’ll rearrange positions on the fly. Nobody is static, and that can make it tough for opponents to gauge whether they’re seeing man or zone and how to attack it. But the Blazers always know and that’s all that matters for them.
Sometimes, they’ll toss out a zone for a possession, earn a stop and revert back to man-to-man. The diversity to toggle across all these coverages is a hallmark of their early prosperity. Facing gangly wings and a center bouncing between the ball and the rim, cracking the shell of the zone is an arduous endeavor for offenses. The Blazers dare teams to flip the court via skip passes, but that’s a risky proposition with sprawling, attentive defenders lurking.
If not for Utah’s 10-3 sprint out of the gates, the Blazers’ 9-3 start would be the feel-good surprise of the league’s opening month. The case can be made that the way their start materialized warrants the top spot, regardless. This defense is legit good. They’re comfortable in an array of concepts. They can alter the rotation and lineups for different matchups. They’re physical. They shrink the floor. They operate in unison.
Teams are shooting an unsustainably low 34 percent from midrange against them. They’re among the bottom 10 in opposing rim and three-point frequency. That’s not an ideal recipe for a top-10 defense, though offenses are already capitalizing beyond the arc at a 37.1 percent clip. Gary Payton II, a malleable defensive whiz on the perimeter, has yet to even play, too, and will help.
But the Blazers have wiggle room to fall from sixth overall and remain a good team. A Lillard-led offense, given his resurgence (29-5-5, 66 percent true shooting), is too lethal to sit south of league average, as is the surrounding personnel. An upswing there will help mitigate some defensive drop-off, if it occurs.
Right now, though, the Portland Trail Blazers, thanks to their assortment of fruitful schemes, are a defensive-minded bunch giving teams nightly fits. The ship may still be captained by a pair of offense-first guards, but these Blazers are playing a brand of hoops not seen in Lillard’s tenure. And it’s working about as well as possible.