After finishing the 2020-2021 season last year 29th in defensive rating, the Portland Trail Blazers sought to improve that side of the ball. With offensive studs Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and newly acquired via trade with Toronto Norman Powell, GM Neil Olshey started making his moves. Enes Kanter, Carmelo Anthony, Zach Collins, and Derrick Jones Jr were either traded or released, creating room for resigning Norman Powell, acquiring Larry Nance Jr, and signing Cody Zeller and Ben McLemore. While those names don’t jump off the paper, Olshey traded a net defensive rating of 112.5 to 104.2 with the new acquisitions. It also doesn’t hurt that Chauncey Billups, part of the best defensive team of the 2000s, was signed to be their coach this year as well.
Potentially lost in all of this was the comeback of Jusuf Nurkić. The team’s center, both by position and defense, was lost late in March 2019 with a gruesome leg injury. While he briefly appeared in the 2019-2020 season and played 37 games in last year’s season, many Blazers fans realized that The Bosnian Beast was not his usual self. However, with an entire offseason under his belt, and the NBA season back to some sense of normalcy, Nurk is back in full force with a 100 defensive rating.
As a team this year compared to last year, the Blazers have improved in almost every stat. The team is holding their opponents to fewer quality shots, which is evident by their decrease in opponent field goal percentage from 47.3% last year to 45.4% this year. The Blazers are also creating more turnovers while fouling less. This is made evident by their opponent’s turnover percentage (12.5% last year to 14.4% this year) and their free throw to field goal attempt rate (.258 to .212). Nurk and other fellow big men are also allowing fewer points in the paint (47.3 to 43.4), reduced second-chance points (13.8 to 10.7), as well as fewer offensive rebounds (26.9% to 22.7%).
Are the Blazers better defensively than last season? The answer is a resounding yes. Boiling all of the stats mentioned above into one, called Defensive Rating, you’ll see that the Blazers went from a 115.3 rating to a 106.3, from 29th to 16th in the league. You can directly correlate this to the offseason personnel moves, a fully healthy Nurkić, and the former point guard of possibly the best defensive team of the 2000’s as their coach, Chauncey Billups.