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Is Trail Blazers’ Solid Defensive Start Sustainable?

David Blair/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

There’s been plenty of pleasant surprises for the Portland Trail Blazers on the offensive end. C.J. McCollum has been sensational, and the role players are all stepping up as well.

But Portland’s strong start to the season is actually more about the team’s solid defense. Portland was expected to have huge defensive problems with a Damian Lillard-McCollum pairing in the backcourt, but the team is ninth in defensive efficiency thus far, per NBA.com, one spot ahead of where the defense ended last season.

Of course, it’s only been five games. Can Portland actually be an above-average defensive team with McCollum and Lillard playing a ton of minutes together?

Portland’s defense relies almost entirely on forcing inefficient shots. Terry Stotts has his players defend in one of the most conservative systems in the league. The Blazers finished dead last in turnovers generated last season and is 23rd so far this year.

The trade-off is to keep defensive players in their lanes and force tough contested shots. So far, the Blazers’ results in that area have been mixed.

After allowing the second-fewest three-point attempts per game in the league last year, Portland has allowed the 11th-most this season. Stotts emphasizes running opponents off the line, and the Blazers haven’t been able to do that. The team has also seen opponents go to the foul line 29.6 times a game, fifth-most in the league.

Although Portland has been unable to run opponents off the line, the team has contested most shots. The Blazers have stayed in good position on defense and forced opponents to shoot over hands.

Teams are shooting just over 28 percent from deep against the Blazers, an impressive number. And when Portland does force teams to take mid-range jumpers, they’re shooting just 31.8 percent, which is the second-lowest mark in the league.

The effectiveness on defense starts with Al-Farouq Aminu, who’s the team’s best defender. Aminu was brought in to be a lockdown defender, and he’s shut down opposing wings so far. Through five games, the other team’s starting small forwards have combined to shoot 11-of-36. This isn’t all Aminu, and it features a few mediocre options, but it’s still an impressive number.

Aminu was at his best while hounding Gordon Hayward on Wednesday night. Every time he got Hayward, he forced him into a tough shot, and Utah’s best player shot just 7-of-20 on the night.

The interior starting duo of Meyers Leonard and Mason Plumlee has been as good as Stotts could’ve hoped. Leonard has come so far since his rookie season on both ends of the floor. He used to be absolutely lost in pick-and-roll defense. Now, watch him get a smart deflection on this Utah pick-and-roll:

Leonard made the right read after corralling the ball handler and forced a rare turnover. He’s learned how to use his length as a deterrent and has combined with Plumlee to form an above-average frontcourt defensive duo. Ed Davis has been solid off the bench as well.

With Stotts at the helm, the Blazers will likely manage to stay respectable on the defensive end for the floor. Still, the challenges of playing Lillard and McCollum together aren’t going away. Backcourts with size will give them trouble, and talented point guards are going to be a headache.

The early-season schedule has been kind to the Blazers, as it’s featured a still-recovering Jrue Holiday and a still-adjusting Raul Neto in two of the five games at point guard. Ricky Rubio, the starter in the second victory for Portland this year, is a very good player, but isn’t a great finisher at the rim.

Portland’s been carved up by the only great driving point guard it’s played in Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe tallied 55 points in his two games against the Blazers, both Suns victories.

Lillard doesn’t handle strong point guards well, and although Plumlee and Leonard have been solid, neither is Rudy Gobert at the rim. There just isn’t enough resistance for point guards taking the ball to the hoop, like on this Bledsoe drive:

Lillard got torched on a simple drive to the rim. Plumlee came over to help, but Bledsoe already had a head of steam heading to the basket and ultimately got his body in between Plumlee and the ball.

Strong guards like this are going to give Portland issues, and the team really doesn’t have the personnel to stop that. Getting Gerald Henderson back will help, but McCollum has been so dynamic offensively, it’ll be tough to sit him. And if he’s going to continue playing with Lillard, there’s a very small margin of error for Portland.

So while it’s unlikely Portland will continue to be a top 10 defensive team, it does seem like Stotts has the personnel to keep them out of the bottom of the league on that end. And considering the concerns coming into the season, Blazers fans should consider that a victory.

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