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The Blazers Believe Their Best Defense Is More Offense

A move that may have raised eyebrows at the trade deadline may also raise Portland’s ceiling. Norman Powell’s arrival doubles down on a strength while adding a new layer to a Western contender.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

You know how when you think of Terry Stotts, you think of an aging-but-still-ass-kicking karate champion struggling to process his issues and adapt to the modern world? Of course you do; we all do. It’s all we can do to not think about it, if we’re being honest.

That comparison has felt even more appropriate over the past week, as the Trail Blazers head coach has worked to integrate Norman Powell—one of the most intriguing players moved at last Thursday’s NBA trade deadline—into a Portland lineup that already features two high-octane backcourt playmakers in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Why did a Blazers squad that already has the NBA’s fifth-best offense but is often undone by the league’s second-worst defense swing a deal for a 6-foot-3 swingman—two inches shorter than Gary Trent Jr., whom he’s replacing as Portland’s starting small forward (though Powell does have a two-inch edge in wingspan)—who has quietly developed into one of the league’s most efficient scoring threats? Was that the optimal move for these Blazers, particularly when they might have been able to work themselves into the mix for Aaron Gordon, a Swiss Army knife power forward who has long seemed like a perfect fit in Portland, and who was on the market in the Magic’s everything-must-go fire sale?

Tell us, Sensei Stotts:

Since trading Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood for Powell, the Blazers are 3-0, scoring a blistering 120.1 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with him on the court heading into a tasty matchup against Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks on Friday night. And while they haven’t exactly poured in buckets against the most daunting slate of opponents—they’ve beaten the hollowed-out, post-deadline Magic; the free-falling Raptors without Kyle Lowry; and the cellar-dwelling Pistons—what they have accomplished both underscores the rationale behind importing Powell and offers optimism about how much more dangerous his arrival could make the Blazers, currently sitting sixth in the West, come the postseason.

As you might expect when going from an injury-wracked team that needed him to score in bunches to one led by two All-Star-caliber backcourt playmakers, Powell is seeing the ball a bit less in Portland than he did in Toronto. His touches per game and time of possession are both down, according to NBA.com’s tracking data, and he’s averaging about five fewer shot attempts per 36 minutes of floor time. He’s been efficient in his opportunities, though, averaging 16.3 points in 32 minutes per game and shooting 7-for-12 from 3-point range with 17 free throw attempts in 96 minutes.

“The way the offense is set up, the way they move the ball and play off one another, it felt really easy to get into the flow and find different spots,” Powell told reporters after his Blazers debut last Friday. “So I think I fit perfectly into what they are doing.”

Just as importantly, Powell has already started to benefit Portland’s offense just by standing in the right spot and posing a threat. His former team, the Raptors, were reluctant to help off him in the corners in last week’s matchup, knowing full well how deadly a catch-and-shoot threat he is. That led to a handful of possessions where Powell’s defender—chiefly Trent Jr., the bright, young prospect he replaced in Portland—either didn’t help down to take away a roll or drive to the basket, or was a step late filling the lane, producing one-on-one opportunities that led to layups:

The Pistons, led by Powell’s former coach Dwane Casey, were more willing to sag off him in the corners, preferring to avoid conceding an easy rumble to the rim even if it meant gambling on leaving him open in the corner. Good thing, then, that the Blazers have an awfully skilled pair of centers in the just-returned Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter who can finish on the move:

Nurkic and Kanter are also adept at spraying the ball out to the perimeter on the short roll, which could make that sort of play even more dangerous. Take another look at how butt-naked-open Powell is in the corner the moment they make the catch and decide to go all the way to the rim:

You’re either dealing with a skilled big man taking a 60-plus percent look in the restricted area or Powell playing Pop-a-Shot from the corners, where he’s shooting 53.6 percent this season, fourth best in the league among players with at least 50 attempts. I believe the technical term for this is “picking your poison.”

Trent Jr. also helped space the floor, shooting 40.7 percent from 3-point range on more than 5.6 attempts per game over his final two seasons in Portland. What separates Powell though is that he also provides the ability to apply pressure by putting the ball on the floor. He can break down a defender off the bounce and get to the rim; he was taking 36 percent of his shots at the basket at the time of the trade, compared to 15 percent for Trent, and shooting 63 percent on those tries.

The handle, patience, and polish it takes to unlock a defense are all things that the 22-year-old Trent can develop over time, but they’re all things the 27-year-old Powell has in his bag now. Stotts has already started finding ways to take advantage of that, getting him on the move by dialing up sets that start with him sprinting out from the corner around staggered screens, then taking a pass that allows him to attack downhill with his strong right hand.

With the foot speed to gain separation and the strength to shield off his defender once he gets his shoulders past, Powell’s a good bet to get all the way to the rim on these looks. He missed a couple of bunnies here, but Powell converted more than 60 percent of his tries at the tin over his final three seasons in Toronto; Stotts should like his chances of reliably getting something good out of the action:

When Portland adds a wrinkle into the mix, Powell’s pre-snap motion can open things up on the back side of the play, too. Watch as McCollum matches Powell’s top-side cut with a mirror along the baseline, allowing him to pop free behind a Robert Covington screen for a catch-and-shoot 3:

Things will get even more interesting when Powell, Lillard, and McCollum all start screening for and cutting off of each other, especially when Portland also has a shooting or playmaking big in the game. Working the trio into off-ball actions will create migraines for defenders who know that they’re absolutely not supposed to let any of them get any daylight off the catch, but will have to come off at least a little bit to navigate all the traffic.

Even if the first two defenders handle it, if the third defender brought into the play isn’t up to the level of the screen, you know neither Dame nor CJ will hesitate to pull:

If you overplay Powell on the cut coming out of the corner, he can reverse field and back-cut along the baseline for a high-low feed and a layup (negated here by a whistle for an offensive foul on his hand-fighting with Trent Jr.):

Play it straight, and Powell can change course and become the screener, springing Dame or CJ to sprint to the ball for a dribble handoff—while still keeping the backdoor cut open:

You get the sense that Stotts is just scratching the surface of what the Blazers can do now that they’ve got a third three-level threat, one who already looks like a hand-in-glove fit in their scheme. “We haven’t had to go out of our way to try to make him fit,” Lillard told reporters after the win in Detroit. “He just fits into our team.”

Powell’s fitting in while helping out on defense too. So far Stotts has had no qualms about asking him to guard 1 through 4 on any given possession, and Powell has rewarded him with both positional stability and possession disruption: six steals, three blocks, and nine deflections in three games. Trent’s already a pretty good perimeter defender, and he has both the tools and the temperament to be an ace on that end in the future. The Blazers have wagered, though, that Powell’s physicality, versatility, and experience—he’s played nearly 5,300 more NBA minutes than Trent, including 62 more playoff games and a rotation role on the 2018-19 Raptors team that won the championship—might pay more immediate dividends. So far, so good.

The Blazers have outscored opponents by 34 points in Powell’s 96 minutes. The new starting lineup—Nurkic and Covington up front, flanked by Lillard, McCollum, and Powell—is plus-16 in 28 minutes, scoring like gangbusters and giving up less than a point per possession. Another benefit? After previously getting outscored when McCollum ran the show while Lillard rested—as they have for the last four seasons—the Blazers have thus far won the CJ-and-Norm-but-no-Dame minutes.

All the standard caveats apply: small sample size, crummy opposition, unsustainable shooting from complementary players, etc. But what we’ve seen through three games is exactly what Portland was banking on by trading for Powell: the ability to field lineups with legitimate shooting/scoring/playmaking threats all over the floor, to force defenses to make difficult decisions on every possession, and to inflict pain on them no matter which choice they make.

Whether that increased firepower alone will be enough to carry Portland in the postseason remains to be seen. It’s worth remembering that the last team to win the NBA championship without a top-15 defense was the 2000-01 Lakers; I’m not sure even the most fervent Blazers fan would be able to argue that Dame, CJ, and Norm are as potent a core now as Shaq and Kobe were then. Not without about a half-dozen Jägerbombs, anyway. (It’s also worth remembering, in fairness, that Nurkic—a significant positive contributor on defense throughout his career—just came back, and that the Blazers have defended at a top-five level with both him and Covington on the court.)

Then again, historical precedent might matter only so much in what has been the ultimate make-or-miss season, contested in an extremely weird, compressed, and pandemic-tilted context. This time around, maybe the best defense really is even more offense. And this time around, maybe the Blazers—with Lillard and McCollum at the peak of their powers, Nurkic back in the fold, and Powell now in tow—finally have what it takes to make the kind of championship run that Portland’s spent 44 years waiting to see.