• The Portland Trail Blazers’ longest winning streak in franchise history was built on the back of defense. From February 14 to March 18, when they rung off 13 straight victories, the Blazers’ defensive rating was 100.1, second in the league behind the Utah Jazz’s laughably-low mark. But Portland’s success on defense in 2017-18 extended beyond that season-changing binge of wins, too. It ranked fourth in defensive rating after the All-Star break, and finished eighth on the year as a whole – not just more than 10 spots higher than each of the previous two seasons, but also the team’s best standing since Terry Stotts came to town in 2012-13.

    The Blazers’ surprising stinginess last season wasn’t due to any significant change in personnel, or even a robust overhaul of their defensive principles. Instead, incumbent players re-committed themselves to the blue-collar nuance necessary to make up for a lack of game-altering individual talents and a scheme that allows for certain types of open looks. Guards aggressively and relentlessly trailed over the top of ball screens, fighting to get effective rear-view contests on pull-up jumpers. Big men never left the paint to contain ball handlers in the pick-and-roll, goading inefficient looks from mid-range, then retreated toward the rim to stay behind the rolling big man and get vertical near the restricted area.

    Portland, through en masse activity and engagement rather than elite individual rim-protection, led the league in opponent’s field goal percentage at the rim. The Blazers were fifth in defensive rebounding rate, grabbing 79.1 percent of opponent’s misses. Their defensive shot profile was a modern-day study in exploiting the numbers game. Per Cleaning the Glass, Portland forced the seventh-highest share of mid-range jumpers in basketball; allowed fewer corner threes than any team but the Brooklyn Nets; and permitted the third-lowest ratio of 3-point attempts overall. The result? The Blazers’ opponent’s effective field goal percentage of 50.6 ranked fifth in the league, despite teams shooting above average or better from mid-range, the deep corner and above the break.

    On the surface, nothing that transpired over the offseason suggests those numbers should change much going forward. Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton and Ed Davis were all effective defensively in their own way last season, fitting well in Portland’s ecosystem, but are hardly the type of defenders whose absence will dramatically affect a team’s ability to string together stops. But the Blazers’ play on that side of the ball last season was always more about familiarity and continuity than anything else, and replacing a third of Stotts’ rotation, even at the bottom, inherently limits the impact of that advantage. Nothing matters more to team defense than the level of confidence a player has in his teammates’ ability to properly apply instilled defensive principles.

    Some deficiencies, though, can’t be obscured by trust and collective understanding. The merciless ease with which the New Orleans Pelicans abused Jusuf Nurkic in the first round of the playoffs wasn’t exactly hard to see coming, but was still jarring nonetheless. Putting Anthony Davis at center full-time pushed the athletic edge he holds over all opposing big men to new heights, and slotting a shooter like Nikola Mirotic, with range several feet beyond the arc, next to him made it impossible for Portland to prevent New Orleans from pushing the pace and spreading the floor.

    Nurkic is ill-suited to defend mobile, skilled bigs as a general rule, but especially in that setting. He had the worst defensive rating of any Blazer in the first round, and New Orleans shot a whopping 77.3 percent against him at the rim, about 23 points worse than his rock-solid mark from the regular-season. Even more ominous? The Pelicans as a whole made 72.2 percent of their attempts from the restricted area, better than Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s elite season-long number. It was a layup line for New Orleans, basically, regardless of which Portland defender stood between the ball and the basket.

    The league is smaller than it was last season. Seven of the 10 teams primed to compete with the Blazers for eight playoff spots in the Western Conference have the roster tools necessary to, at will, downsize up front and run like hell. The Blazers, meanwhile, never found the playoff-ready wing Neil Olshey thought they would this summer, and as a result, are barely better prepared to handle that style of play than they were last spring. We’ve already discussed the two-way benefits of playing Zach Collins at center, and it goes without saying that Stotts is likely to experiment with no-big lineups in training camp that make Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu Portland’s biggest players on the court, a look he went to only under extreme duress last season. But neither configuration projects as a panacea against small-ball in general, let alone five-out style units built around the likes of Davis, LeBron James, Draymond Green, Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns and more.

    The Blazers’ defense never got the credit it deserved during the regular season, then didn’t receive the criticism it should have in the playoffs, protected by uninformed hot takes on struggles of Damian Lillard and well-earned praise bestowed upon Davis, Jrue Holiday and the Pelicans. As 2018-19 fast approaches, several questions need answering before Portland is considered anything more than a run-of-the-mill playoff contender in a historically-loaded Western Conference. Most instructive among them, though, very well could be which version of the Blazers’ defense carries over: the one that propelled them to 49 wins and a three seed in the playoffs, or the one that caused them to get swept by an underdog first-round opponent? And unfortunately, Portland may not have as much control over the correct answer as its opponents.

Fantasy News

  • Kyle Kuzma
    PF, Los Angeles Lakers

    Kyle Kuzma (sore left ankle) will not take part in the FIBA World Cup as Team USA announces its final roster.

    Kuzma sat out Team USA's final tuneup against Australia on Saturday as Marc Stein reports that he is flying back to Los Angeles to get treatment. We should still expect him to be ready for training and congrats to Mason Plumlee for making the team as many speculated that he would be the final cut.

    Source: Marc Stein on Twitter

  • Kemba Walker
    PG, Boston Celtics

    Walker scored 22 points on 7-of-15 shooting with four rebounds with two assists as USA Basketball had it's 78-game winning streak in tournament and exhibition games snapped on Saturday.

    Walker continues to assert himself as the team's best player but USA losing to Australia was the much bigger story in this one. Harrison Barnes also played well as he chipped in 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting to go with six rebounds. USA will take on Canada on Monday in their last exhibition before taking on the Czech Republic in the first official match of the tournament on September 1.

    Source: USAB.com

  • Derrick White
    PG, San Antonio Spurs

    Derrick White left Saturday’s game after tripping and hitting his head on the floor.

    White left without help but there is no word yet on whether he is dealing with a concussion. He finished with eight points, hitting 6-of-7 three throws in nine minutes with another update sure to come. The third-year guard put up top-125 per-game value, playing 25.8 minutes in his second season. Even with the return of Dejounte Murray, White should still be worth a roster spot in most standard leagues.

    Source: Jeff Garcia on Twitter

  • Marcus Smart
    PG, Boston Celtics

    Marcus Smart, sidelined for almost three weeks with calf tightness, returned to action on Saturday as USA lost to Australia in their exhibition.

    Smart only played nine minutes in this one but still managed to score 7 points with three assists days after being named one of the team’s co-captains. Coming off an NBA All-Defensive First Team selection, he produced top-100 per game fantasy value as it seems he may have finally fixed his shot after shooting under 40 percent from the field in his first four seasons. He also produced a career-high in both steals and triples with 1.8 and 1.6 respectively as his career seems to be on the up and up.

    Source: USAB.com

  • Patty Mills
    PG, San Antonio Spurs

    Patty Mills went off in the fourth quarter and finished with 30 points as Australia beat USA 98-94.

    Although it was only an exhibition, it was still a huge moment for Mills and the Australian team in front of a huge crowd as they handed the US team it's first loss since 2006. Mills was serenaded with MVP chants as Joe Ingles also played well with 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting with four rebounds and seven assists while Andrew Bogut came off the bench for 16 points, nine rebounds and four assists in 20 minutes, shooting 7-of-8 from the field.

    Source: USAB.com

  • Kyle Kuzma
    PF, Los Angeles Lakers

    Kyle Kuzma is out for Team USA's tuneup up game vs. Australia with a sore left ankle.

    Kuzma is being held out of this one for precautionary reasons. There's clearly no need for USA Basketball to risk him further injuring the sore ankle. This does not sound like a serious injury and should not affect his fantasy ADP on draft day.

    Source: USA Basketball on Twitter

  • Dwight Howard
    C, Memphis Grizzlies

    Dwight Howard has agreed with the Grizzlies on a buyout, and will sign a non-guaranteed contract with the Lakers.

    The Lakers are giving Howard an opportunity to be fantasy relevant. When given minutes, Dwight can produce double-doubles with the best of them, but he has been changing teams for years now. He will be worth a gamble at the end of your draft if camp with the Lakers goes well, but this is a non-guaranteed deal, and he only played nine games last season.

    Source: Shams Charania on Twitter

  • Marcus Derrickson
    PF, Atlanta Hawks

    The Hawks signed Marcus Derrickson to an Exhibit 10 contract on Friday.

    It looks like Derrickson will be a G-League option for the Hawks, so there's nothing to see here. At one point he was competing for the last roster spot on the team. We don't need to keep of track of every computer-generated player.

    Source: Chris Vivlamore on Twitter

  • Marreese Speights
    C, Free Agent

    Marreese Speights will work out for the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday according to Alex Kennedy of Hoopshype.

    Speights spent last year playing in China and will attempt his NBA comeback with the Lakers. who are in desperate need of an additional center. He is among three centers the Lakers are looking into, the others being Dwight Howard and Joakim Noah. Of those three, Speights unquestionably has the best floor spacing ability, which would be his strongest bet to eke out those other two for the job.

    Source: Alex Kennedy on Twitter

  • Trevor Booker
    PF, International

    Trevor Booker has worked out for the Nuggets and has workouts planned with the Bucks and Clippers, according to Alex Kennedy of HoopsHype.

    Booker was out of the NBA in 2018-19, spending the season in China after he didn't get any offers in free agency. He did return to the US to undergo a procedure on his foot but is apparently fully recovered. The last time we saw Booker he split 68 games between the Nets, Sixers and Pacers in 2017-18. If he does make a successful comeback he'll have no fantasy relevance.

    Source: Alex Kennedy on Twitter