The Trail Blazers are blocking 5.2 shots per game this season, ninth-most in the NBA. The simple assumption to be gleaned from that solid standing is Portland must be a good rim-protecting team, too. Blocked three-pointers stand out for a reason; the vast majority of blocks come close to the basket.
But the notion that shot-blocking totals correlate with actual rim-protection was proven flawed long ago, a reality this season's league-wide numbers bear out. Just three of the top-10 teams in blocks per game also rank among basketball's 10 best in defensive field percentage allowed at the rim, per analysis at NBA.com/stats.
Which team owns the biggest discrepancy in blocks and opponent's shooting percentage at the basket area? Portland, and it's not even close. The Blazers allow 67.9 percent shooting at the rim, second-worst in the league and less than half a percentage point ahead of the New Orleans Pelicans.
The same dynamic exists for the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets, but both are considerably stingier than Portland at protecting the rim. Brooklyn, 25th in field goal percentage against from the restricted area, sits 2.6 percentage points in front of Portland – the difference between the Nets and 11th-ranked Philadelphia 76ers.
Reasons for the Blazers' porous defense at the rim are varied, but most easily distilled by how frequently the other side gets there. Portland foes take 36.3 percent of their shots from the restricted area, per Cleaning the Glass, the third-highest share in basketball.
Opponents finishing at the rim and attacking it with equal ease, obviously, isn't a winning proposition. It's also not surprising given the Blazers' personnel amid a rash of injuries in 2020-21. Players shoot 68.4 percent against Enes Kanter from the restricted area, dead last among centers who contest at least four such shots per game, according to NBA.com/stats.
Robert Covington, for all his highlight-reel blocks this season, barely fares any better as a rim defender. Small-ball lineups with Covington at the 5 hardly offer any resistance to would-be attackers, allowing 41.6 percent of opponents' shots to come from the restricted area, per Cleaning the Glass – worst among all regular five-man units in the NBA.
Portland's silver lining is blurry, but still in the expected place if you squint. Jusuf Nurkic permits 58.5 percent shooting at the rim, an average number among centers at best. Context is key to assessing Nurkic's performance in the wake of him playing just 25 games over the past two years, though.
It stands to reason Nurkic would improve there as he continues re-acclimating to the speed of the game, even if he didn't have a history of superior rim-protection. In 2017-18, when the Blazers led the league(!) in defensive field goal percentage at the rim, opponents shot just 54.7 percent against Nurkic, seventh-lowest in basketball.
Nurkic was no rim-protecting panacea even at his defensive peak. And after that devastating leg injury in late March 2019, he likely won't ever reach it again. But even if Nurkic regained that prior form, it's naive to expect Portland would take a major leap on defense between now and the playoffs.
Nurkic alone can't fix the Blazers' widespread struggles containing ball handlers at the point of attack, or make their three-guard lineup any longer. He can't ensure Portland plays on a string at the ball and behind the play, or even coax the type of communication from his teammates that would help them do so more consistently. Only Stotts controls the schemes, and his options are limited by a roster littered with holes defensively.
The Blazers, as made abundantly clear by now, won't be flipping the switch into a top-10 defense. But if mere respectability on that end is achievable for Portland, it's because Nurkic is capable of providing defense at the rim none of his teammates can come close to matching. At the very least, let's hope he's on the floor enough to try and provide it.