NBA: How each non-LA playoff team can win the Western Conference

Utah Jazz Donovan Mitchell (Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports)
Utah Jazz Donovan Mitchell (Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports) /
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NBA Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images) /

Portland Trail Blazers

Nurkic must be on the floor more

The Portland Trail Blazers are sixth in the league in offense with a 115.7 offensive rating and have an perennial MVP candidate in Damian Lillard. So why are they 6th in the West? D-E-F-E-N-S-E.

The Terry Stotts-led Trail Blazers have never been great on defense, but this year they’ve been a train wreck. Portland currently is 29th in defense with a 115.9 rating – only the Sacramento Kings have been worse on that end of the floor. To put this in perspective: Portland, who is trying to win games, have a worse defense than Minnesota, Houston, Orlando and Oklahoma City – all teams that are actively trying to tank!

The Blazers have too many defensive sieves – Damian Lillard, Carmelo Anthony, CJ McCollum and Norman Powell all cannot handle primary wing defense due to either workload, age or ability. Robert Covington and Derrick Jones haven’t been as consistent as the team would like on defense. And Enes Kanter is still the worst pick-and-roll defender in the league and is forced to play 26 minutes a night.

The glimmer of hope is with Jusuf Nurkic. The 7-foot big has been battling injuries the past could of years but the hope is for Portland that he can be healthy for the playoffs. Nurkic can do a lot of things for Portland, but perhaps his biggest value is his rim protection. Nurkic executes the drop-big defensive scheme well for Terry Stotts, can man up guys in the post and is known to get deflections and blocks from time to time.

From 2017-19, Portland’s defense was 6.2 points per 100 possessions better with Nurkic on the floor. Nurkic isn’t elite at defense Rudy Gobert or Anthony Davis on defense… but he’s good. And most importantly, he’s much better than Enes Kanter.

If Nurkic can play 30 minutes a night, that would give Portland more minutes of good big man defense, and fewer minutes of all-offense, no-defense Kanter. A shift from disaster to below-average could do wonders for this dynamic offensive team.

Can they get to Dame Time?

The Blazers are the best clutch team in the league, and it’s not hard to know why. Lillard is the best closer in the league – someone who can get buckets late and shut the door on opponents with his game. The problem for Portland has been keeping those games close.

Portland is 32-25 with a negative differential, thanks to their 12 losses of 15 points or greater. Most of these losses are against elite West foes – Utah (twice), Phoenix (twice), Clippers (twice), and the Lakers. When they match up against the better teams, Portland hasn’t been able to keep up so far this season.

Portland’s shortcomings against these teams are linked to their second and third quarters. The Blazers are 26th in the league in second quarters, and 19th in third quarters. The Blazers are still fine-tuning their rotations and Terry Stotts will need to sew these holes up to handle the tough teams in the middle of the game. If they can just keep games close till the fourth quarter, they can let Damian Lillard take over late.

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And Lillard has shown that he can carry a team to heights that don’t seem possible. Perhaps even an NBA Finals.