Aside from the inconsistency problems, Portland’s defensive turnaround has been its biggest talking point this season.
Since the roster flip in 2015, the Blazers have not been a defensive minded team. The two faces of the franchise, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, struggle on that end of the ball. But with minimal changes to the current roster, Portland rocks a top-ten defense this year.
What’s behind this reverse?
History of Blazers defense
After four of five starters left following the 2015 season, Terry Stotts began his rebuild behind Lillard and McCollum. Their offensive power made way for a team dominant on one end, but not the other.
Opponents knocked down three-pointers at a 37% clip and turned the ball over just 12 times nightly. All Portland could do was try and outgun them offensively.
With just the addition of Jusuf Nurkic, the Blazers turned its defensive mindset around. The team went 14-6 with him playing and stole the last playoff spot from Denver.
Extra focus on defense carried in to this season. Now conceding 101.3 points nightly is the Portland Trail Blazers (fifth in the league).
Of course, replacing Mason Plumlee with Jusuf Nurkic certainly helped this cause. But more than just Nurk is responsible for the defensive turnaround.
My theory for the catalyst behind Portland’s defense is assistant coach David Vanterpool.
2017-2018 marks Vanterpool’s sixth season here. Before the start of it, he tied for third best assistant coach in a survey by league general managers. Joining him in the top three were assistants from either Golden State or San Antonio…not bad company.
Let’s take a look at some information that supports Vanterpool being heavily involved in Portland’s defensive turnaround.
Jusuf Nurkic lazy versus Nets
In Joe Freeman’s (OregonLive) recap of the brutal loss to Brooklyn, he described Vanterpool yelling at Nurkic.
"“At least twice, assistant coach David Vanterpool popped up from the bench and screamed at Nurkic for what appeared to be a lack of defensive hustle.”"
Nurk, the supposed man behind better Blazer defense, wasn’t hustling on that end and found himself on the bench during crunch time. He led the team with 21 points, but the lapse in defense was enough for Vanterpool to notice and Stotts to remove him.
Interview with Dame
In an article by Jason Quick of NBC Sports Northwest back in March 2017, Lillard detailed Vanterpool’s involvement with the team’s defense. Here are two quotes from Quick’s piece:
"“Vanterpool has led sessions to learn opponents’ plays and play calls.”“He [Vanterpool] has emphasized the need to recognize which players are hot or struggling…”"
Vanterpool highlighted the nitty-gritty of defending: reading scouting reports for commonly called plays and targeting opponents shooting well to end their streaks.
The assistant coach therefore may have influenced Dame’s improvement defensively. Additionally, Lillard’s focus on defense has impacted his teammates’ effort on that end.
Comeback win over Miami Heat
Most recently, David Vanterpool made his mark defensively in the comeback win versus Miami on Wednesday.
At halftime, the Blazers trailed by ten points. In a calculated manner, Vanterpool gave a halftime speech. Joe Freeman published Lillard’s recollection of the speech, pulling the quote:
"“He just said we put too much time and effort and energy and film into being the defensive team that we’ve been all year,” Lillard said. “And since we started making a few shots over the last couple games, we’ve kind of gone into the back-and-forth thing. We’re giving up baskets a little bit easier. We aren’t as sharp as we have been. And he just challenged us to get back to that. That’s what’s going to give us our best chance and we did that in the second half.”"
After giving up 60 first half points, Portland allowed just 35 the rest of the game. Lillard and McCollum led a nine-point fourth quarter comeback to snap the five-game losing streak.
Thank you David Vanterpool.
If we can combine our offense from the previous two years with defense from this year, the Portland Trail Blazers could once again be threats in the Western Conference.