Trail Blazers: Hassan Whiteside discusses Portland’s “changed defense” for NBA bubble

The Portland Trail Blazers are poised to fix their one fatal flaw on defense when the NBA resumes. Hassan Whiteside provided a few details on what the team will do differently.

With Jusuf Nurkić and Zach Collins back in the saddle, the Portland Trail Blazers’ defense has been preparing to step up — both psychologically and well, literally.

During last night’s interview, stopgap center Hassan Whiteside fielded questions about how much easier he expects life to be for him defensively, now that he isn’t the lone proven center on the roster.

“It’s a relief, man. It’s good to have all of them guys back, because I know, to have that backup that helps.

It breeds confidence in you as a defender. I can be more aggressive in the pick-and-rolls. It’s just changed the defense of the team, I think.”

Whiteside was asked if that meant they were pressing more on the ball in pick-and-rolls, and offered this assessment:

“Yeah, a lot more. We got a lot more rim protection behind me. I’m not the only shot blocker out there, so, the paint can be locked down a lot more.”

We saw this work in limited samples earlier this season when Collins was healthy. In 48 minutes together, Whiteside and Collins produced a net rating of +15.4, and held defenses to 103.9 points per 100 possessions.

This is sigh-of-relief material; in 2019-20, only eight teams were gutted for more points against pick-and-roll ball handlers than the Portland Trail Blazers did.

Whiteside often drew the ire of watchers for this sole reason. He wasn’t as “aggressive” in his drops as fans would have liked, often conceding too much real estate.

That often correlated with bigs that “popped” to the perimeter instead of rolling to the basket. The statistics paint that picture: teams shot 7.0 percent better than normal on their 3-point attempts against him, and 4.3 percent better from 15-feet and beyond.

The way he explained it made it appear to be a schematic move by Stotts, which, in theory, makes a ton of sense. Portland’s No. 2 shot blocker was CJ McCollum. There wasn’t much luck finding a rim protector outside of him. And that means, perhaps we’ve been too hard on Whiteside in diagnosing his biggest defensive “flaw.”

But, with two of Portland’s defensive bulwarks in tow, the Blazers have one of the deepest frontcourts in the NBA. And that means their defense probably looks a bit closer to the No. 14-ranked 2019 version or the No. 5-ranked 2018 team than it does to this year’s gym class version.

Only five teams league wide give up more points at the guard position than Portland (74.5). And when you think about how often teams are targeting them in pick-and-roll settings — roughly one in every five plays — coverage on that end feels like a must.

Assuming you’re into that kind of thing, I put together a few highlights. I strayed away from star players because that would’ve been too easy. Nonetheless, it’s just as ugly.

All things considered, Hassan Whiteside did an admirable job as the standalone rim protector. He’s made the Portland Trail Blazers the No. 2 team in blocks per game, despite being the only player to average more than one per game (this has to be some sort of record). Say what you will about the perimeter; he’s a top-of-the-line rim protector.

To belabor the point one more time — the return of Nurkić and Collins gives Portland two players that were not only among an elite fraternity of 49 players to contest at least 300 shots at the rim a season ago, but get this. Opponents shot 9.6 percent and 6.7 percent worse respectively against the two of them.

And that new defense promises to be something to watch for as the Portland Trail Blazers resume play in Orlando. If statistical history tells us anything, it turns out the NBA’s bubble won’t be the only thing closed off for potential opposition.