This article is a facsimile of an earlier publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
On Monday, March 25th, Jusuf Nurkic's leg crumbled simultaneously with the Portland Trail Blazers' playoff hopes.
Without their third best player, interior anchor and one of the most league's underrated bigs, the Blazers have a large void with just two weeks before the postseason begins. The gruesome injury resulted in compound fractures of the tibia and fibula for Nurkic, who is undoubtedly done for the year. His season averages of 15.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 3.2 assists are difficult to replicate.
The Blazers' long-term concerns lie with Nurkic's health and rehabilitation, but in the interim, they face winning a playoff series. Replacing Nurkic will be done by committee, with head coach Terry Stotts relying on the tandem of 2017 lottery pick Zach Collins and scoring center Enes Kanter. The outcast Meyers Leonard could have a role to play as well.
Whoever steps in will have the responsibilities of anchoring the Blazers defense: Cleaning the Glass estimates they were 5.2 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Nurkic on the floor, a top-ten percentile impact across the NBA.
Kanter, in particular, seems to be Stotts' choice to eat the lion's share of minutes since the injury. He's started all three games and played an average of 27 minutes in those contests. His signing was once thought to bolster their bench scoring but is now crucial to their survival.
Yet, Kanter has a woeful defensive reputation, particularly once postseason play rolls around. He can be a positive force in games when he scores and rebounds, but his fit with this Blazers group is less than ideal.
Kanter's production against the Detroit Pistons in their 99-90 loss on March 30th was typical of his impact: In 34 minutes, he was 9-for-17 from the field for 20 points and 15 rebounds, including seven offensive boards. He was also a minus-eight, with zero assists and three turnovers. His impact is purely through scoring and rebounding, but those don't necessarily equate a positive impact.
The Blazers are, extrapolated across an entire season, producing like a team on pace to win fewer than twenty games. They score 10.6 fewer points per possession with Kanter on the floor, and allow 5.6 more to their opponents.
The offensive numbers are about fit and speed: Nurkic allowed the Blazers to play faster because he was such a great passer, while Kanter's post-oriented scoring style brings their other scoring options to a standstill. Kanter's defensive metrics are consistently poor as well, with numbers in the bottom quarter of all post players for five of the last six seasons.
The metrics back up what we see with the eye test: Kanter is one of the NBA's worst defending bigs.
The last postseason series Kanter played in was with the Oklahoma City Thunder during the 2016-17 campaign. The Thunder lost a five-gamer to the Houston Rockets, who continually targeted Kanter and ran him off the court.
He was a sieve all series long, despite the Thunder's best efforts to protect him. The series started with the Rockets forcing Kanter to switch onto James Harden with physical screens and quickly-occurring actions. Once Kanter was exposed, Harden absolutely cooked him for some easy layups:
Things got so bad that Kanter played eleven minutes total in the final two games of that series, registering a -15 plus/minus over those final two losses.
To avoid those situations, the Thunder instructed Kanter to engage in drop pick-and-roll coverage. He would sink deep below the level of the screen to avoid switches and encourage mid-range pull-ups. The onus of drop coverage is on the big to challenge any shots at the rim and force those mid-rangers, then be able to recover to a rolling big and prevent offensive rebounds.
Kanter failed to steer the ball handlers away from the hoop, planting his feet and appearing indecisive when guards would drive down his throat. The Rockets slammed the pick-and-roll in those limited minutes and got exactly what they wanted every time down the floor:
Drop coverage is a fairly passive type since it concedes the point of attack and, instead of suffocating the ball screen, tries to dictate which kind of shot occurs.
But so many guards and ball handlers have become elite pull-up three-point shooters. They require on-ball defenders to go over screens and pick up a few feet beyond the arc. What results are physical screens that allow enough space for shooters to get their feet underneath them and square up from three.
The Rockets took a ton of pull-up threes that provided great scorers wide-open looks. No hand in their face, no rotation to stop the shot. Just a great scorer getting a shot they practice alone in the gym:
Playoff basketball is different: Offensive gameplans are much more focused and prepared based on substitution patterns. Whatever opponent the Blazers draw will undoubtedly feel no mercy for Kanter, putting him in ball screens, isolations and multiple ways to draw him from the lane.
Even with Nurkic, the Blazers were one of the worst teams at guarding ball screens. Synergy Sports nets them as the fifth-worst against pick-and-roll ball handlers in terms of efficiency.
The Blazers have been a drop-coverage team under Stotts. The New Orleans Pelicans blitzed them last April in ball screens, leading to a four-game sweep. The Pels were able to get their bigs involved, and they shot a whopping 70 percent from the field off the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy Sports Tech.
Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo and Co. shredded the Blazers in ways Portland have not been able to correct since:
Harping on the past feels relevant since the Blazers have not fixed their porous ball screen defense through seventy-five games since that Pels sweep. Stotts has added some different coverages with more aggression, including more frequent traps, but the efficiency numbers prove this is a major weakness. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum bear some weight for their struggles, but the answer isn't found with Enes Kanter.
Without Nurkic, Portland's weakness became more glaring. Matchups in the first round are still to be determined, but any draw will feature competent pick-and-roll guards that can manipulate the Blazers.
Trotting Kanter out there for thirty minutes is like painting a matador red.
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Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).