Blazers on defense as camp opens

Portland to put emphasis on defending this year

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 

TUALATIN, Ore. -- The problem is easy to identify.

The Portland Trail Blazers ranked 18th among the 30 NBA teams last year in terms of points allowed. Which, as it turns out, was the good news for the defense, considering that Portland was 23rd in defensive rating according to basketball-reference.com, and 26th in field-goal percentage allowed.

So as the Blazers opened training camp Tuesday with a new coach, a new general manager and a new cast of players, it was no secret what the focus would be.

"There was a lot of defense, a lot of cardio, a lot of movement," All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge said.

"There was a lot of defense, a lot of talking," echoed guard Wesley Matthews.

"Today was all defense," coach Terry Stotts said. "There was good energy. You've got to talk on defense, and it's got to come from the players."

Which, as training camps go, are the kind of words you expect to hear after the first day.

It's basketball's equivalent of spring training, when optimism is rampant and every team is 0-0.

But if the Blazers are to improve on last season's lockout-shortened 28-38 record, the changes will have started at the top.

"Defense, I think, has been something I have been looking for an improvement in for a years now," owner Paul Allen said after watching the team's workout. "It was exciting to see that be emphasized."

Surely the notion of emphatic defense is not unique to the Blazers among NBA teams. But new general manager Neil Olshey spelled out how Portland has gone about improving its ability to stop other teams.

"It's my responsibility and the responsibility of our staff to see that we bring in good defenders," he said. "We knew we had some problems at the point of attack."

Olshey attempted to address that by selecting point guard Damian Lillard out of Weber State with the No. 6 pick of the draft. He also added Ronnie Price, a seven-year NBA veteran, as a free agent to be the backup point guard.

"Damian can defend his position," Olshey said. "We think Ronnie Price is a lockdown defender."

And still there are holes in these plans to turn the Blazers into a defensive juggernaut. Stotts said before the start of training camp that 6-foot-9 J.J. Hickson goes into the preseason as the starting center, backed up by rookies Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland.

Olshey said: "The big goal for us is going to be how quickly we can find a rim protector. I think on the perimeter we're going to be very good defensively. I think the quicker that J.J. and Meyers and Joel can be a presence in the paint protecting the rim, that will dictate how quickly we become on overall solid defensive team."

Notes

• Matthews was pleasantly surprised upon arriving at the practice facility for the first day of training camp.

"I wasn't even the first one here; there were like seven guys here," he said. "I was here 1 hour, 5 minutes before practice, like I always am."

And yet, he was jokingly cautious about his teammates' eagerness.

"We'll see if that lasts," he said. "We'll see like Dec. 15 if people are still here early."

• At the suggestion of Stotts, the Blazers installed an old-fashioned fire bell at courtside. If a player makes 20 of 25 3-point attempts during a shooting drill, he gets to ring the bell.

Olshey said: "The good thing is we've actually heard the bell ring a couple times. When your team is predicated on shooting, it's a good idea that you actually make shots."