Trail Blazers’ defense a work in progress, but the pieces and commitment are in place: ‘Guys have been locked down on defensive end’

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Nothing the Portland Trail Blazers do during training camp should be considered more important than revamping what was the worst defense in the NBA last season.

So far, coach Chauncey Billups says he has seen signs of a potentially good defensive team during practices at the University of California Santa Barbara.

“Guys have been locked down on the defensive end,” he said. “Obviously, a lot of mistakes being made just based on coverages and communication. Just normal stuff that every team makes. But yeah, we have a lot of guys in here who enjoy playing defense.”

The team’s top two players, Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons, can only work as a winning combination in the backcourt if the rest of the team compensates for their lack of defensive prowess, allowing the duo to close out victories with their offense.

So, having a litany of players willing to give effort on defense will be imperative. Billups, during his playing days as a defensive-minded point guard in Detroit, played with four other starters who embraced defense and that helped the Pistons won the 2004 NBA championship.

These Blazers won’t be confused with that team, but they seemingly have more defensive-minded players than in recent years.

Guard/forward Josh Hart and forward Justise Winslow, acquired in trades last season, were identified as desired defenders by Billups. The team traded for forward Jerami Grant and signed free agent guard Gary Payton II. They wouldn’t be in Portland if not for their ability to play high-end defense.

That’s four new faces Billups can work with, along with forward Nassir Little, one of the team’s best defensive players last season.

According to defensive ratings on FiveThirtyEight.com, Winslow (plus-1.8), Little (plus-1.3) and Hart (minus-0.1) had three of the Blazers’ best five ratings last season.

Weave them around Nurkic (plus-3.4), and the Blazers could have something brewing on defense.

Grant (minus-0.7) had a negative rating last season with Detroit but has had plus rankings with better teams in the past. Payton (plus-4.6), on the other hand, had the ninth-best defensive rating in the NBA last season.

The trick now is to get these pieces onto the same page and working together as a unit. Billups said this team at this point is ahead of where the Blazers were entering training camp last season because so many players have already been introduced to his concepts and expectations.

“Most of our vets, they know a lot of the things,” Billups said. “We’ve changed some things, but a lot of it is very similar. Now you’re able to just peel back layers.”

Even the younger players, Billups said, have grown quickly.

“We introduced some of the stuff in summer league,” Billups said. “They’ve been really impressive.”

That includes rookie Shaedon Sharpe, whose athleticism has allowed him to excel on defense early in camp.

“I think he’s one of those guys that’s gonna be able to use his athleticism on both ends of the floor,” Billups said. “He’s really long. He’s an incredible shot-blocker already. He’s never out of a play. He goes and meets guys up at the square. It’s unbelievable the instincts that he has.”

Being in the right position all the time is another story. Sharpe, 19, has a lot to learn.

“Everything is new for him,” Billups said. “But when he gets a lot more familiar, he’s just going to be a very, very good defender.”

According to Payton, some of the young players could certainly help the Blazers become a deep defensive team.

“If we can get them mentally defensively minded, I think we will put a lot of pieces together,” Payton said. “We’ve got a lot of strong, smart defenders here who can help the young guys.”

Billups has repeatedly said that surrounding the starting backcourt of Lillard and Simons with quality defenders would be the goal in order to counterbalance their weaknesses in that area.

However, both must still improve at that end. Simons, who has said he is committed to becoming a better defender, had a negative-2.5 rating last season and Lillard, in just 29 games, finished at negative-1.6. That came despite battling a core muscle injury that ultimately led to surgery and the end of his season in January. Lillard clearly gave better effort on defense and appeared to be committed to improving there under Billups.

The roster’s versatility should help Billups fit different groups around Lillard and Simons to better match up with opposing teams.

Winslow said the Blazers will have great versatility, including the ability to go with a small-ball, defensive-minded lineup with either Grant at Trendon Watford at center.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that actually hang their hat on the defensive end,” Winslow said. “So, I don’t think defense is gonna be the problem with those units. Maybe offense, more so. But we’ve got a good amount of guys that can guard 1 through 4 and do it at a high level. So, I think we’re going to be able to use that to our benefit, and really get after it on the defensive side.”

Billups, whose goal is to build a culture of competitiveness, demands that his players care about playing defense and really “get after it.”

“You’ve got to have a lot of grit when you play,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to compete every time they’re out there when you play. And nobody likes playing against teams like that.”

A major problem last season was the lack of size on the roster. The Blazers added the 6-foot-8 Grant, but also lost the 6-7 Robert Covington. Payton is 6-3 and Sharpe is 6-6.

Billups and general manager Joe Cronin have said that it’s tough to add all of the pieces the Blazers need in one offseason. First and foremost, they want to add the best players available.

“This league is hard,” Billups said. “It’s hard to get better. It’s hard to get the players that you want at all times. But I like every single player we have. They’ve all been hand-picked up. I love what they can do. They all do different things. And I think I’m pretty confident knowing that when you beat us this year, you’re going to earn it. And I can live with that.”

In the end, the Blazers probably won’t become an elite defense this season. They ranked last in defensive rating in 2021-22 (117.9). That certainly has to come down, but Billups said he hasn’t set statistical goals.

“I just feel like if we’re competing on that end, you just let the chips fall where they may,” he said. “I’m not going to say, ‘We got to be top 10,’ because what if we’re 12 and we’re having a great season but it’s like, ‘Damn, we’re not top 10.’ I don’t like to do that. But we all know that we can’t be where we’ve been. And we’re focused on that.”

— Aaron Fentress reported from Santa Barbara, California.

— Aaron Fentress | afentress@Oregonian.com | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook).

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