Defense Is What Separates Young Thunder from Young Blazers

Taylor SmithAnalyst INovember 4, 2009

LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 10: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers controls the ball against Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder on February 10, 2009 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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The Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder have each been heralded in recent years as "the future of the NBA."

Each team boasts several young, rising star players.

Portland has Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw, Jerryd Bayless, and Greg Oden.

Oklahoma City has Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, and James Harden.

The Blazers were able to start building their core earlier, and, as a result, are already talking about NBA championship aspirations.

The Thunder, thanks to some high draft picks and some shrewd general managing by Sam Presti, look as though they'll be a team to be reckoned with for quite some time.

So, with so many budding stars on each side, which team is better off?

I think Oklahoma City has a brighter future ahead, and there's a simple reason for this: They're a defense-first team.

This starts with how they've been built.

Presti, who came up as the assistant GM to San Antonio's RC Buford, learned during his time with the Spurs that playing great team defense is the first step towards winning in the NBA.

So, what has he done?

Presti has used three first-round draft picks on guys with reputations for playing great defense, in Green, Westbrook, and Harden.

He was also able to nab future All-Star Kevin Durant with the second overall pick in 2007.

Last season, he was able to acquire Bulls castoff Thabo Sefolosha in exchange for a 2009 first round pick (which became Taj Gibson).

This past summer, he sent guards Damien Wilkins and Chucky Atkins to Minnesota in exchange for former Wizards center Etan Thomas.

So far this season, the Thunder are 2-2, and are allowing just 85 points per game, good for second in the NBA.

Sefolosha, as he showed Tuesday while swarming Kobe Bryant all night long, is a phenomenal wing defender, and his length gives opposing swingmen major issues.

Green has become a major playmaker on both sides of the floor, but his defense and rebounding are more notable. 

He seems to have a knack for getting his hands on the ball and disrupting plays, and always appears to be a step ahead of the opposition.

Listed at 6'9", Green is also averaging about 20 points and eight rebounds per game so far in '09.

Thomas, who has missed most of the past two seasons with injuries, has given OKC a legitimate post intimidator. 

He's a surprisingly athletic big-bodied guy that really gave Andrew Bynum fits in the second half Tuesday night, after Bynum owned the paint on offense in the first half.

Westbrook, while he's a developing all-around offensive talent, has already shown in his brief time in the league that he's going to be one of the better defensive point guards for a long time.

He's 6'3", supremely athletic, and has ridiculously long arms for a guy his size.

Westbrook is an aggressive defender, and poses a tough matchup for smaller guards. 

One issue for the Thunder will be their ability to get easy baskets for themselves.

With no real offensive threat in the post, they're going to have to rely on perimeter shooting in order to get it done.

Their fantastic defense will help, but, if they can't score, what good will it do?

One problem the Blazers don't have is scoring.

With Roy and Aldridge, they've got two of the premier offensive players at their positions in the league. 

Roy can score from anywhere on the floor, and Aldridge could be the best shooting power forward in the entire league.

However, their commitment to defense remains a concern.

While Oden (a walking foul machine) and Joel Pryzbilla provide a great shot-blocking tandem on the low block, Portland doesn't have a true "stopper" on the perimeter.

Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster have tremendous offensive abilities, but haven't shown the same interest or fire in playing on the other side of the floor. 

Head coach Nate McMillan may stress defense, but the Blazers haven't been able to consistently show that they can stop anybody. 

This was evident Saturday night in their road loss against Houston.

Aaron Brooks was knifing his way through their defense with ease, setting up easy, open shots for guys like Trevor Ariza. 

Ariza finished with 33 points, Brooks with 28. 

If those kinds of guys are able to put up those kinds of numbers on the Blazers, what will guys like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Chris Paul be able to do?

There's no question that both the Blazers and the Thunder could have very, very bright futures ahead.

However, unless Portland is able to commit more to playing team defense, I think they will struggle to keep up with the league's elite. 

Sam Presti and the Thunder have a winning blueprint in place, and I think, if they can keep this core together, it will be just a matter of time until they're seeing it pay big-time, championship-style dividends.



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