Last week Joe Freeman of the Oregonian reported that Portland Trail Blazers are extremely happy with their new crop of power forwards and centers. Given the effusive praise for Meyers Leonard, Noah Vonleh, Mason Plumlee, and Ed Davis one starts to wonder if the Blazers have already found their frontcourt of the future after only one summer of rebuilding. Or will GM Neil Olshey be making more moves at the 4/5 positions?
Bolstering the case that this is a complete lineup is the fact that the current crop of post players have complementary skill sets. When paired properly they should be able to cover each others' weaknesses and maximize strengths. Creating units of players that are "better than the sum of their parts" has been a trademark of the team over the last two seasons, so it is little surprise that the trend continues this year.
To better understand the complementary potential consider the skills of Leonard. He is a great shooter who has excelled at using his jump shot to drag opposing power forwards and centers out of the post. This was on full display in the 2015 playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies when Leonard regularly forced Memphis' centers out of the lane by scoring from the perimeter. Leonard has also shown flashes of using his size on defense to bother players in the post. He still has a tendency to foul too easily, and his reactions can be slow, but the tools are in place for Meyers to become a plus defender around the rim. Leonard is a stellar defensive rebounder, with a DRB% among the league leaders but, on the other hand, he is a terrible offensive rebounder.
Now, consider Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee: both are high energy players who have been described as throwbacks to a ‘90s style of play. They both score nearly all their points at the rim on dunks or layups. Plumlee does have a more polished post game and can occasionally create his own basket, whereas Davis works primarily as a garbage man by cleaning up loose ball opportunities or converting on broken plays to score his points. Despite these strengths, Davis and Plumlee do not fit well with a contemporary NBA offense because they generally need to be positioned near the rim to be effective, but do not command a double team. That creates a spacing nightmare. Thus, as noted by Evans Clinchy on Blazer's Edge, Plumlee will not be effective unless he's paired with a big guy who can shoot and draw defenders away from the hoop. The same is true of Davis. Can someone remind me what Meyers Leonard's biggest offensive strength is?
Beyond that, Davis and Plumlee are relatively poor defensive rebounders but good offensive rebounders. That pairs well with Leonard who is a superior defensive rebounder. The high energy defense of Plumlee and Davis also fit with the post defense we saw Leonard playing in the playoffs last season. Even their roles on offense and defense suggest easy transition on changes of direction; Leonard can focus on getting back on defense to patrol the paint area because he is more likely to be on the perimeter on offense, while Davis or Plumlee can easily swap from pick-and-roll defender to the offensive low post.
Vonleh is the wild card in the power forward/center rotation. Despite some atrocious shooting last season, he has the potential to become a good offensive player. As David McKay has noted on Blazer's Edge previously, Vonleh has shown ballhandling skills that match well with a nice touch around the rim. On defense Vonleh is even more of an unknown. He has a massive 7-foot-4 wingspan which could cause defensive havoc either around the rim or on the perimeter and has the speed to quickly close on open shooters or offer weakside defensive help. Overall, Vonleh's athleticism and versatility may make it possible for him to play with any of Portland's other big men.
After considering the skills of the Portland power forwards and centers, it is clear that one key element is missing: Low post scoring. Vonleh may eventually develop that type of game, but it is equally likely that he will rely on pick-and-pops and dribble drive moves to score points. Similarly, Plumlee may eventually become a low post threat, but as of now he can only create his own shot against a poor defender. In this light, opting to keep Chris Kaman on the roster starts to make a bit more sense.
Interestingly, Olshey offered max contracts to two free agents this summer: Enes Kanter and Greg Monroe. The primary strength of both players? Yup, low-post scoring. Olshey apparently values that missing offensive element enough to keep an aging Kaman under contract and throw max offers at players who can score on the block but are otherwise flawed. This would seem to suggest that he is not content with the current offensive situation at the 4/5 spots and more changes may be coming next season, despite the complementary skills of the current players.
Olshey also did not handpick the current Blazers big men. That Nicolas Batum trade was not a targeted move to acquire Vonleh, specifically. Rather Vonleh was the best player available for Batum after Olshey failed to acquire a high lottery pick in exchange for the former Portland starting forward. Similarly, Plumlee basically fell into the Blazers' lap on draft day when Brooklyn aggressively sought Ronde Hollis-Jefferson.
Further, Olshey has shown no urgent desire to extend Leonard's contract this offseason. Olshey has offered the excuse that extension negotiations are most effective in October, but he was not hesitant to sign Lillard to an extension earlier this summer. One interpretation is that Olshey is hesitant to commit big money to Leonard until after the young center delivers on more of his potential this season.
Taken together, Olshey's actions suggest that he has thus far been acquiring the "best player available," and may not have constructed the optimal power forward/center rotation that he envisions. He is clearly willing to spend big money to bring a low post scorer to the team, and has kept the current players on flexible contracts, for the most part, which leaves the door open for future deals. Olshey's actions are not those of a GM content with his current rotation.
With all that being said, it is important to remember that Olshey will not be making any changes to the roster in the immediate future. Teams are always hesitant to make trades while early season optimism still abounds. The current roster of big men will have at least a few dozen games to develop and fill the holes that Olshey likely sees. Or if Vonleh, Plumlee, Leonard, and Davis gel on the court as well as they do on paper then Olshey may feel pressure to keep them together. Either way, despite the praise from the team, the 4/5 positions may not be as stable in the long term as it would appear.
What do you think? Should Olshey leave the power forward and center positions as is, or is another move needed?