The start of training camp is always an endlessly fascinating time of year in the NBA, but that's especially the case with a team like this year's Trail Blazers - a young group that's tearing apart the foundation from the previous season and starting over from scratch. I've mentioned this stat before but it bears repeating - in the last few months, the Blazers have said goodbye to a group of players who accounted for 65.3 percent of last season's minutes. This week's camp is the start of a process that will rebuild two-thirds of Portland's rotation.
Neil Olshey, fortunately, wasted no time this summer loading up on talent for the Blazers' revamp. In the span of about a week in early July, he put together a fully loaded roster of 12 guaranteed guys, and all of them now appear happy, engaged in their new positions and ready to contribute this season. It looks like a solid group.
It's also an oddly balanced group. If you break it down by position, the Blazers' current roster consists of two primary chunks - you've got a nice three-man rotation of guards (Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Gerald Henderson) and a deep corps of capable big men (Meyers Leonard, Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Chris Kaman, Noah Vonleh).
The more difficult question is who fits in the middle.
The NBA is increasingly moving away from the "1-2-3-4-5" paradigm of classifying players and beginning to describe guys more as "points, wings and bigs," and when you look at it that way, the Blazers have a pretty solid core group in all three categories. But the fact remains - someone's going to have to play the small forward position for the Blazers this season, and right now, the Blazers' ranks look pretty thin.
2015-16 Trail Blazers wings last season:
Above is a breakdown of the four small forward-ish guys on the 2015-16 Blazers' roster and what proportion of minutes they played at each position last season (position data courtesy of 82games.com - thanks to them). The percentages are out of the total minutes their teams played - in other words, Al-Farouq Aminu's numbers only add up to 33, not 100, because Aminu was only on the floor 33 percent of the time for Dallas last season. And yet Aminu, despite his paltry minutes allocation, is the most experienced small forward on the team, with only 16 percent of the Mavs' minutes. (For comparison's sake, Nicolas Batum played 57 percent of the Blazers' minutes at the 3-spot last year.)
Aminu's not the worst option in the world, as starting small forwards go. He's a good athlete, with both the size and speed needed to be a strong defender and rebounder. He's competitive in big games - arguably he was the best player on the floor in Dallas' short-lived playoff run last spring. He defends really well for his position. But he also takes a ton of 3-pointers and doesn't make nearly enough, has basically no mid-range offensive game and - oh yeah - his career-high in minutes per game is 27.2. Even if Aminu does pan out as your starter, you're going to need someone else to put in work at the SF spot for another 20 minutes or so each night. And the pickings are slim.
It's true that the distinction between the wing positions is blurred quite a bit these days. If you can play shooting guard, you can play small forward, for the most part - it's perfectly acceptable to have multiple guys on the floor whose job it is to patrol the perimeter, cut everywhere, run around screens and spot up for open jump shots. If you can do that at the 2, you can handle it just fine at the 3 as well. Except here's the problem - that's just the offensive side of things. On defense, the third-biggest guy on your team has to guard the third-biggest guy on the other team, and that's a problem if your guy is a 6-foot-5 guard playing up a spot and their guy is a big, muscular 6-foot-9 dude.
There's a lot of talk about small forwards playing up to power forward in today's NBA. The idea of the "stretch four" is being thrown around a ton, and it's being used in reference to guys you never would have heard mentioned in that light a few years ago. Jared Dudley in Washington, DeMarre Carroll in Toronto, Paul George in Indiana - all of these guys were 3s when they first entered the league, but their teams are now nudging them up to the four because why not? If everyone else is playing up too, there won't be too many big bodies to bang around with.
For shooting guards playing up to small forward, however, it's more difficult. You've really got to have depth at the SF spot because if you don't, there's a deep cohort of dangerous players in this league who can hurt you. If you toss out an undersized, unqualified guy at the position for 20 minutes a night, you're going to get torched. A lot of small forwards are not that small and very forward.
So how do the Blazers' guys fare against the strongest 3s in the game? Let's take a look...
This is Aminu at his absolute best. When I referred above to "big, muscular 6-foot-9 dudes" at the small forward position, I was first and foremost referencing LeBron James, who has the strength to take pretty much any perimeter player in the NBA into the post, back him down and score. In this clip from a Mavs-Cavs game last season, he fails to do it against Aminu. LeBron catches the ball 18 feet from the hoop, recognizes that he's all alone in isolation against Aminu and starts backing him down - but Aminu, to his credit, holds strong and keeps his arms outstretched, preventing King James from either taking him into the paint or making a jumper over him. The result is a fadeaway jumper that LeBron misses badly.
Aminu is a physical marvel at the small forward spot. He's only 6-foot-8, but he's insanely long, with a wingspan that was measured at 7 feet by multiple pre-draft combines back when he was in college. This makes him a scary good defender against any forward who tries to go ISO and score over him - even LeBron.
Here's Moe Harkless in a similar situation:
Harkless starts out off of your screen in the left corner, where he's checking San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard. He then scurries over a Tim Duncan screen in no time at all, staying in lockstep with Kawhi as he catches Duncan's entry pass into the post. Kawhi is a LeBron-like physical presence at the 3-spot, with the ability to score easily in the post against many of his peers, but Harkless really muscles up against him, pushing back against his little jab-steps and actually getting Kawhi to take a step back before settling for a weak fadeaway. Clang.
Harkless is built a lot like Aminu - he's 6-foot-8, he's slender without being a weakling and he's got that same ridiculous wingspan that makes him great at contesting shots. He's not as good a player overall, as he can't nearly match the gawdy block/steal/rebound totals that Aminu puts up, but he has the physical attributes to be a very good defender at the 3-spot in whatever minutes he ends up getting this season.
Aminu and Harkless are natural small forwards - they've got the size and strength to guard bigger guys while also boasting quite a bit of quickness. With this next guy, you get an example of a 2-guard playing out of position:
That's Henderson against Jeff Green back in his Boston days, and man, it's impressive. Henderson isn't as big as the first two guys we looked at - he's 6-foot-5 and sort of stocky, at least relative to the other two - but he exerts a ton of effort defensively, and he's always pestering opposing players with those big, outstretched arms. You can tell that he's got Green frustrated here - he's all up in his airspace, denying him more than a few inches to even see the rim, let alone get off a good jump shot. Henderson's really physical here despite guarding a player much bigger than him. It's his tenacity and effort that end up forcing Green into a gross turnaround hook shot that he's got little hope of making.
The verdict on Henderson: He's not a natural forward like the first two guys, but he plays hard enough to impersonate one. Look for him to steal a few minutes at the 3-spot here and there next season.
Finally, there's Allen Crabbe:
Crabbe is 6-foot-6 and long, but he's thin as a wire and doesn't exactly have the strength to bang against the bigger, tougher forwards. This example against the Knicks' Carmelo Anthony is illustrative - before Melo gets the ball on an entry pass from Jose Calderon, Crabbe spends a few seconds jousting with him for position, and he looks a little out of his element. Once he finally gets his feet set in front of Melo, they end up a bit too set, and he's caught flat-footed as Melo uses an easy spin move to get around him and cruise to the rim for a layup.
Crabbe had quite a few situations like this last year, where he looked a little bit lost defensively as he tried to settle into a niche. He wasn't great at chasing opposing wings around screens and preventing open jumpers, and he also struggled on plays like this, where he was asked to guard against post-ups. The jury's still out on whether or not Crabbe can defend at an NBA level.
For Terry Stotts, it's going to be an interesting preseason. He's got a lot of questions on his mind regarding this team, no doubt, but perhaps the toughest one is where he's going to find 48 minutes of solid small forward play. Aminu pretty much has to be the presumptive starter - in my mind, he's actually the second most obvious inclusion in Stotts' starting lineup, after Lillard - but there's still going to be a great deal of competition in camp. Question No. 1 is whether Aminu holds onto his starter job for good or someone else manages to wrestle it away; No. 2 is who, if anyone, emerges as the primary backup.
It's a long season, and no matter what decisions Stotts ends up making in October, they'll surely be subject to change. People forget this because the Blazers' coach was so comfortable with his starting five during the Batum/LaMarcus Aldridge era, but he's actually been very fickle over the years with bench guys. Prime example - look at Crabbe last year, whose monthly minutes per game averaged 17.0, 14.6, 8.2, 3.0, 11.7 and 19.9 respectively from November to April. He never settled into a consistent role, and he may struggle to do so again this season. The same goes for Harkless, who will probably play most nights but might record some four-minute outings here and there.
Stotts' focus this season will be on player development. With the Crabbes and Harklesses of the world, his aim isn't so much to push them to maximize their productivity as it is simply putting them in position to hone their skills. He might let Crabbe guard Carmelo Anthony; he might allow Harkless to be a stretchy wing who fires 3s, even though he was a miserable 17.9 percent from distance last year. With a young team that's probably not fighting for a playoff spot anyway, it's OK to let guys fail in the short term, as long as they're developing in the long.
Again: 65.3 percent. Almost two-thirds of the minutes in Portland's rotation last year will need to be replaced, and that leaves a lot of room for new players to grow into roles, even the fringe guys. This will be a season chock-full of growth, no doubt. It starts with the preseason opener Monday.