Since arriving in Portland last summer, Blazers fans have known that Chris Kaman was different...not in the familiar, "quirky Portland" kind of way, but different different. The Rose City is teased endlessly for being too bike-friendly, too organic, too liberal, and too "Portland Precious." Kaman is an outdoorsy guy with a love of fireworks, hunting, and eating the eyes out of freshly-caught fish. (That last one was recorded on video as part of his 6-episode reality show, Becoming Kaman.)
Despite the culture shock, Kaman had no trouble assimilating with his new team and his new surroundings this season. He became a favorite among fans and teammates both, sharing a friendship with Damian Lillard and taking developing center Meyers Leonard under his wing. Among other things he helped Leonard with his post game and imploring him to hit hard and hit first, to great effect.
Kaman's veteran presence provided the Blazers with a stability and depth at center they hadn't enjoyed since the (brief) tandem of a healthy Greg Oden and a pre-injury Joel Przybilla. Let's take a peek at Kaman's season numbers:
Stats from basketball-reference.com
Kaman didn't play a ton of minutes, and didn't give the Blazers imposing defense, but his 8.5 points and 6.5 boards gave hem another legitimate (albeit slow and sometimes lumbering) offensive option off the bench. Despite deteriorating physical tools, Kaman was more than sufficient to keep the boards clean and keep opposing big men from having career nights, even if they weren't being shut down.
Kaman's "Per 36" numbers back up the effectiveness suggested in his limited minutes. He averaged a career-high 12.5 rebounds (including a career-high 3.6 offensive boards), plus 16.4 points, and 1.4 blocks per 36 minutes. That Kaman seldom played more than 25 minutes in a given game doesn't matter. For the time he was expected to be on the court, he produced.
In fact, Kaman's production early in the season had him as a (very) dark horse 6th Man of the Year candidate. The Blazers roared to a 13-4 start through November and Kaman averaged over 11 points with 7 boards and a block to boot. The grind of an 82-game season, injuries to Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland forcing Kaman into the starting lineup, and the reality of managing a 3 decade old, 7-foot frame brought Kaman back to Earth. During a 23-game stretch from mid-January to mid-March, his scoring dipped below 7 per game, but he bounced back late in the season after an extended rest.
Despite his extended role during the regular season, Kaman played in only 3 of Portland's 5 first-round games against the Memphis Grizzlies after he turned an ankle during practice. Ineffective games followed his injury as Kaman played through visible pain. He totaled 2 points and 8 rebounds in Portland's post-season run.
But let's take it easy on the stats for a second and reflect on what Chris Kaman brought to the team. Throughout the 2013-14 season the Blazers' most productive backup centers were Joel Freeland and an underdeveloped Meyers Leonard. Neither provided a credible offensive threat. While Portland benefited from Freeland's defensive acuity, he was over-matched as a 6'10" center. Kaman fixed part of that problem, eclipsing both Freeland and Leonard on offense.
Kaman's tutelage of Leonard provided a significant bonus. It's unfair to Leonard to lay the credit for his growth solely at a veteran's feet; hard work and suffering through criticism and sporadic playing time allowed Leonard to reach a new plateau. But Kaman helped stabilize Leonard and gave him confidence to match up with opposing big men, including All-NBA center Marc Gasol during the playoffs. That's a whole different Meyers Leonard than we've experienced so far.
If size and experience were the only considerations, the Blazers would be shrewd to pick up Kaman's option for the second year of his contract. He is owed $1m next year regardless, but the Blazers would pony up $5m total to retain his services through next season. But Kaman's age is a double-edged sword. His footwork in the post is excellent, but his physical capabilities get in the way of his muscle memory, leading to awkward spins and hand-wringing, frustrating turnovers. He struggles when guarding centers that can stretch the floor or containing pick and rolls, as mobility doesn't allow him to show and recover effectively. While an extra $4 million doesn't seem like a lot in NBA terms, in a year when so many of the Blazers' most important players are in flux, that $4 million could make a difference.
The Blazers got what they asked for when they signed Chris Kaman. He's a good fit for the team, he knows his role, and he's in good with Portland's All-Star point guard and their lottery-pick stretch center. Whether the Blazers still need those attributes (or whether they need the money more) will determine his future. Kaman may not be able to rest easy, but he can rest assured that his 2014-15 contributions were appreciated in Portland.
EPILOGUE: Please enjoy this fast-moving animated GIF of Chris Kaman's face throughout the years. Try your best not to get dizzy.