Woah. What just happened.
If you're like me, then you're struggling just to get a feel for the new team. What will be their collective strengths? What are their weaknesses? Even something as simple as what style of basketball will they play?
We don't have many answers at this point so let's just try to get our bearings and preview some of the questions facing the team from a strategy standpoint. Obviously, the team is going to be very different and much worse but that comes with a whole new set of dynamics that should be fascinating to watch. Here's twelve that I'll be watching for over the summer and into training camp.
Does Lob City have a new home?
The Blazers weren't the only team to lose an elite big this offseason. DeAndre Jordan leaving for Dallas has taken a big bite out of the Clippers' high flying attack. Meanwhile, the Blazers have stacked their roster with guys that can get up.
Last year, the Blazers starting unit didn't really have anyone that could dive to the rim and finish alley oops. Fans might point to Aldridge's success with Andre Miller but those alley oops were rarely out of pick and rolls. Now look at the roster. Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum will have the ball in their hands the majority of the time and they'll be consistently flanked by three or four high flyers.
All these guys love to get up and down and hit the glass relentlessly. There's likely to be tons of dunks and lobs off of broken plays or quick run outs. We might not see as many in the halfcourt but...
How will the Blazers' pick and roll attack change?
Damian and CJ are gonna have their passing skills tested. Pick and pops are certainly effective with the right personnel but they're not all that challenging from a passing standpoint. Part of the reason the team's turnover numbers have been so low these past few years is because their bread and butter play was a low-risk maneuver.
Now, many of the Blazers' bigs are going to be rolling hard to the rim. That's pretty much all Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee are good for in half court sets. Throw in the fact that the spacing will be much worse and the reads out of the pick and roll will be much more challenging.
However, they could also be much more productive. Dunks are better than jumpers in a vacuum. Gerald Henderson and Al-Farouq Aminu can knock down shots from the corner so cross court passes could still be a useful strategy. Plus, it's going to be much harder for teams to take away Lillard's pull up threes when the big is rolling hard. The risk will go up but so should the reward. Who knows what the net result will be but the answer will largely depend on how well Lillard and McCollum handle the new pressure.
Speaking of spacing...
How many shooting coaches are you allowed to have on one team?
Seriously, think about the main weakness of every new Blazer. If we count Tim Frazier as "new", that's five players whose main weakness is their jump shot. Henderson can hit from the corners but struggles otherwise. That's a bit of a problem for a shooting guard. Aminu can kinda sorta hit from the corners but is a disaster everywhere else. Frazier shot the ball OK in the D-League but has really struggled in the NBA. Plus, none of their shots look good. There's a lot of work to be done with the new wing players.
The new bigs might be even worse. Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee basically never shoot past 10 feet and both of them shot less than 50% from the foul line. If you don't know what the acronym "YGTMYFT" means, I suggest you ask a neighbor. And we might see this one pop up by the end of the year: "YGTMYFFT!!!"
Now, shooting is just one skill and all these guys do a lot of other things well. But it's a pretty important skill and I'm not sure a single shooting coach could handle a portfolio that extensive. And that's not even considering Noah Vonleh. Many scouts had some concerns about his shooting coming into the league and, while his three point percentage was good last year, his sample size in the NBA is basically meaningless.
How inside out will the offense get?
If Vonleh can stroke it, then he and Meyers Leonard could form an interesting pair. It would give the Blazers a few bigs that can shoot to complement the wings that can't. Aminu especially has some particularly "big-like" skills with his rebounding and ability to finish off cuts towards the rim. Stotts could experiment with putting Leonard or Vonleh on the perimeter and running pick and rolls with Aminu. I'll be curious to see how funky he gets with the offense.
Can Meyers Leonard become a playmaker?
Meyers' role has been pretty basic, even during his breakout performance against Memphis. Don't be absolutely terrible on defense, shoot when you're open and pass the ball to the next guy if you're not. If that's all Meyers is capable of he's still a useful player but Portland won't be able to get too weird.
But we've all seen flashes of skillful brilliance from Leonard. In the first Summer League practice he caught the ball, pump faked, took two dribbles and then dunked through traffic. I remember a distinct play where Meyers did a similar thing but then the weakside defender helped so he swung the ball over his head and hit Steve Blake with a perfect pass in the corner. My mouth literally dropped and for the life of me I can't find a clip of this play.
Anyway, with an expanded role and the weird mix of talent around him, Meyers should have plenty of opportunities to test his playmaking skills. I'm through predicting what Meyers can and can't do but I'm excited to find out.
How will the big rotation play out?
What do you do with Chris Kaman? This is one of the more interesting questions in my mind. Portland is now in total rebuild mode. That means young players with upside get minutes even if it costs you a few games in the short term. The Blazers have four young bigs with upside, more than enough to gobble up all the minutes in the rotation. Is Kaman going to be ok with that? He's made statements recognizing he's nearing the end of his career but hardly playing is tough for anybody to swallow. This is especially true if the guys in front of you are demonstrably worse.
The two most established young big men on the team are Davis and Plumlee. We've already shown that neither of them can shoot a lick so how do you play them together? Meyers and Davis is an interesting pair. Vonleh and Plumlee is also intriguing. But it's not ideal to switch bigs out two at a time. I'm just not sure if Davis and Plumlee can share the court, especially considering the shooting woes of the team's wings.
Where have all of the post ups gone?
If Kaman doesn't play much then will we see any post ups ever? A few of the new guys post up occasionally (Henderson, Davis, and Plumlee) but they're all pretty bad. Davis is passable but I would still never run a play for him on the block.
This might not be a bad thing. The league is moving away from the post up as an offensive weapon and those guys should have enough size and skill to exploit mismatches if opponents try to switch everything. But for fans that have grown accustomed to the Aldridge centric offense these past few years, this could provide quite the shock.
If you're not going to post up then maybe...
How much small ball will we see?
I watched Aminu play for three minutes and my first thought was "Dang, that guy would be a perfect stretch four." He's super long. He can switch anything. He's strong enough to guard guys on the block. He rebounds exceptionally well. He can even protect the rim a little bit. And his shooting from the corner is somewhat useful if he's taking the spot of a traditional four man.
The problem is the roster is a little thin on wing players. There's much more talent at the power forward and center positions than there is at the small forward slot. Typically, you go small to get an extra skilled, active defender on the floor but Portland may not have enough of them. Playing Dame and CJ together is a defensive gamble with a rim protector on the floor. What happens without one? And if you can't play Dame and CJ, do you really increase the talent and skill on the floor by reaching for Allen Crabbe or Pat Connaughton? There's no easy answer to this.
Will Stotts return to an aggressive scheme on defense?
The Blazers defensive scheme was centered around the abilities of their big men. Neither Robin Lopez nor Aldridge was ever effective hedging screens. Neither could cover lots of ground on the the weakside. LaMarcus could certainly close out on shooters and switch, but he was never able to make long, weakside help rotations. Both were effective defending near the rim.
You could not find two bigs more different than Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee. If opponents get to the rim next year they're scoring. It's as simple as that. But Davis and Plumlee have a much better chance or preventing opponents from getting there in the first place. They're both much more mobile and can cover tons of ground. The Blazers' bigs have gone from being vertically dominant and horizontally challenged to the exact opposite.
Throw in the athleticism and length of Henderson and Aminu and we've got a little bit of a Milwaukee-ian flair to this roster. They became one of the best defensive teams in the league by running an aggressive scheme. In fact, the Blazers and Bucks were probably on complete opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of defensive style. It will be interesting to see if Stotts drifts that way to take advantage of his new personnel or if he sticks to his principles.
Will the Blazers switch more?
Henderson, Aminu, and Davis should be able to switch everything with ease. They're very similar in character to the Warriors but not in terms of quality. Still, there's some potential here. I'll be especially curious if Stotts switches with Damian or CJ and how they handle it.
The Blazers were a bit of an old school team last year. They've got the pieces to return to the cutting edge. Well, minus the shooting but that's why they call it a rebuild.
Will Pat Connaughton see the court?
A fairly obvious question, the opportunity is certainly there for Pat. The wing positions are the thinnest on the roster. Connaughton played a significant amount of power forward in college. If he can can competently defend bigger wings in the NBA then his shooting would be an oasis within a desert of ineptitude on this team. CJ will likely gobble up all the backup shooting guard minutes but there's an opportunity at small forward.
How good is Noah Vonleh?
This is perhaps the most important question for the Blazers. Strategy and schemes don't matter if you don't have enough talent to win. Of all the players on the roster, Vonleh has the largest range of possible outcomes. He could be really good, adding another arrow into Olshey's quiver of assets. Or he could be really bad, meaning we lost Aldridge and Batum for nothing. If it's the former and Olshey nails a top lottery pick next year, the Blazers could be back in business pretty quickly. If it's the latter, who knows?
The scouting report on Vonleh is unique. He was billed as a large, long power forward who could face up, drive by guys, and shoot from the outside. That's a pretty intriguing player but the shooting ability is key to that equation. You can't drive by anybody if they don't guard you in the first place and his post game is fairly undeveloped. Unlike most stretch four prospects, Vonleh hardly shot the three in college and his reputation was primarily built during workouts and practices. Shooting is a pretty isolated skill, but still. Noah is intriguing but Blazers fans are kidding themselves if they don't recognize there's some bust potential here.
We start to get some answers Saturday in what promises to be the beginning of an interesting season.