Time for another crack at the Blazer's Edge Mailbag, covering your interesting and important Portland Trail Blazers questions! As always, if you'd like us to consider a topic you can submit it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was wondering, assuming that Al-Farouq Aminu and Meyers Leonard start, what will stop teams from putting their small forward on Meyers? And, if the other team puts their center/rim protector on Davis or Plumlee, will Aminu be able to punish teams for putting their other big on them?
We've already seen the Grizzlies put Green on Meyers in the playoffs. While he did a reasonable job defending Green, we couldn't really counter it. Meyers isn't one to shoot over a smaller defender ala Lamarcus Aldridge, and his post game probably won't be ready even against smaller players. We also haven't seen him be particularly aggressive with his offensive rebounding like Lopez would do to punish a team for putting its smaller player on him.
And also in those playoffs, we saw Mozgov do a pretty solid job defending Andre Iguodala. I'm not sure we can expect Aminu to do better against power forwards. Of course, it will still be helpful that they will still be pulled out farther than normal to cover Aminu, but that diminishes Meyer's advantage. And that doesn't even count teams that will go small, perhaps even putting a big guard on Meyers.
We may not be good enough to see teams do this that often in the regular season, but it would be nice to know that there are ways to counter it. Thanks!
Thanks, Mike. Your question is fascinating because it hits on two critical themes that will dominate the 2015-16 season for the Trail Blazers. Let's cover both.
Pressure on Portland's Young Stars
It's ridiculous to claim that any Trail Blazers are under pressure this year in the empirical sense. What LeBron James says in any given second-quarter timeout will have more impact on the league (and receive more attention nationally) than the Blazers' entire season. This team has been built with 2018-2020 in mind, not 2016. When the expectation sits around 30 wins for the year, pressure is low.
But the question remains: is this team on its way to success already or will the rebuild need to continue through more iterations before the way forward becomes clear? The answer to that question rests on the shoulders of Portland's young potential stars.
On a team with an average age of approximately 16 we could tab almost any player as a potential future star. For our purposes we'll circle three high, home-grown draft picks around which the roster has been built: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Meyers Leonard. All three have acres of potential minutes ahead of them. They're the only players left on the roster capable of hitting a three-pointer. Lillard and McCollum are the only ball handlers also capable of scoring. Leonard is the only big with offense beyond 4 feet. The door is wide open for all three to show what they've got. The team won't just feature them, it'll depend on them.
As you point out, defenses will know this as well. None of the three have been in a position to carry the team without aid. McCollum and Leonard haven't carried the team at all. Odds are somebody will try to make life difficult for them, making them prove they can perform without LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews as outlets, without Nicolas Batum around to handle the ball or come to the rescue on the defensive end.
Your example of switching a smaller player onto Leonard and leaving a larger one sagging off of Aminu is but one illustration. Wise teams will likely stick a defender right in Lillard's radiator grill and drop everybody else inside, leaving Dame to choose between the step-back or driving into traffic. If he passes, they'll be happy to see his teammates attempting threes and dribbling into mid-range runners.
The cures to Lillard's Dilemma? Why none other than Meyers Leonard and CJ McCollum, of course. (With a hat tip, at least temporarily, to Gerald Henderson, who even now should be working on his three-point stroke.) If Damian's young teammates take advantage of their open opportunities, everybody should look good. If one or both falter, nobody's going to look good.
Then again, this season isn't about looking good as much as it's about finding out who has the potential to do so. If the Blazers see glimmers of hope from their young trio, they have plenty of time to build around them via draft, free agency, and trades. If those glimmers never materialize, they'll have a hard time finding any substitutes on this year's squad. They'll also be building from a much blanker slate moving forward.
Many Skills Spread Thin Does Not Equal Well-Rounded
Your Leonard-Aminu example also highlights another peculiarity of this roster. The Blazers are stocked with players who are good as long as they can play to their strengths. Leonard is developing into a great perimeter shooting big. Aminu is fantastic when heading towards the basket. Everybody in the lineup does a couple things well. But you can only play 5 players at a time and that's going to leave holes.
Last year's lineup was the antithesis of this phenomenon. It started with Aldridge catching the ball either in the extended post or off a pick and pop. In most cases the opponent couldn't stop him from getting a decent shot without doubling. If they did send help, everybody but Robin Lopez could hit the three. And even Lopez found success inside when he was single-covered due to all the potential threats around him. Even though individual players had strengths and weaknesses--Matthews on the dribble was a sight to behold--every player was multi-faceted enough to present problems for the defense. Defenders could never sit on a certain pitch.
The Blazers still have all those skills. They're just spread thinner, among more players. The aggregate might seem similar to last year's starters and the potential may eventually reach that level, but the immediate effect won't be the same. Defenders will not only be able to sit on a certain pitch, they'll be able to sit on the exact pitch of nearly every player on the floor. The Blazers will still score, obviously. But NBA games aren't won and lost on whether you can score--nearly every player in the league can under the right circumstances--but on how easily you score on average. Despite common verbiage, defenses don't really stop offenses, they blunt them. The Blazers will field plenty of players who look unstoppable when they're in their wheelhouse. But on average this lineup is going to be pretty easy to blunt. Opponents will know where and how the offense is coming from a given player and will be able to compensate for the few players they can't cover by crowding the lane against the easiest shots.
In short, I see your scenario as a definite possibility, along with a dozen or so others. The Blazers will spend the season learning to cope with such things and learning if they have the personnel to do so. Even if they don't need to become much more talented (and they probably do) at minimum they'll need to gain more experience--in general and with each other--and develop more complexity in order to find success.
Once again, send your Mailbag questions to email@example.com. We're happy to read every one and will try to reply to most!