Even if you weren't entirely thrilled with the way the Trail Blazers' massive summer 2015 rebuild went down, you have to give GM Neil Olshey credit for something - he chose a direction and had the conviction to commit to it.
Olshey revved the engine, floored the gas pedal and did not look back. Once he had decided to rebuild the team post-LaMarcus Aldridge around a collection of young talent, he went all out. He stockpiled every player he could find that fit the mold he was going for - everyone within the first six seasons of their careers, everyone between ages 20 and 27. If they met his criteria, they were in; if not, they were gone. No exceptions.
Well, except one exception. The one guy who sticks out like a sore thumb on this roster full of promising youngsters is Chris Kaman, the well-traveled backup center who turned 33 years old during the Blazers' first-round playoff series this spring and is now preparing for his 13th NBA season. On a roster that's ostensibly geared toward being competitive sometime around 2018, it's jarring to see Kaman, who will in all likelihood be long retired by then.
So what gives? If Olshey was willing to cast away just about every other experienced player on the roster this summer - not just the big-name free agents, but also the bench guys like Steve Blake, then why not Kaman too? What's the point of keeping him?
The most obvious answer, and quite possibly the correct one for all I know, is that Olshey has already tried to move the big fella but so far hasn't succeeded. It's also perfectly reasonable to speculate that he's still working the phones now, looking for a buyer even with training camp fast approaching. But at this time of year, with teams around the NBA solidifying their rosters for the preseason, trades are uncommon, and it's probably just about time for us here in Portland to face the facts: Kaman is likely to remain a Blazer for the time being. Barring a bizarre preseason personnel move, he'll at least be on the bench for opening night against New Orleans on Oct. 28, and perhaps even well past that.
Now, brace yourself, because I'm about to offer up a contrarian, borderline-crazy opinion: That's not entirely a bad thing.
Don't get me wrong - I fully understand the logic behind moving Kaman if an opportunity arises. You're trying to build a young, upside-laden team, and there's probably a gettable asset out there that can aid in that mission. Sure. The counterargument is that Kaman, despite his age and the 20,000 NBA minutes already under his belt, is still a useful NBA basketball player. He's not a guy you just give away.
This would be different if the Blazers were the Philadelphia 76ers - a team that's straight-up tanking and has no qualms about finishing the season 20-62. Portland is not that. This group isn't looking to bottom out - rather, a more reasonable hope for the Blazers this season is they develop the young talent, stay competitive for much of the season, play a few meaningful games in March and end up with 35 wins or more. Not saying that'll happen, necessarily, but it's a good goal to shoot for. And Chris Kaman, who's a solid NBA big man on both ends of the floor, can help with that goal.
Portland already has a nice little group of big men on the roster even without Kaman's presence, but there are questions about how they fit. The two key bigs that Olshey acquired this summer, Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis, are both solid players, but it's hard to see the two playing together much in Portland. I covered this in another article earlier this summer, but to review, here's the thing about Plumlee: 97.7 percent of his shots in Brooklyn last season were within 10 feet of the rim. He plays around the basket and only around the basket. Davis is much the same way - 96.1 percent of his shots last season with the Lakers came within 10 feet. In the modern NBA, you can't play two guys like that at the same time - it just won't work. You'll inevitably clog the paint and make it impossible for your guards to penetrate on pick-and-rolls. On the Blazers, this means taking away a huge part of both Damian Lillard's game and C.J. McCollum's.
So whenever you play either Plumlee or Davis, you need to have another big on the floor with him who can space the floor. Meyers Leonard is capable of being that guy, obviously, but he can't play 48 minutes a night, so you'll need a second big with at least a decent semblance of a mid-range game.
Hello there, Mr. Kaman.
Kaman is a funky player - he's 7 feet tall, usually listed at somewhere between 265 and 275 pounds, and he has the build (and hairstyle) of a lumberjack. Everything about him says "beastly low-post player." Except then you actually watch him, and that's only sometimes accurate. Unlike Plumlee or Davis, Kaman only attempts 63.4 of his shots from within 10 feet, and when he steps out beyond that distance, he can actually be a really valuable player offensively.
For a big, lumbering center, Kaman has actually carved out a nice niche for himself in Portland as a pick-and-roll player. Not by diving to the basket, mind you, but by popping out for elbow jumpers that defenses rarely expect. Watch this play - Kaman's guarded by Golden State's Marreese Speights, and Steve Blake by Justin Holiday. When Kaman arrives with the pick and then doesn't dive immediately for the rim, neither defender pays Kaman any respect - Holiday goes under the screen, Speights hangs back at the basket, and Kaman is left wide open at the elbow. The choice is easy for Blake - toss it out to the big fella for the 17-foot jumper. Kaman shot 44.7 percent last season when he was between 16 feet and the 3-point line - that's well above the league average of 39.4 percent. He's lethal from that distance, and it adds another element to the Blazers' offense.
He doesn't necessarily have to set picks to get open, either. For example, watch Kaman here:
Kaman excels when surrounded by lots of little guys who can cut and create shots for him. Watch him playing with Blake, McCollum, Arron Afflalo and Dorell Wright here - Kaman is obviously the center in this lineup, but rather than position himself near the rim and clog up the paint for his teammates' dribble penetration, he lingers around the elbow instead. The result is that when McCollum eventually attacks the rim, he leaves Phoenix's Alex Len with a difficult choice between collapsing into the paint to help T.J. Warren double and hanging back with Kaman. He chooses to double, and McCollum does a fantastic job of recognizing the open teammate for the easy two points.
Every team these days is looking for versatile big men - guys who are equally comfortable playing around the elbows as they are at the rim. Kaman certainly doesn't look like that type of player at first glance, but the more you watch him, the more he appears to be precisely that guy.
And it's not just on the offensive end, either. Watch him on D:
Kaman starts out this January matchup against Sacramento guarding DeMarcus Cousins, which seems like a natural fit since they're both big, muscular dudes who throw their weight around the painted area. Rather than play to Kaman's (perceived) strength, he decides to start out the game by challenging the Blazer big - seeing how he can guard the mid-range game. Turns out, quite well. Watch Kaman's positioning as this play evolves. As Cousins lingers around 15 feet from the basket, Kaman keeps a nice balance between keeping an eye on his man and staying in position to protect the rim. He's aware that either Darren Collison or Jason Thompson could be a threat to drive, so he stays back to deter them. Then, when Cousins gets the ball out beyond the elbow, Kaman knows exactly when to commit to getting out there and contesting the jump shot. He gets there, he contests, and Cousins misses.
Meanwhile, Kaman's also no slouch if you try to take him into the post. Watch him against Cousins again, just a couple minutes later:
Cousins gets the ball in the same position as last time, but since shooting didn't work, he tries to back Kaman down on this go around. Again, no dice. Kaman muscles up against the opposing big man nicely, keeping a hand in his face without overcommitting to chasing the little up-fakes that Cousins throws his way. Again, Cousins ends up settling for a difficult, contested shot, and again, it's a miss.
To clarify here, none of the above analysis is meant to say that Chris Kaman is the second coming of Bill Russell. A quick look at the advanced statistics reveals that on the whole, Kaman is a perfectly average NBA big man. Kaman averaged 96.4 points per 100 possessions in pick-and-roll situations last season, a middling figure that puts him in the same ballpark with fellow reserve bigs Mitch McGary and Matt Bonner. As a spot-up shooter, he was good for 86.0 points for 100, comparable to guys like Chris Andersen and the aforementioned Speights. Defensively, Kaman was significantly inferior to Robin Lopez in Portland last season, as evidenced by opponents' 106.3 points per 100 plays with Kaman on the floor and 102.7 with him off. ESPN's Real Plus-Minus ranks Kaman as the 59th best defensive center in the league.
Having said all of this, Kaman has enough veteran tricks in his repertoire that he's a useful guy to have around. If you're lucky, he may even be able to teach a few things to the Blazers' incoming class of young big men before he moves on. The Oregonian's Joe Freeman reported recently that Kaman emerged as a close friend and mentor to Leonard last season - imagine if that relationship not only continues but extends to Plumlee, Davis and Noah Vonleh as well?
The Blazers' ultimate goal is to build a team that's really good three years from now. Kaman can't help with that directly, in all likelihood, but he can certainly play a role by helping to develop the young talent that comprises that winning Portland team of the future. Maybe he helps his less experienced teammates shore up some weaknesses in their play. What if he helps Leonard grow as a rim defender and rebounder, or Plumlee or Davis develop a mid-range game, or Vonleh improve his decision-making in the pick-and-roll? Any and all of the above would be welcome developments, would they not?
This conversation could all be for naught. Within a few months, Kaman could be long gone from Portland. There are a couple of key dates to keep in mind this season - one is the Dec. 15 end of the trade moratorium. From that day on, any player who was signed in free agency this summer is eligible to be dealt to a new team. That's why a lot of trade rumors begin to surface in December, whereas they would have been impossible previously. The other key date is Feb. 18, 2016, when the trade deadline hits at 12 p.m. Pacific. During that two-month window, Kaman and his $5,016,000 salary will be imminently movable. For now, though, there are worse things than having a solid backup center on your roster on a reasonable contract.
It's been a weird chapter in Chris Kaman's career. A year ago, he was brought to Portland because he fit perfectly - along with Blake, he was that last little dose of veteran savvy that the Blazers needed to put their borderline title-contending team over the top. Back then, his experience was an asset; a lot's changed in 14 months.
Don't be fooled, though. Even now, surrounded by guys who were born when he was in junior high, a veteran like Kaman still has something to offer. It's just that how much that something is, and how long the Blazers will take advantage of it, remain to be seen.