Portland's unlikeliest starting forward is the subject of today's Blazer's Edge Mailbag question. If you have queries about the Portland Trail Blazers, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll try to get to them!
I've watched nearly every game this season and i cannot understand why Noah Vonleh is still starting. Yes, the Blazers need to development its young talent because we are not competing for a championship. However, the Blazers have other young talent that they need to develop who can actually contribute (personally, I think Cliff Alexander could contribute more and Leonard needs more minutes).
Can you explain why the Blazers are playing Vonleh 12-18 minutes a game when he clearly is not ready to contribute in the NBA?
That's a complex question. The global answers:
1. Vonleh is 20 years old and has a body that won't quit. He doesn't show it often, but every once in a while he'll put on a move that leaves jaws dropping. No other big man on the team has the upside he does. A team in Portland's situation has to play him. It's like buying that Powerball ticket. The chances of winning big are infinitesimal, but if it does hit...wow. Minutes are cheap and plentiful on a team winning 40% of its games. Even if the odds are against Vonleh, Portland's investment is small compared to the possible reward.
2. Rotations spring from the balance between General Manager and Head Coach. When wins and playoff berths are the main currency, coaches tend to have more say. When rosters are in transition and development is key, GM's gain influence. Guess which situation the Blazers are in? Neil Olshey just began a 5-year rebuilding project. Terry Stotts is operating on the last year of his contract with an option for another year at the team's discretion. I'm not suggesting that Olshey is feeding Stotts lineups. We don't know that dynamic. But there'll never be more incentive to play a guy like Vonleh than there is in Portland right now. The front office didn't trade Nicolas Batum for him just to watch him practice.
As long as Vonleh shows something, he'll be out there. He's done that...mostly. In this atmosphere it's enough.
Keeping Vonleh in the starting lineup seems like more of a stretch. A preliminary look at his numbers shows that he doesn't merit it. The sample size is small in both cases, but if he disappointed in Charlotte last year--to the point they traded him--he's crushed hopes in Portland. His shooting percentage remains sub-.400. His three-point percentage has plummeted from 38.5% to 17.6%. He's averaging fewer points, rebounds, and blocks per minute and far more fouls. He's improved his offense at the rim and the foul line, but not anywhere else.
Even with all that, there are still reasons to place Vonleh with the starters instead of hiding him in the second unit...provided you're committed to playing him in the first place. Ed Davis is a superior forward but he clashes with Mason Plumlee. They both need to occupy the lane. Cliff Alexander probably doesn't have Vonleh's potential but even if you argue he does, he also likes inside play. In the first unit they'd be stepping on Plumlee's toes, clogging up the lane and preventing drives by the guards. If you're going to start Plumlee (and, by the way, Al-Farouq Aminu on the other side), Vonleh and Meyers Leonard make more sense as companions.
The million-dollar question is why Vonleh continued to start after Leonard returned from injury earlier this season. Leonard's up-and-down play provides part of the answer, but there's more.
Even though Vonleh plays half again as many minutes this year as he did last, he gets fewer shot attempts per minute. This contributes to his poor showing. It's a direct result of playing with two offensive-minded starting guards. The Blazers don't want that to happen to Leonard too, so they offset his minutes, using Vonleh to stagger Leonard into the rotation when he can actually shoot more.
Leonard also provides a bigger boost to the offense than Vonleh. It makes sense to play him in minutes when that boost dues the most good...when one of the starting guards is resting. As long as Vonleh starts, Leonard's offense and Vonleh's lack of same each find their proper place.
If you're going to play Vonleh anyway, do you want to feature him among similarly inexperienced players where his weaknesses will be exposed, perhaps cascading the lineup into chaos? It's easier to put him out there with four guys who know what they're doing. His mistakes won't cost as much and he might even be able to extend the floor with rangy play on both ends...a quality that no other power forward can match in the same way.
As you can see, the decision to play and start Vonleh has as much to do with the roster and environment as with Vonleh himself. The short answer to your question is that the Blazers are playing him because they don't have a better answer right now and they don't have much to lose in doing so. Someday that situation will change. Vonleh is in a race against time, trying to improve his play before the hourglass runs out on the conditions that support his inclusion in the rotation. Whether he wins that race is anybody's guess. Right now the Blazers are content to see him run it and watch what happens.
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