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How Versatile are the Trail Blazers?

The Portland Trail Blazers may be small in the backcourt, but they make up for it with extra length and versatility throughout the rest of the roster.

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Portland Trail Blazers v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Today’s NBA game has largely transitioned from players filling traditional and specific roles on their teams to an era of position-less basketball. Over the last few years, plenty of comparisons have been made between the Portland Trail Blazers and the league’s small-ball aficionados, the Golden State Warriors. This is namely because of the output coming from both teams’ dynamic backcourts, but also because of the free flowing and open offenses they demonstrate.

However, one thing that appears overlooked is that Portland hasn’t really transitioned into the era of position-less basketball. They’re a hybrid unto themselves. Lacking a superstar point-forward like LeBron James or Draymond Green, The Blazers still adhere to quasi-archetypical positions: a point guard who sets the table and scores, a shooting guard who does the same, a jack-of-all-trades small forward, and a mixed bag of rebounding, scoring, and defending from the power forward and center spots.

In fact, what makes Portland unique is that they’re straddling the line between old and new. Don’t have a game changing do-it-all superstar who can play positions 1-4 on both ends of the floor? Fine. Insert explosive scoring from the backcourt that’s nearly unstoppable and install more wrinkles than a shar-pei puppy.

Al-Farouq Aminu might not provide the same dynamic style of play as Lebron, but he can guard four positions, hit the occasional 3-pointer, and allow the Blazers to switch along the front line in the pick-and-roll game. The same can be said for the likes of Moe Harkless, Allen Crabbe, and Evan Turner. These players offer enough versatility to counter nearly anything opposing teams throw their way. Each of these players has an overlap in certain skills but each offers his own additional grab bag of awesomeness.

Exactly what do the Blazers look like, quantifiably as a lineup though? What does this versatility add up to?

Glad you asked.

Let’s take a look at how Portland’s lineup breaks down by height, weight, and wingspan. For each grouping, there is a minimum, maximum, and a weighted average, which takes into account minutes played. With players switching teams this makes the process a little difficult, but considering that challenge, I went though each breakdown and applied smoothing as well as player-for-player changes, accounting for lineup tweaks toward the end of last season. This model is far from perfect, but it does give a sense for what Portland has to work with.

Height is something that’s obviously key to the sport of basketball. Thank you Captain Obvious. However, it’s about height in the right places - “effective height” - that makes the difference. Having a 6-foot-6 point guard is nice, but doesn’t typically reap the same results as, say, adding five inches to a small forward, bumping him up to 6-foot-11 or 7-feet tall. This is something Portland has latched onto heavily.

Here you can see that Portland has invested heavily in the “big in the right places” mindset. At 6-foot-6, Allen Crabbe is the the shortest small forward Portland has on the roster this year. However, with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, he’s got the length to cover up for any deficiency there. And more often than not, he slides down to the shooting guard position where he’s well above average in both respects for the position.

The Blazers are more than willing to give up measurements in the backcourt positions due to the production the get from those Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, however, they look to cover up what may be seen as a shortcoming by being bigger than average at the rest of the positions.

The average NBA player last season checked in at almost 6-foot-7 and 216 pounds. Portland’s roster (based on weighted measurements) comes in at an average of slightly over 6-foot-7 and 217 pounds. Less data is available on average wingspan, but the Trail Blazers certainly aren’t lacking in that department overall with their average of 82.43 inches - or over 6-foot-10.

Things get a little murky for Portland when looking at the wingspans at the big positions. Mason Plumlee got the bulk of the minutes at center last season, and he’s also the rarest of NBA body types: a near 7-footer with a wingspan shorter than his height.

Josh Levin of Slate.com published a story in 2014 detailing the difference between NBA players and us mere mortals:

The Blazers are able to overcome Plumlee’s shorter wingspan for a couple of reasons. First off, Plumlee’s ability to create for others is a skillset that meshes incredibly well with Portland’s starting lineup. Plumlee also has otherworldly hops:

But beyond those reasons, the Blazers make up for it by being incredibly “wingspanny” at both forward positions. Of course, they’ve also looked to shore this up a bit more by adding Festus Ezeli to the roster, who measures a shade under 7-feet tall with an absurd 89.5-inch wingspan - over seven feet and five inches from point-to-point.

If you had never watched a Trail Blazers game before, you could begin to see how interchangeable the players are in the frontcourt. Having one guy who can do everything is awesome. But having five or six players who can do a lot is surefire way to replicate and spread that kind of production around. While there may be some redundancy there at times, that redundancy can also make the Trail Blazers a bit less susceptible to injury. Of course this doesn’t hold true across the board, as any long absence for McCollum or Lillard would surely spell problems for Portland. The depth and breadth of Portland’s frontcourt, from a measurable standpoint, is pretty astounding.

One thing that gets lost in the ever-changing landscape of the NBA is weight. With the evolution of the super-skinny-superstar, a la Kevin Durant, the life and times of the big boy have faded into the rearview. However, having enough weight, particularly in the rear, can reap benefits as well:

In the closing minutes of the fourth quarter against the Phoenix Suns last week, Noah Vonleh - at 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds - found himself in the post against rookie forward Marquese Chriss. Chriss checks in at 6-foot-10 and 233 pounds. Now, if Chriss is 233 pounds, one can only assume that Vonleh is probably closer to the 250-pound region or Chriss had a REALLY big brunch before stepping on the scale. Just watch this 5-minute clip and see how easily Vonleh is able to uproot and move Chriss wherever he wants:

When you take a look at Portland as a team another trend emerges: they’re heavy on the back end and light in the backcourt.

In Portland’s first three preseason games they’ve faced three different teams that are physically constructed quite differently.

The Utah Jazz have size and length across the board, from Rudy Gobert to Dante Exum; they’re just a big team. Portland adjusted well and handled Utah’s size, using their own quickness and versatility to counter. Strangely enough, Lillard even pressed the issue inside, continually finishing at the rim - taking away and even neutralizing Utah’s biggest strength.

The Suns, a lightning-quick and long team, lack a bit on the weight scale. While Eric Bledsoe may be a bowling ball of a point guard, Chriss, Devin Booker (who’s my new NBA crush), and Dragan Bender need to spend a little more time at the buffet before their NBA bodies are fully formed. Again, Portland was able to adapt and take advantage of the situation.

The theme here is that the Trail Blazers are flexible enough across the board to survive against the various strengths of the opposition. They have the ability to mix-and-match with the league has to offer, and it’s certainly a unique way to target an opponent. I’ve longed for the day when NBA coaches changed their starting lineups to suit that night’s specific opponent, much the way MLB managers build their lineups for opposing pitchers and ball parks. It doesn’t look like we’ve quite reached that point yet, but the Blazers and coach Terry Stotts may be on to something here.