After a missing a 13-game stretch with a calf injury - during which the Trail Blazers played some downright atrocious defense - Al-Farouq Aminu is probable for tonight’s game against the Chicago Bulls, the first game of a five-game road trip.
It’s easy to underestimate Aminu’s importance to the Blazers, especially with his horrid early season offensive output, but it looks like Chief will be coming back just in time.
Aminu is clearly the best defender on Portland’s roster, allowing a paltry 0.64 points per possession on defense. Of course, having missed nearly a month, this is a smaller-than-ideal sample size but a significant jump over the Blazers’ dead-last ranked 1.001 point’s allowed per possession. Aminu excels particularly in two areas: isolation defense and covering the pick-and-roll as the big man, both areas in which Portland desperately needs to see improvement.
Ed Davis did an admirable job filling in for Aminu as the starting power forward over the last several weeks, but he struggles to step out and defend, ranking in the bottom quartile of bigs in pick-and-roll situations, in terms of points per possession, while Aminu is in the 52nd percentile - not great, but a vast improvement. This is amplified when paired with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, two undersized guards who struggle to fight through picks. When considering how each player handles stepping out to hedge on ball handlers, there really is no comparison between Davis and Aminu.
The other major factor in Aminu’s importance to the Portland defense is his ability to switch between the three and four with Mo Harkless. This minimizes the impact of off ball screens or, more importantly, pick-and-rolls/isolation plays with wings who like to create in halfcourt sets with the ball in their hands. Looking at Portland’s opponents on the upcoming eight-out-of-nine-on-the-road schedule shows an abundance of these types of players:
Chicago Bulls: Jimmy Butler
Milwaukie Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Indiana Pacers: Paul George
Denver Nuggets: Danilo Gallinari
Golden State Warriors: Kevin Durant
Sacramento Kings: Rudy Gay
Obviously, not all of these teams are world-beaters, but having Aminu back in the lineup gives the Blazers a second quality wing defender while he and Harkless take turns working on the scorers mentioned above. Having a second help defender of average-to-above-average quality might not seem like a big deal, but with the way Portland has been defending thus far, any sort of additional defensive flexibility will feel massive in the overall scheme. Basically, they need all the help they can get while they continue to refine their defensive execution.
The benefits don’t end their, however. Though Davis has started to find himself over the last few games after a rough start to the season, being able to move him back to a bench unit that is showing signs of life will be beneficial. Coach Terry Stotts will have more options to play Davis and Meyers Leonard based on match ups and in-game performance, opting to either stretch the floor with Leonard or use Davis to bang in the paint.
All that said, Aminu was an absolute disaster on the offensive side of the ball before his injury - averaging just over six points on 27 percent shooting. Fortunately, there’s almost no possible way he’ll continue shooting that poorly upon his return because, frankly, it couldn’t have gotten much worse. Aminu wasn’t just missing, but was missing badly. His career-high 36 percent shooting from the 3-point line last year was bound to regress a little bit, but Aminu is shooting less than 31 percent from inside the arc as well - a slump so terrible that it practically isn’t sustainable.
Even if Aminu continues to struggle to some degree offensively, Portland’s bench - as mentioned above - is starting to wake up. Over the last seven games, Evan Turner is averaging 13 points on 49 percent shooting, Allen Crabbe has scored more than 15 points in each of the last two games, and Meyers Leonard is shooting nearly 43 percent from the 3-point line since the beginning of Portland’s last five-game road trip. This isn’t the same team that so badly needed production from anyone, including Aminu, in early November. Simply put - scoring points isn’t the problem for the Blazers.
Portland has one of the more difficult December schedules in the entire league. Fortunately, Aminu should provide them a defensive boost that they desperately need, right when they need it most. He doesn’t solve the problem, but he surely will contribute to its resolution.
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