Perhaps no group of players on the 2015-16 Trail Blazers roster has been dissected as much as the starting frontcourt. Managing to be praised, maligned, tolerated, admired, criticized, and accepted at various parts of the season, Mason Plumlee, Maurice Harkless, and Al-Farouq Aminu were ultimately net positives for the team.
As all three players were new acquisitions with little collective experience between them (Plumlee is the old man of the group, at 25 years old on Opening Night), there was much anticipation among Blazer fans as to what each player would bring to the table. All three had shown flashes of serious upside, yet each player was clearly limited in at least one facet of the game; Aminu and Harkless with their outside shooting, Aminu with his handles, Plumlee and Harkless from the free throw line, Plumlee with his ability to affect shots at the rim, etc., etc.
To a degree, these limitations held true, but progress was made in several areas. Aminu, known as a hybrid small/power forward with a high motor and defensive chops, played a career-high 28.5 minutes per game this season and responded by averaging double-figure scoring for the first time in his career, at 10.2 points per game. Impressively, he tripled his attempts from beyond the arc to 4.3 attempts per game and shot 36 percent; not elite, but not bad for a player whose previous career high was 31 percent.
Aminu did have some struggles with the ball, the majority of it a function of two things - odd shot mechanics that seem to contribute to his inability to knock down jumpers at a higher rate when he is wide open, and difficulty handling the ball in traffic, despite his tendency to try to do so at least twice per game.
Offensively, Aminu improved his efficiency over the course of the season, even if his actual output stayed consistent. As his usage rate decreased over the course of the year, Aminu's ORtg actually increased every month, from a paltry 94 in October, to a blistering 114 in April.
Aminu lived up to his reputation on the defensive end for the most part. His DRtg of 107 was slightly better than the team average of 108, but he was often tasked with guarding the opponents' best scorer, whether on the wing or defending the point guard position in an effort to hide Damian Lillard on defense.
The Trail Blazers' season was an up and down affair that ended with some success and hope for the future. No one player mirrors this more than Maurice Harkless. Acquired from the Orlando Magic in the offseason for a top-55 protected second round pick (i.e. nothing) Harkless had been disappointing in Orlando. After showing huge upside in his rookie season, he regressed slightly in his sophomore year, often getting yanked from the court after minor mistakes. By the time his third year rolled around, his confidence was clearly shot and he barely saw the court, averaging 15 minutes per game, but racking up more and more DNP-CDs as the season rolled on.
The situation in Portland seemed perfect for Harkless to turn things around - a young team with low expectations and a chance to get out on the court without having to look over his shoulder. Unfortunately for Harkless, the season started to play out similarly to his time in Orlando, as his minutes decreased each month, from 23.5 in October, down to 13.9 per game in January, which included a couple DNP-CDs to go along with games of five minutes, nine minutes, two minutes, and three minutes.
Harkless has talked about how Lillard would reach out to him during this time and tell him to keep his head up and keep working, because the Blazers would need him at some point. Lillard was right, as Harkless was inserted into the starting lineup in place of Noah Vonleh on March 23 and immediately ramped up his engagement and aggression, averaging 12 points and 6.5 rebounds the rest of the way.
Not a power forward in the traditional sense or even in the mold of a "stretch four," Harkless was able to slide in with Aminu and create a versatile defensive tandem that can rotate between the block and the perimeter, defending positions 1-4 with varying degrees of success. Harkless did a good job staying locked in on the defensive end, especially after becoming the full-time starter. It's clear that Harkless is one of those guys who needs to know what his minutes are going to look like.
Blazers center Mason Plumlee, like Aminu, started all 82 games for Portland last season. After having spent the first two years of his career backing up Brook Lopez with success in Brooklyn, Plumlee was an intriguing piece going into the season. Never a good shooter, Plumlee was still a highly efficient offensive player in his limited minutes, due to the fact that most of his makes were within three feet of the rim.
Much of the scouting report on Plumlee held true - poor shooter, highly athletic, disappointing shot-blocking ability for a big man. Plumlee also surprised Portland in a couple of ways. A poor free throw shooter, he improved in fits and spurts over the course of the season, shooting 71 percent over March and April.
Most importantly to Portland's success, Plumlee showed an ample ability to facilitate from the high post within the flow of Terry Stotts' offense, averaging nearly three assists per night. With Plumlee able to find the open man, he acted as a release valve for Lillard and CJ McCollum to work off screens and force the defense to adapt.
Plumlee did a good job for the most part of understanding his limitations and playing within himself. As such, he had a very consistent if unspectacular season, averaging 9.1 points and 7.7 rebounds in 25 minutes per night.
Looking at Portland's goals headed into last season, one would have to say that this group met the challenge. The front office decided to pick up some undervalued young frontcourt talent and threw them out there to see what would stick. Each player showed improvement, which was the goal, but with Portland's surprising success last year possibly accelerating their rebuild, it's clear that the frontcourt collective still has too many holes to push the team to the next level.
With Harkless a restricted free agent and Aminu/Plumlee on team friendly (i.e. tradeable) contracts, it's possible that one or more of the three will not be back in a Blazer uniform next season. Each player did well to raise their stock in 2015-16, but there are still as many questions as answers in the Trail Blazers' frontcourt.