With the opening of 2016 NBA free agency less than a week away, Portland fans will undoubtedly be looking at a different roster next season. The Blazers will be looking to sign a big-time free agent, and also have decisions to make regarding the future of free agent rotation players Gerald Henderson, Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, and Maurice Harkless.
Try as we might, it can be maddening to predict what's going to happen to this roster at this time of year. The draft is over (and Portland was hardly a part of it) but free agency rumors haven't really kicked in to gear yet.
Since the Blazers are actively trying to move further along in their surprisingly successful rebuild, let's look at what kind of improvement is reasonable from the rotation players who are currently under contract. Even this exercise doesn't fully remove speculation from the equation. A trade could ship any of these guys out the door this summer (obviously some more likely than others), but this is a close as we can get at this point in the offseason.
At 27 years old, Ed Davis is entering the prime of his career. Never a high-minutes guy, Davis averaged 20.8 minutes per game last season, just a tick below his career average. A center with the body of a power forward, Davis excelled off the bench for the Blazers, shooting a career high 61 percent from the floor and putting up more than seven rebounds per game.
Always a good finisher around the rim, Davis showed improved ability to finish off the pick-and-roll. He averaged nearly five offensive rebounds per 36 minutes and was a clear leader of the bench unit at times, often putting together five minute stretches that would singlehandedly turn momentum in Portland's favor.
Though he had his best free throw shooting season in three years, Davis shot 56 percent from the charity stripe, occasionally tempting opponents to intentionally foul him. Aware of his limitations from this range, Davis took 98 percent of his looks from within 10 feet last year.
For big men of Davis' age, improvement usually comes in two ways; the development of some sort of jump shot, and the footwork/positioning/so-called "craftiness" that comes with figuring your opponents out after having spent a few years in the league learning the tricks.
Biggest need: a 12-15 foot jump shot
With six seasons under his belt, it's hard to believe that Aminu is still only 25 years old. Coming off the first year of a four-year deal with the Blazers, Aminu had a career season; averaging ten points and six rebounds per game. On the defensive end, Aminu was often tasked with guarding the opponent's toughest wing player, as well as occasionally covering up for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum when they had difficulties defending elite point guards.
Most impressively, Aminu more than doubled his previous season-high in attempted 3-pointers per game and shot 36 percent, a career-high by a wide margin. Interestingly, and likely due to his odd shooting mechanics, Aminu shoots 33 percent from beyond the arc when a defender is guarding him very tightly (0-2 feet), and shoots 32 percent when he is wide open (more than 6 feet). With Lillard and McCollum demanding so much attention, these wide-open looks account for more than a third of his 3-point attempts.
Biggest need: better consistency with jump shot mechanics
A four-year college player at Duke, Plumlee is already 26 years old, despite having just completed his third NBA season. In his first year as a full-time starter, Plumlee put up career highs in most statistical categories. He revealed himself to be a unique, if limited, big man - capable of explosive finishes off of the pick-and-roll and possessing quality passing skills out of the high post.
Though he improved throughout the season, Plumlee is a poor free throw shooter, making 64 percent from the line. He also showed a tendency to play smaller than his height at times, lacking an aggressive "go to" move around the rim. Plumlee will never be an old school, back-to-the-basket center, but having a 10-foot baseline jumper a la Robin Lopez, or a turnaround baby hook shot would go a long way as a counter toward opponents being able to neutralize him.
Biggest need: A scoring move from 3-10 feet
Already the NBA's 2016 Most Improved Player, how much better can CJ McCollum get? He possesses killer handles, a great midrange jumper, and shot 43 percent from beyond the 3-point line. He improved his previously poor free throw shooting and displayed improved point guard skills, which enabled him to handle backup point guard duties when Lillard was on the bench.
With his proven ability to get open anywhere from 15 feet out, McCollum didn't spend much energy trying to get to the rim, averaging only 2.3 free throws per game. CJ is effective without doing so, but being able to get to the rim and finish with contact would take him from very good to great.
Defensively, it's a different story. McCollum plays fine one-on-one defense when guarding ballhandlers, but he gets screened off too easily and often appears lost off the ball or when trying to play help defense. Barring the addition of a Hassan Whiteside or Dwight Howard, Portland is going to need McCollum to improve his perimeter defense this year. Frankly, they're going to need him to improve even if they do get a defensive game-changer.
Biggest need(s): Drawing fouls, defense
Lillard had a monster, profile-raising season last year, putting up 25 points and nearly seven assists per game, including a dominant stretch after the All-Star break that Blazer fans haven't seen since Clyde Drexler's glory days.
Dame's 3-point shooting rebounded over the previous season, when he was playing the last part of the year with injured fingers on his shooting hand. Last year, Lillard shot 38 percent on more than eight 3-point attempts per contest. With an increased usage rate, Lillard shot a career-low 42 percent from the floor.
Lillard showed an improved ability to get other guys involved, but still tends to force the action at times, especially in the clutch. "Lillard-Time" is a real thing, but we saw questionable shots at the ends of quarters/games from Lillard more this season than any other. Lillard isn't a chucker by any means, but he often settles for a potential "dagger" 25-footer, when a 2-pointer after using 18 seconds on the shot clock would be just as good, or oftentimes better.
Dame also notably improved his defense, especially in the post, though he still has a ways to go in that regard. Similarly to McCollum above, continued improvement will be necessary for the Blazers to make any real noise next season.
Biggest need(s): shot selection, defense
Which rotation player do you think will show the most improvement next season?
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