With the addition of Evan Turner, the re-signing of Allen Crabbe, and the still-possible return of Maurice Harkless, the Blazers have significant depth on the wing to go along with incumbent starter Al-Farouq Aminu. As Blazer fans know, Aminu is versatile enough to be effective at either forward position, offensively and defensively.
When the above roster moves took place, Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune reported that Neil Olshey made comments indicating that Aminu would be playing the power forward much more exclusively.
"We are a much stronger team when Farouq plays ‘four', Olshey said. "Out ratings with Farouq at ‘four' make us project to a 53-, 54-win team, whereas Farouq at ‘three' has us in the mid-40s."
This quote piqued my interest. I'm not sure what statistical models Olshey is using to come up with a projection that shows that level of improvement, but our own Erik Gunderson had a piece last March for the Columbian, detailing Portland's success with Aminu at the ‘four' after Harkless slid into the starting small forward slot toward the end of the season. Conventional wisdom says that Harkless was the difference maker, but how much of Portland's late season run was due to Aminu playing power forward?
Over the final 11 games of the season, Aminu averaged 13.5 points and nearly seven rebounds per game on 47 percent shooting, including 41 percent from the 3-point line. Before this full-time switch, Aminu averaged 9.7 points and six rebounds while shooting below 41 percent from the field and 35 percent from the arc.
Impressive, but couldn't this be nothing more than a hot streak to close the season? Aminu spent a lot of time throughout the season switching back and forth between both forward positions mid-game. How did he fare throughout the year? Thanks to SportVU tracking and Nylon Calculus, we can get an estimate of how he did all season at each position. The results were surprising:
Aminu was estimated to have spent nearly 44 percent of his time playing the power forward over the course of the season, and the numbers speak for themselves. It makes sense that Stotts and Olshey want to leverage Aminu's ability to defend the "new NBA" small ball power forward, while maintaining his solid (if inconsistent) 3-point shooting.
One surprising note is that Aminu's turnovers did not significantly decrease as a power forward. Aminu is not a solid ball handler, and often tries to create his own shot by dribbling into traffic, many times with predictable results. Wouldn't this decrease with him playing power forward?
Ideally yes, but I'm not sure that Portland had the ball handlers on the wing to take the pressure off of Aminu last season; Crabbe is a deadly spot-up shooter, albeit with limited handles and Harkless is a finisher. Neither of these players is really able to make a move to the rim and make a play with the shot clock winding down with much success; Aminu was often the best (or at least the most willing) of a trio of bad options.
In this context, the Evan Turner signing makes sense. Maybe not in terms of contract value, but strictly as an on-court fit alongside Aminu. Though Turner has several weaknesses in his game (3-point shooting, ball dominance), he is a plus ball handler and can create for himself and his teammates very well from the wing. Freeing up Aminu to ball screen and shoot from the corners on offense, while minimizing his dribbling in traffic can only improve Portland's offensive efficiency.
On the defensive end, a trio of Turner, Aminu, and Festus Ezeli has a chance to be a solid group. Much has been written about Ezeli's ability to come out and defend the pick-and-roll, while Turner and Aminu are able to switch between the two/three and the three/four. Aminu may not have the size to defend elite, traditionally-sized power forwards, but how many of those exist in the NBA? LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, DeMarcus Cousins (sometimes), and Anthony Davis are what I come up with, and even then, Aldridge and Griffin take a significant amount of mid-range jumpers. Draymond Green is obviously elite and has the capability to do the dirty work, but he spends so much of his time creating from the elbow out that I don't consider him in the same mold.
For this season, it's clear that Portland is looking to capitalize on the success they had over the last month of the season, while increasing their ball handling and interior defense. Aminu is a key part of what the Blazers are trying to do and, as the statistics show, is likely better suited for the power forward role that Stotts and Olshey have in mind for him.
Is Aminu the Blazers power forward of the future? It remains to be seen. Meyers Leonard spent a significant portion of last season playing the position (though he's better as a center, where Ezeli and Mason Plumlee are already slated to get minutes), and Noah Vonleh still has long-term potential, though at best I see him breaking out enough to be deserving of spot minutes here and there. Portland also features Ed Davis and his very solid production, though he has been a reserve for virtually his entire career.
It makes sense, however, that Aminu is Portland's power forward of the present. He's a plus defender, excellent rebounder for his size, and brings a unique skill set, which provides Stotts with flexibility. Adding Turner to lineup helps to neutralize Aminu's greatest weakness, handling the ball in traffic, while giving him increased open looks from the corner.
It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out.