By now, we're all well aware of the reality that the Trail Blazers are locked into their current roster for the long haul. There will be no more fantasizing about DeMarcus Cousins, or Hassan Whiteside, or whatever other star player you fancy, swooping into Rip City and changing the complexion of the team overnight. The $350 million that Paul Allen and Neil Olshey invested in the Blazers' roster this summer was no joke - that U-Haul van full of cash represents a tangible commitment. For now, and probably for the next few years, the Blazers roster you see is what you get.
What this means is that any improvement upon last year's total of 44 wins, if it happens at all, will have to happen the slow and gradual way. Tossing a star player into the mix would have been the easy recipe for success - Whiteside, for example, was a 6-win player last season according to ESPN's real plus/minus, and adding him would have had an immediate and sizable impact. Failing that, the Blazers are going to have to find more creative ways to slowly improve. It's no longer about talent acquisition - the name of the game instead is talent development.
One interesting method of developing talent is to use it in different ways. Most of the personnel on the Blazers' roster in 2016-17 consists of guys who are returning from last year's team, but there's a good chance that this fall, the Blazers try some new strategies for deploying those players. Consider the nugget that ESPN's Zach Lowe dropped two weeks ago as part of his lengthy feature on the Blazers' development:
"We are probably not going to make the quantum leap the salaries might indicate," said Portland head coach Terry Stotts, owner of a much-deserved big-money extension. "As a coach, you take the money out of it. We just want to grow."
Young teams grow with watering, and the Blazers, expert nurturers, aimed their win-now splurge mostly at young-ish wing players well-suited to a league trending smaller and faster; there is no Tyson Chandler mid-30s appendage here. Portland will start Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward, carrying over a late-season adjustment that jump-started them, and play Aminu there almost exclusively, Stotts said.
First of all, let me just say - I understand why some people are bored with the whole league-wide discussion of NBA teams going small. In 2016, there are times when it feels like it's all anyone ever talks about anymore, strategically. Using twos at the three, threes at the four, fours at the five - it's a thing now. It's incredibly trendy. Almost every coach in the league is experimenting with it from time to time, as it's a way to cram extra speed and shooting into the lineup, and it sometimes seems like it's the only adjustment anyone cares to discuss. The conversation does tend to get tiresome after a while.
Having said that: It's talked about because it works. Time and time again, we keep finding evidence that sliding players up a position tends to make the entire team better. Seth Partnow at Nylon Calculus has detailed records on each player in the NBA last season and their net ratings at each position, and the conclusion is pretty obvious. Just look at the Blazers - last year they outscored opponents by 16.9 points more when using Meyers Leonard at the five instead of the four (but enough about that already), 7 more with Allen Crabbe at the three than the two and 1.1 more with Maurice Harkless at the three than the two. Every single time, smaller was better.
And then you have Al-Farouq Aminu:
Yup, the numbers bear it out once again, as always - the smaller lineup is the better one. When Farouq plays the four instead of the three, he's a better player individually and the Blazers are a better team collectively. This leaves no doubt.
And hats off to him, because this has got to be a really tough act to pull off. I've always felt like stretch four is one of the toughest roles in the NBA to fill, and for pretty obvious reasons - the "stretch" part and the "four" part are incredibly different, and it's a rare guy who's up for handling both components of the job. Being a floor-stretching player is about a lot more than just shooting, although that's certainly part of it - it also requires using speed and quickness to tire out the defense, being a good passer and making smart on-court decisions. Meanwhile, playing the four also means you've got to be a tough-nosed defender in the paint, even when you're matched up against big dudes with terrifyingly good post games. Have fun running all over the floor on one end, then guarding Zach Randolph on the other. It's especially tough when you're Aminu, and you're a strong-but-kinda-sorta-wiry 215-pounder who's basically played small forward your whole career. Not an easy transition to make.
No position demands versatility quite like the stretch four role. It doesn't just require a diverse skill set - it's also a matter of moving back and forth seamlessly within that set. Over the course of 82 games, you'll be asked to handle all sorts of different matchups, and you'll have to toggle the "bruiser mode" and "track star mode" on and off incessantly.
Then again, Aminu might be exactly the right man for this job. After all, he's been pretty solid in just about every type of matchup that's been thrown at him.
Perhaps the toughest thing about playing the stretch four position is guarding true fours - like the Clippers' Blake Griffin, for example - who will inevitably try to use their size and strength to bully you. This challenge is the No. 1 thing that keeps many small forwards from sliding down a spot. If not for the post-up threat that the Blakes of the world provide, any old three could easily switch to the four.
Aminu, though, came into his own as a defender against true fours in the playoffs last year. We saw it before our eyes. Early on in the Clippers series, Stotts was hesitant to use Aminu in that role, instead having him guard perimeter guys like Chris Paul. As the series went on and Stotts got desperate to experiment with his team down 2-0, he tinkered with some things and stumbled into a secret - Aminu could do just fine against Blake, thank you very much.
The play you see above is from the opening minute of Game 3 in Portland. Griffin gets just the situation he wants - an isolation against Aminu, whom he's got clearly outsized by about an inch and 35 pounds. Predictably, he uses his bully-ball style of post play to back Aminu down into the paint and get position. Unfortunately for him, they don't put points on the scoreboard just for getting post position, and Aminu uses his ridiculous length to stuff Griffin's layup attempt.
This is what Aminu has going for him as a power forward. He may not be conventionally big for the position, but he does have length, and he's got a fearless streak in him too. You can't just push him out of the way and score easily - he's going to force you to shoot over his outstretched arms, and that's a damn hard thing to do.
In an NBA with fewer and fewer Blake Griffins playing the power forward spot, it's starting to look realistic that Aminu can handle it. Against stretchier players like himself, Aminu is a superlative defender, and against the post-up guys, he's steadily improving. If you're Terry Stotts, it's stuff like this that gives you faith that the full-season experiment will work.
Of course, a big part of the challenge of playing power forward is being equally comfortable against the new-school guys who have size and shoot the 3. Turns out, Aminu's solid in that role as well.
The best 3-point shooting bigs don't just do it by standing around on the perimeter waiting - they're incessantly picking, popping and forcing the defense to make tough decisions. Do you drop back? Do you switch? Do you trap the ball-handler up top?
When Aminu's involved, though, the calculus inevitably becomes much easier. That's because the Blazer forward is not only super quick, but he's also a great snap decision-maker with excellent timing when guarding pick-and-rolls. Watch him here as he denies an open 3-point look to New Orleans' Ryan Anderson. The Pelicans attempt to free Anderson up by putting CJ McCollum into a pick-and-roll, but it doesn't work because Aminu and McCollum guard the play perfectly together. They switch, they seamlessly switch back, and Aminu's right there with an arm in Anderson's face as he's trying to squeeze off an open 3. Clank.
A year ago, Aminu was an ordinary small forward; he's now one of the most versatile defenders in the game against both threes and fours. That, to me, constitutes a pretty impressive breakout season for a 25-year-old who's been in the league six years.
Then again, Aminu's not just a defensive guy. He may not have the offensive repertoire of a Kevin Durant or what have you, but he certainly has the chops on that end to keep opposing teams honest. And then some.
This possession, from late in the season when the Blazers finally began to start Aminu and Harkless together, is a great example of what the team is capable of when they have perimeter players all over the floor who can threaten either to shoot or drive. To be blunt, you can't play this brand of basketball with Noah Vonleh as your power forward. It's not happening.
Watch as Sacramento power forward Quincy Acy, who's supposed to be guarding Aminu, gets lost collapsing into the paint to double Mason Plumlee. He's far, far overcommitted himself to Plumlee, who's a capable passer and can easily kick the ball out when he's overmatched and someone else is open. Plumlee finds Aminu, and that leaves Omri Casspi stuck between Aminu and his own man, Harkless. The two forwards play keep-away for a few seconds, at which point Aminu drains the open trey.
The Blazers will have a lot of chances to do this next season. Whether it's Aminu-Harkless, Aminu-Crabbe or even Aminu-Evan Turner, they will have plenty of scary perimeter duos playing the three and four together. Harkless and Turner might not be plus 3-point shooters, but Aminu just might be, considering his breakout 36.1 percent season from deep last year. Combine that with the solid ball-handling and slashing ability that the other guys bring to the table, and you just might have something. How do you contain a Blazers team that can play four-out with a fifth guy, Plumlee, who's one of the game's best passing bigs?
The other thing is that Aminu's not just a shooter. When an opposing forward like Acy above gets lost in the paint, Aminu can knock it down; when he closes out, Aminu can go the other way.
Poor Amir Johnson. Amir's not a bad defender by any means, but he's one of those prototypical fours who's too slow-footed to keep up with a quick, undersized guy like Aminu, and to his credit, Aminu has gotten really good at punishing that kind of player. Above, as Aminu and McCollum put Boston's Johnson and Isaiah Thomas into a pick-and-roll, Johnson ends up in an impossible decision. Do you surrender the wide-open 3, or do you close out hard and leave yourself vulnerable to the drive? Either way, you're toast. This is the kind of situation the Blazers can create over and over when they go small. It's pretty beautiful.
Farouq at the four is going to be interesting next season. In the context of the Blazers' roster situation, he's a godsend - the Blazers have a ton of big men on their roster, but only Aminu can provide quite the level of spacing, and in such diverse ways, that he can. Plumlee, Ed Davis and Festus Ezeli are all around-the-basket guys. Vonleh has the potential to be more than that, but he hasn't shown it yet at the pro level. Meyers, bless his heart, has the jumper but isn't nearly the athlete to create the sort of slashing, dunking threat that Aminu shows above. Harkless has the opposite problem - great slasher, can't shoot. Stotts has all these fours and fives on the roster, but really none of them have the all-around skill set to do what Aminu promises to do next season at power forward.
In addition to reporting that Aminu is slated for a full-time power forward, Lowe also wrote earlier this month that, "even with Aminu sliding down a position, the Blazers still don't have a ton of shooting without either Crabbe or Leonard on the floor." This is a fair criticism. There are still plenty of gaps in the Blazers' capabilities, shooting-wise. Harkless, Turner, and all the other big dudes are still liabilities in that area.
But the spacing the Blazers get from their small lineups is about more than just jacking 3-point attempts. It's about ball-handling. It's about playmaking. It's about having guys like Harkless who can rip through to the rim in a split second, or Turner who can execute drive-and-kicks with excellent floor vision. The Blazers next season are going to be dynamic, even if they're not always deadly from deep.
Big-picture, here's the deal. Portland didn't get that Hassan Whiteside-level star this summer. If they want improvement, they're going to have to manufacture it. Al-Farouq Aminu at the power forward spot, and all the other little developments rippling through Portland's depth chart as a result, represent a chance to do that. Better spacing and better shooting just might unlock a better future. As fallback options go, it's not a bad one.