Remember that time the Trail Blazers came out of the free agency period not really knowing what the starting line up would look like on opening night? Obviously we're not hearkening back to days of yesteryear, but simply last year.
Coming into the season we wondered if Gerald Henderson or CJ McCollum would be the starter. Ultimately Henderson's hip surgery decided the battle before it ever took place. Meanwhile the frontcourt duo of Meyers Leonard and Mason Plumlee started off the season only to be supplanted by Noah Vonleh and Plumlee early on and eventually Maurice Harkless and Plumlee to close out the season. Heading into the 2016-17 season some of the same questions are popping up, and the answer could point to offseason acquisition Festus Ezeli.
Now, there are a couple of reasons why these questions are being asked. Namely, the Blazers' interior defense at times struggled to contain both penetrating guards and wings and top-flight post players. Plumlee excelled in numerous areas on the floor last season, primarily as a playmaker in the mid-to-high post, initiating plays off of ball screens and in the dribble handoff. Statistically he rated fairly well as a rebounder and weak-side shot blocker.
However, the flip side is that he was taken to task in the post by guys like Jahlil Okafor, DeMarcus Cousins, and Nikola Vucevic and he was stymied at and around the rim by longer defenders on the offensive end. So the debate begins: Who do the Blazers start at center?
On a straight statistical basis Ezeli and Plumlee show some similarities. However, when you go to a Per-36 break down, Ezeli outshines Plumlee in a number of areas.
Ezeli comes out on top in field goal percentage, free throw attempts, offensive and defensive rebounding, blocks, and points. Plumlee has the edge in free throw percentage (although neither is shooting the lights out), steals and assists. That's a rough snapshot of each player on the floor - neither one is an incredible finisher inside, and Ezeli offers a bit more rebounding and shot blocking, while Plumlee offers more playmaking and active hands.
According to draftexpress.com both Ezeli and Plumlee come in at roughly 7-feet tall. The key difference here is that Ezeli has a nearly 7-foot-6 wing span while Plumlee comes in at under 7-feet. Throw in Ezeli's extra 30-35 pounds and you begin to see why Ezeli might offer a bit more interior defense.
Here's a statistical look at Portland's three big men who or are expected to spend time at center this upcoming season, alongside Ezeli's numbers from Golden State last season.
The first chart covers all shots faced at all distances on the floor, and note that a negative difference is means the player is holding an opponent below their average. The first thing that stands out here is that Plumlee is the only player here with a total difference that registers as positive. There's a lot of noise in stats like these, but my assumption going in was that he would rate okay here, and not quite as well inside. However, that didn't turn out to be totally true.
Plumlee didn't do a particularly masterful job in either area, but he did rate better than anticipated. It's one specific instance that Plumlee struggles and it was glaringly obvious at times: post-up defense. Plumlee rated as one of the worst in the league among players who were tasked with post defense over 100 possessions. In fact, he gave up the highest effective field goal percentage and the third-highest scoring rate in the league down low while allowing 1.04 points per possession (PPP). Davis, Leonard, and Ezeli actually all rate better and they're grouped in the same region with Davis giving up 0.96 PPP, Leonard at 0.92 PPP and Ezeli at 0.93 PPP.
Essentially the other three options - Ezeli, Davis, and Leonard - give you a better look defensively in the interior, at least on paper. That seems to coincide with the eye test, but the one thing that often is overlooked here is consistency and chemistry. Plumlee played all 82 games last season and performed admirably. He carved out a role by building a trust and a knowledge base alongside his teammates that no one can step into immediately. While he struggled at times, he also had moments of absolute brilliance. Plumlee earned the minutes he received last season, and while they shouldn't be handed to him without trial, he should and will probably be the favorite to start heading into camp.
Beyond all of that there's much more nuance there - team defensive scheme and player positioning - particularly as it pertains to rebounds. Adding someone like Ezeli increases Portland's overall rebounding prowess, which is a huge part of defense. Now, Plumlee didn't struggle here in any regard, it's just that Ezeli, again on paper, rates slightly better. The context here, though, is that Ezeli was going up against secondary units more often and playing with a lead as the Golden State Warriors cruised through a 73-win season.
With that in mind there is an area that still doesn't improve all that much, if at all, by adding Ezeli. Last year Portland didn't give up a ton of points inside but they certainly didn't score down there all that often either:
Portland was one of six teams to average under 40 points per game in the paint. This isn't a sole indicator, because on the other side of the floor the Blazers were nearly giving up the exact same amount. So the question becomes, can they maintain or gain a few points on the offensive end while shaving a few off the defensive end, and push the differential into the positive? Which player gives them the best opportunity to do so?
Last year the questions about the Blazers' frontcourt heading into the season seemed to focus on the offensive end. Clearly a LaMarcus Aldridge sized hole can do that to a team. While early hopes were pinned to the broad shoulders of Leonard, a slow start and an early injury derailed any chances of that. The problem then became how to play and stagger multiple bigs with little to no range. A year later and one more big in the mix, the Blazers are facing the same problem.
Here you can see Ezeli, Davis, and Plumlee's shot charts. Other than efficiency and some minor shot location differences there's not a whole lot of range or difference outside the area immediately around the basket. This makes mixing and matching a bit more difficult if coach Terry Stotts plans to work all three of these guys in at the center position.
It would seem that means Davis would slide to the power forward position more frequently, most likely paired with Leonard or either Harkless or Al-Farouq Aminu at the stretch-4. That then throws Leonard back into a center position where there's only 48 minutes and 3-4 legitimate options. Add Harkless and Aminu to the frontcourt fold and you've got five guys and 96 minutes to dole out.
One thing we haven't even considered yet is how the new guys, Evan Turner and Ezeli, mesh with the backcourt players both offensively and defensively. We talked chemistry a bit, but know-how - like when and where to set a screen for Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum - is something the incumbent bigs know how to do inherently now. While they're not masters of screen-setting like Andrew Bogut or Kevin Garnett, they have an understanding that was developed over a year of practice and action.
Jason Quick of CSNNW stated last week on 750 AM in a radio interview that he expected the Blazers to start Lillard, McCollum, Turner, Aminu, and Plumlee. That leaves Leonard, Ezeli, Davis and Harkless coming off the bench to fill frontcourt roles.
The argument about what the starting lineup could and should look like feels like a double-edged sword. On one side you can say that keeping it intact with minimal changes bodes well for the team because they can head into the season with some consistency and familiarity. On the other hand, one can argue that changing things up and adding someone like Ezeli to the starting lineup and tinkering could maybe stir things up and get the Blazers off and running.
With Lillard and McCollum the only sure things on the surface, how fast Ezeli gets acclimated to the team and scheme, how Leonard's surgically repaired shoulder heals, and how determined Plumee is to keep the minutes he earned appear to be the biggest and most pressing question marks heading into camp and leading up to the season tip-off.
Who do you think gets the nod? Does Plumlee maintain his hold on the starting center spot? Does Ezeli find a way to steal it away? Is Leonard the dark horse that shows he's healthy, willing - and most importantly - able to be a consistent contributor or starter?
Let us know in the comments below!