Do the Blazers have an ideal frontcourt pairing already?
With 40 days and counting until the Trail Blazers’ opening night, it’s time to start the time-honored tradition of forecasting the best lineup for the future. With the backcourt positions locked up and locked down for the foreseeable future, attention is turned to the frontcourt and we’re led to ask once again - do the Trail Blazers have the frontcourt pairing for today, and the future, on the roster?
Of course this will be based on anecdotal evidence, small sample sizes, limited video analysis and a myriad of other limitations. But while it’s not the analyst’s equivalent of throwing darts blindfolded after a few beverages, there are certainly asterisks aplenty here.
Recently here on Blazer’s Edge, discussion has hovered around Mason Plumlee and whether or not he will be the starter on opening night alongside a group that appears to be CJ McCollum, Damian Lillard, Al-Farouq Aminu and a forward to be named later. On the surface it certainly makes sense, the lineup that featured Maurice Harkless, Lillard, McCollum, , Aminu, and Plumlee recorded the second most minutes together last season and had a team high +73 plus/minus, best of any lineup. They posted a 105.4 Offensive Rating and 95.8 Defensive Rating, marks that would’ve registered No. 9 and No. 1, respectively, in the league overall last year - all remarkable numbers, even considering the sample size. The drawback here, of course, is that the players in this lineup don’t yet cover up for the shortcomings of others within the group.
Much like a puzzle in progress, it becomes easier and easier to see which pieces fit together and which don’t. That’s really what this season is about, isn’t it? Let’s see which of these bigs and which of these wings are here to stake a claim and a role on this roster for now and the future. We’ve often debated the merits of Plumlee as a starting center, some of us have offered a mea culpa for being a bit harsher than possibly needed, but it doesn’t mean the question fades away. What if the Blazers do have the frontcourt pairing of the future on the roster right now?
In all of the roster composition talk that goes around and around concerning Portland, the man who almost always seems to get lost in the fray is arguably the most reliable: Ed Davis. Eric Griffith, the wise sage that he is, penned a piece last year breaking down the similarity between Ed Davis and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Tristan Thompson. Their skillsets are remarkably similar as are the physical tools at their disposal. Both are long, and strong - their measurables out of college were nearly identical, and they’re incredibly tough inside around the rim. Ferocious rebounding and endless effort are their calling cards. The major difference? Millions of dollars, and now an NBA title.
Thompson was easily the third most important player (maybe second most?) for the Cavs during the Finals last year. While Lebron James and Kyrie Irving got the lion’s share of the credit - deservedly so - the guy switching on pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll, chasing down guards and wings alike and locking them down for long stretches? Yeah. That was Thompson. For those not familiar with his statistical impact on the series, Ryan Feldman of ESPN.com has this:
Why revisit the Thompson-Davis comparisons? Because it opens the door to one of a couple possibilities that the Blazers could opt to go this season. What if Davis at the power forward position paired with Meyers Leonard actually works? In limited opportunities the Davis-Leonard lineups actually fared quite well. Sporting a 109.1 ORtg and 105.4 DRtg, the duo played above average on both sides of the ball. Whenever frontcourt pairings are discussed, typically the first question is “do they work together offensively?” A quick glance at a side-by-side shot chart demonstrates rather quickly that it would and should work:
Would these two work together well defensively?
That’s the question that needs to be fleshed out. It feels like many consider Davis to be a relatively mobile big man but not the kind that can go outside the paint and move laterally with a stretch-four. Why not? Davis has picked up small forwards, stretch-fours, power forwards and centers over his tenure in the league. Having Davis transition into a Tristan Thompson-lite could be a boon for the Blazers.
Take a look at these clips of Leonard and Davis as a defensive pairing. The first clip features an an out-of-bounds play, Leonard shows to the baseline and flashes at the attacking player, bumps and chucks Robin Lopez, and then uproots Lopez after being sealed initially to secure the defensive rebound. Meanwhile, Davis denies the backdoor cut to Jose Calderon on the initial screen action above the nail on Lillard, secures the paint as Leonard arrives back to body Lopez, then rushes out to close out on the midrange jumper.
The second play features Davis above the free throw line, offering help defense to Lillard as the attacking player attempts to drive the lane only to be foiled by the quick feet of Davis. This forces the kick-out pass to a non-shooter in Derrick Williams who Davis recognizes as a minimal threat and instead opts to track down the inevitable miss.
Time after time you see Davis moving, switching, helping and sliding. It’s not just in the paint or to the free throw line and in. He shows consistently that he can go out to the 3-point line and move his feet well enough to defend an attacking player, close out on a shooter, and cover in the pick-and-roll when needed.
In this pair of clips from the Feb. 6 matchup of the Blazers and the Houston Rockets you can see a couple of things going on. First of all, watch both Leonard and Davis. Look at their active feet and hands. It’s not just about how well Leonard and Davis work together, it’s how their teammates are able to work off of them and vice-versa. Leonard is above the 3-point line yet he offers help to an isolated Gerald Henderson while Davis controls the paint. No one hops out of position or abandons the game plan, and they end up forcing a contested fadeaway from James Harden that falls short.
Clip two in the series has a lot of Davis-Leonard goodness. First Leonard fights through the Ariza screen to take away the initial dribble-drive by Ty Lawson. Then he steps back to deny the easy step-through from Dwight Howard as he gathers the pocket-bounce pass. Meanwhile, Davis is helping out at every turn, chucking the screener, keeping a foot in the lane to help, then recovering out to Ariza at the 3-point line to take away the release valve. Then to tie a nice little bow, he turns and crashes the defensive boards - and of course, he secures it.
Rebounding is another added benefit of a Davis-Leonard pairing. While on the floor together both had a plus-20 percent defensive rebounding rate. That’s a sneaky, sneaky good defensive rebounding team. Factor in Davis’ ability to crash the offensive boards inside - which he would be afforded the opportunity to do - and this picture starts to become a bit clearer.
Again, these are small sample sizes, and short spurts of game film. Is it a perfect pairing? Right now, no. We’ve yet to see Davis extend above the free throw line defensively but a couple times a game. Does he have the capacity to do it? It looks like it could be there, certainly. Then there’s the fact that Leonard has yet to actualize his potential for anything longer than 10-15 games at a time.
Of course there are other pairings to be found here. The idea of Aminu and Leonard working together certainly sounds good in theory. On one side of the coin, offensively last year they sported an ORtg just shy of 115. This must’ve been a coin out of a DC Comic book, though, because this thing was scarred and ugly on the defensive side - giving up a DRtg of nearly 112. There’s a ton of noise here - on both sides of the ball. First, they were only on the floor together for 451 minutes. Secondly, Aminu was primarily playing the small forward position with Leonard on the floor.
When Leonard returns from injury it will be interesting to see if coach Terry Stotts opts to give this duo some time together on the floor. On paper, it would seem to be a great fit. Aminu is an athletic, strong, long, plus-defender who can play on the perimeter defensively, while serving as an off-ball cutter and rim-runner offensively, with the occasional spot up three-pointer, and this gives Stotts quite a few options on both ends of the floor.
The one thing I’ve maintained throughout is that the big storylines hinge on who comes out and claims a spot. What lineups does Stotts go to early on, and will he continue to experiment? And of course, will we figure out if they have the frontcourt of the future on today’s roster?
We’re only about six weeks away from this team taking the court for the 2016-17 season, and we’ll have some answers to these questions not long after.