The Blazers’ offseason was mixed but there’s no doubt GM Neil Olshey added skillsets that were missing from the team. There was certainly not a playmaker with size nor a rim-protecting, mobile center. Those skillsets came with substantial baggage and there’s an argument to be made that they weren’t prioritized perfectly but it’s undeniable that Portland became more versatile.
Olshey made this point when he said “It’s a complete roster. I think we have a lot of answers. I think we cause a lot of problems for people.”
The claim that “we have a lot of answers” is particularly interesting.
Normally, when pundits talk about “fit” and roster construction they’re focused on what a team wants to do. If it’s a running team, a new player will fit if he can thrive in that kind of environment. If a team lacked a reliable creator, a new point guard could fill that gap. It’s all about what the team wants to do and how a player allows them to do that.
Olshey flips the script on its head. He’s not just thinking about what the Blazers want to do, but how they’ll respond to what the opposing team throws at them. There’s a wide variety of personnel and styles of play across the league and the Blazers will be able to respond to most of them.
This style is becoming less and less fashionable but it’s still out there. The Grizzlies will trot out the super big frontline of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Utah may start the Derrick Favors-Rudy Gobert combo. The Thunder and Knicks also have massive frontlines, but the Blazers shouldn’t be afraid of any of them. They’ll have numerous options when deciding how to respond.
They could match up with extra shooting on the floor. Blazers fans saw this on full display during the Portland-Memphis series a few years ago. Meyers Leonard held his own against Gasol and pulled him out of the paint on the other end. In a way, this is the one role Leonard has consistently flourished in and Portland will be glad to have that skillset in these situations.
They can also match up with size and defense, playing Ed Davis and Ezeli together. There’s not as much shooting but those two have a chance to out-bully just about anybody. Depending on the talent of the other team, this strategy to fight fire with fire could undercut an opposing team’s strength or play right into their hands.
If they’re stuck, coach Terry Stotts can always counter a different way by fighting bully ball with speed and skill. Al-farouq Aminu more than held his own against Blake Griffin, one of the more intimidating post-up brutes left in today’s NBA.
This is quickly becoming the default for most teams and it looks like Portland will join the ranks next year. But it’s important to recognize the variation within this blanket term.
At its most basic, small ball simply means playing a smaller power forward with more skill and shooting. This should be Portland’s preferred style of play and anytime an opponent wants to play to their strengths they should oblige.
Teams have gone beyond this now and the stretch-five (or small ball center) is becoming more common. Draymond Green, Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns are the poster children for this movement, combining the size and defense of the center position with legitimate perimeter skills. Leonard would be the obvious choice here but I actually prefer Davis and Ezeli in theory. Their defensive mobility should allow them to defend these types of players and Stotts can find ways for them to be effective in the offense.
Opponents can go all-in by playing small ball players at both positions or even get weird and play two traditional small forwards in the big man spots. Portland will probably only see these lineups in rare situations or when playing the Warriors. For example, some non-super teams will play two small forwards up front when trying to close a large deficit quickly. Davis (and perhaps Ezeli) can stay with many small forwards so that’s one option. Evan Turner’s addition also means they could play a frontcourt of Turner/Harkless/Aminu and perhaps have enough length and rebounding if the other team were super small as well. These won’t be common but it’s nice to have all the options. It will be tough to out-small ball the Blazers next year.
Dynamic Pick-and-Roll Duos
This is one of the bigger challenges for the Blazers given Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum’s struggles defending the pick-and-roll. They found one solution in last year’s playoffs by cross-matching and taking them out of that situation. Moe Harkless and Aminu defended the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin pick-and-roll admirably and they’ll be able to do the same next year.
Ezeli’s addition will give them another option to stay big, avoid switching, and still put more pressure on the pick-and-roll. His agility, size, and length should compensate for Portland’s guards to some degree. This versatility also means the Blazers will have a better answer when the opponent’s pick-and-roll involves a massive center like the Goran Dragic-Hassan Whiteside combination. Aminu can’t guard Whiteside so Ezeli will provide a solution the Blazers just straight up didn’t have last year.
Dynamic Wing Scorer
Aminu will typically play the power forward spot next year but he doesn’t have to. That will come in handy when Portland faces Lebron James, Kawhi Leonard, and the like. If the opposing team lacks an exceptional power forward then they won’t even have to change their lineup. They can cross-match, putting Turner or Harkless on the big man. Turner might be a little undersized for that role but he defended Paul Millsap occasionally in Boston’s playoff series against Atlanta and it wasn’t a complete disaster. And if it does become a problem they can always play a more traditional lineup.
This is the first real challenge for the Blazers but it’s not an Achilles heel. Aminu and Harkless are Portland’s best perimeter defenders but neither is exceptional at slithering through screens and sticking with shooters. Allen Crabbe and CJ have done it competently but never at a lockdown level. Portland simply doesn’t have a bulldog they can sic on Kyle Korver who will stay in his jersey all night. They have several OK options and there aren’t many great shooters in the league so this won’t hold them back too much.
Dominant Post-Up Big
The way the NBA is going, I almost forgot this category. There just aren’t that many guys who scare you on the block and teams have consistently gotten away with defending them with smaller players. Post-ups are now seen as gifts for the defense rather than a problem that needs addressing. However, in the rare instances when that doesn’t hold, the Blazers have plenty of big bodies just in case.
Slithery Point Guard
The flip side of the modern NBA is the emergence of the dominant scoring point guard. Given Damian and CJ’s struggles this would seem like a major problem but Portland can cross-match pretty easily. Harkless and Aminu are both up to the challenge and Damian is good enough defending the post that it’s not a disaster to play him on a bigger player. The real problem arises when the slithery point guard is flanked by a dynamic wing.
Multiple Perimeter Threats
If Portland’s roster has an Achilles heel, this is it. Lillard and McCollum need to play because they’re the Blazers’ two best players. If your “answer” to another team’s style of play is to sit one of your best guys then it’s not much of an answer at all. The simple fact is that Lillard and McCollum can handle many small forwards but are too small to guard even an average power forward. Stotts could try it for short stretches but do it for too long and they’ll just get beat up. That could affect their offense and their ability to take on such a large scoring load. Perhaps you could hide them on the occasional small ball four but even some of those would be a difficult matchup for Portland’s guards.
If Lillard and McCollum have to guard two of the three perimeter players then Stotts can only put a better defender on one of the opponent’s perimeter threats. That works great against the Clippers who only have Paul but it fails against Cleveland with Kyrie Irving and James. Chicago with Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler and Golden State with Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant (not to mention Klay Thompson) will also be problems.
But that’s only three teams and Chicago might not have enough shooting anyway. McCollum on Wade sounds like a disaster but he should get major help from his teammates. The other two teams were in the 2016 NBA Championship for a reason. If Portland had an answer for them then they would be the dominant team and not the other way around.
The scary prospect is the two young Northwest teams on the rise. If Kris Dunn turns out to be crazy good they could be a tough matchup in a few years. One of the Lillard-McCollum pair would have to guard Dunn or Andrew Wiggins. The odds are perhaps less likely for Denver but Emmanuel Mudiay and Jamal Murray could also form a two-headed guard monster.
Those are problems for the future. As it stands now, the roster has answers for everyone except the best two teams and one Eastern Conference foe with a host of other problems. That’s pretty good. They don’t have all the answers but it’s certainly fair to say they have “a lot” of them.
The challenge will be their talent level. Portland may be able to match up with almost any style of play but that doesn’t mean they’ll be favored to win. Take the Spurs for example. Stotts can play size for size, countering their Leonard/Aldridge/Gasol combo with Aminu/Davis/Leonard (or something to that effect) but it’s not like Popovich would have to change his lineup strategy because the Blazers had an “answer.” The game would be competitive but exceptional versatility doesn’t make you elite. Talent is only thing that can do that.
As many answers as Portland has, they still face the most basic question: are they good enough?