Heading into the 2016-17 NBA season the Portland Trail Blazers are at least 20 percent more secure in their starting lineup than they were a year ago.
The emergence of CJ McCollum as a bonafide first and second option alongside Damian Lillard was more than even the most optimistic of fans could hope for. Beyond the combination of “McLillard,” the Blazers are still in a state of flux. However, one player rose above the fold down the stretch last season in a new role and he could play a huge role going forward.
When the Trail Blazers signed Al-Farouq Aminu last season to a four-year, $30 million contract more than a few eyebrows were raised. The then 24-year-old Aminu had just averaged 5.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per contest in 74 games for the Dallas Mavericks. Those aren’t exactly eye-popping numbers that generate interest to even the most die-hard of NBA fans. However, Trail Blazers GM Neil Olshey and coach Terry Stotts saw in him what, perhaps, others didn’t.
At nearly 6-feet-9-inches with a 7-foot-3-inch wingspan and 215 pounds, Aminu possesses the prototype build for the new NBA player. Long, strong, and mobile, Aminu can play and guard multiple positions. This is not news to Trail Blazers fans. Throughout last year Aminu picked up the quickest of point guards and the strongest of post players on the defensive end. He was often tasked with guarding the opposing teams’ strongest offensive threat, outside of centers. Rarely did his opponent get the better of him.
Earlier this summer, Peter Sampson of Blazer’s Edge penned a piece asking if Aminu was indeed the Blazers’ power forward of the future. Sampson goes through to break down some of the finer points, particularly the differences between Aminu at the small forward and at the power forward positions. Across the board Aminu performs better at the four, and the same is true on the defensive end.
Here, we’re taking it a step forward and saying yes, he is the power forward of the future. There are more than a couple of reasons that he is the power forward of the future, but two stand out.
First and foremost, he has to be.
While the Blazers have depth, they don’t have a true stretch-four outside of Aminu. One could argue that Maurice Harkless fits that role, and they wouldn’t be wrong. However, Harkless has yet to show that he can guard inside as well as he can on the perimeter.
In this clip you can get a glimpse of Aminu’s defensive chops. The initial action goes away from the normal Chris Paul pick-and-roll, and instead the play is triggered by Blake Griffin on the perimeter with Paul tracking to the strongside corner. Griffin swings the ball to the middle where DeAndre Jordan is waiting. Griffin meanwhile is diving down to the rim as Jordan passes to JJ Redick. As Redick receives the ball, Luc Richard Mbah-a-Moute has set a back pick for Griffin to free him up on a rim run. However, with Jordan above the 3-point line, Mason Plumlee has sunk down to help (Plumlee plays the illegalest of illegal defenses here) and allows Aminu enough time to clear the screen and get tight to Griffin.
What’s impressive here, and often overlooked, is how strong Aminu is against seemingly bigger and stronger players. When Griffin catches on the baseline and tries to muscle his way in, Aminu chucks him and knocks him off balance. This forces Griffin to gather himself and attempt to attack the middle. While Aminu does get a little help from Plumlee here, Aminu bodies Griffin as he turns the corner and attempts to power up. With Aminu that tight, Griffin’s athleticism is rendered adequately and Aminu’s length and wingspan allow him to alter Griffin’s shot enough to force him to clutch and fall away only a couple feet from the rim.
This is one of dozens of plays that Aminu made on a nightly basis last year and it often goes unnoticed. While others want to point to Aminu’s increased 3-point percentage, or detractors want to allude to Aminu’s less-than-stellar creation off the bounce, one thing remains constant. Aminu’s build, athleticism, and natural defensive instincts contribute on a nightly basis.
To emphasize this a bit more let’s take a look at two plays from the same game against the Clippers in the playoffs last year.
On the first play, the Blazers have already switched Aminu onto Chris Paul by having Lillard stay to the center of the floor and pushing Paul towards the sideline. This is a de facto switch, with Lillard giving up, so to speak, on the pick and allowing the switch to occur without putting the Blazers in a negative position.
After the switch Aminu sees Jordan coming to his left side looking to seal him. Aminu jumps above the screen, flips his hips out towards the sideline and forces Paul to the outside, keeping Paul from turning the corner and getting into the heart of the defense.
Jordan attempts to adjust the screen, but instead he slides out of the way, buying Paul just a fraction of a second to get away from Aminu. With Jordan above the 3-point line, Ed Davis has come up to take the drive away. This forces Paul to take the free throw line pull-up, and normally that’s a win for the defense. However, this is Paul’s bread and butter. He lives on this shot. Aminu recovers and his length and closing speed allow him to contest Paul and force what is normally a comfortable shot into one that is uncomfortable and a lower success rate.
Chris Paul is not a sure-fire, first-ballot NBA hall of famer for nothing.
A few possessions later, same situation. Pre-switch, Aminu ends up on Paul. As before, Paul has two ways to go, and typically he wants to get to the middle of the floor. Aminu reacts the same as he did before, jumping out, but this time he forgets his footwork. Little things like this are the difference in the NBA. Fractions, inches, milliseconds, that’s the margin of error. Players like Paul are as good as they are because they have the talent and the skills necessary to take advantage of these mistakes.
Paul turns the corner and assesses the defense. Seeing that the the scheme is sagging into the paint denying penetration, Paul opts for the old standby and pulls up from the elbow. Only, Aminu has used his unique blend of length and quickness to retake the ground he ceded only moments earlier. He gets back on line, closes out and forces Paul to fade and hold on to his shot much longer than he wants to.
The result? An airball from 14 feet on a shot that he shoots nearly 45 percent on for the season.
It’s not a blocked shot, a steal, a tipped pass, or anything else bright and shiny in the box score. But it’s exactly what the Trail Blazers need. They’ve got offensive fire power in Lillard and McCollum and bench support from the likes of Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, and Maurice Harkless. They’ve got rebounding up and down the roster. What they were lacking for long stretches of the season was a Swiss-Army knife of defensive goodness. When the Blazers moved Aminu to the four, they stumbled onto something that was better than they could’ve possibly imagined.
If Aminu can play an entire season on defense like he’s shown in these few clips and the offense remains as lethal as it was last year, then perhaps the Blazers can hit Las Vegas in the pocketbook again and beat their 46.5-win projection.