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What Happened to Noah Vonleh?

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The Trail Blazers have a superb record when their former starter plays, so why doesn’t he get more minutes?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Brooklyn Nets Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers have been struggling this season. Through each tortuous step, young forward Noah Vonleh has languished alongside. Secure as the starting power forward last season, Vonleh began the year injured, never regained his spot, and has spent most of the last month stapled into his warm-ups. Ironically, in his limited playing time he’s posted some of the best numbers of his (admittedly humble) career. The apparent dichotomy between Vonleh’s performance/need and playing time provides the topic for today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question.

Dear Dave,

I keep reading in the comments that Noah Vonleh is not getting enough playing time. The Blazers are apparently 8-3 when Vonleh plays more than 20 minutes this season. So what's going on? Don't the Blazers want to win games? Why are they not playing Noah?

Timotheus Rex

Vonleh is caught in a vise and his minutes are getting squeezed right off the court.

Al-Farouq Aminu is shooting the lights out from three-point range. The Blazers have coveted a stretch four for the past couple years, to the point that they envisioned Vonleh playing that role. You may remember him from classics like, “Oops! I shot 24% from the Arc!” and, “Oops! I Forgot to Shoot At All!” To be fair, he did manage 35% from distance last season, but by then he was attempting half the number of triples from his already-paltry average. This year he hasn’t taken a single one. Aminu answered the bell when Vonleh could not, so he’s getting the playing time.

For a while it looked like Vonleh could convert to a more traditional, inside style. He rebounded like a fiend next to Jusuf Nurkic during their time together last year. But Ed Davis has owned the paint, the minutes, and the rebounding rate this year. Make no mistake, Vonleh is still great in that role. Davis is just better, plus he’s a more experienced defender.

So where’s poor Noah to go with this flood of shooting from Aminu as Davis grabs rebounds two by two? As it turns out, he could build an ark out of all the benches he’s sat upon.

Rays of hope remain, however. Vonleh and Davis are entwined in a fascinating contract situation. Davis is making $6.3 million this season; his contract ends in June. Vonleh earns $3.5 million; he’ll be one of four potential restricted free agents the Blazers could carry this summer.

Right now the Blazers stand a little less than $3 million over the luxury tax threshold. Unless a different, more significant deal is in the works, either Vonleh or Davis will be traded before this season’s deadline for a zero-cap-obligation return to sneak the franchise back under that cap line. This doesn’t just keep them out of eventual tax-repeater territory, it makes them eligible to receive luxury tax payouts from other teams instead of having to send them out themselves. The difference will amount to millions of dollars. Given the state of the season and the franchise, the Blazers would be crazy if they didn’t make this kind of move.

Assuming the forthcoming deal involves one of the forwards, it should result in more playing time for Vonleh. If he’s traded, his new team will likely have more room for him. If Davis moves instead, Vonleh should have the opportunity to slide into some of his minutes.

I do not hold high hopes for Vonleh’s long-term future with the franchise or the league. He looks like a stretch four but plays more like a traditional, ground-bound forward. With height and a fantastic body, he still plays like a tweener, which is bad news. But I do look for Vonleh to get another chance, here or elsewhere, before it’s all finished. We’ll see what he makes of it.

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Keep those Mailbag questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com or @davedeckard on Twitter!

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com