The Portland Trail Blazers turned over a huge chunk of their roster this offseason. There are so many newcomers to get excited and speculate wildly about, but one in particular has caught my eye. Kent Bazemore, who was traded from Atlanta for Evan Turner, brings a new type of wild-card energy to this team. There have been some amazing plays, and some head-scratchers, but it’s always been entertaining.
After five games, here’s one thing I’d like to see Kent do a little (Baze)more, and one I’d like to see a little (Baze)less.
Bazemore is a long-armed menace who “wakes up to play defense,” spends his days frolicking in opponent’s passing lanes, and falls asleep counting shell drill rotations.
While he’s only recorded 5 steals thus far, his constant activity and opportunistic gambles have energized the team’s defense and generated extra possessions. Throughout the Terry Stotts regime, the Blazers have consistently finished in the league’s bottom five for steals. With Bazemore hunting turnovers like a sticky-fingered pastry thief, the team has risen to the middle of the pack at 15th. As a help defender, he has a knack for hedging in on opponent’s drives, swiping the ball away and kickstarting a Blazers fastbreak. The plays don’t always count as a steal for Baze, but they produce the same effect for his team.
Speaking of fast breaks, it took Bazemore four games to log two of the four greatest chase down blocks in recent Blazer history (#1 is CJ in Game 7 and #2 is T Rob blacking out). In the clip below, Bazemore catches a streaking Dejounte Murray and snatches his soul like Shang Tsung disguised as Chance the Rapper.
Even better in slow-mo pic.twitter.com/zsYWYlH6MS— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) October 29, 2019
Minutes later, Bazemore blocked his second shot of the quarter. While not as highlight-worthy as his earlier one, it better encapsulates why Blazer fans should get excited about his defensive potential. Seeing that Anthony Tolliver was seconds from becoming lunchmeat, Bazemore flew in from the weak side to deny the LaMarcus Aldridge jumphook (skip to the second video). In order to reach the shot in time, Bazemore started moving the moment he saw Rudy Gay throw the lob, beelining to the exact spot where Aldridge’s about to turn and shoot — all before the traitorous big man ever touched the ball.
That’s a Draymond Green-like defensive play (except this year, apparently. lol!) It requires the court awareness to notice Tolliver losing inside post position, the decisiveness to leave your cover for a cross-court sprint, an intuitive understanding of player tendencies to foresee where LaMarcus would release the shot, and the raw athleticism to beat the ball to its climax. If he keeps making plays like this, Bazemore could bring an all-defense impact to a Blazers team in desperate need of it.
For all his chops, Bazemore can’t replace the defensive combination of Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu. He’s better at defending the point of attack and chasing shooters — he’s only allowed 40 points scored on him despite guarding elite wings like Luka Doncic and DeMar DeRozan for heavy minutes — but he can’t offer the same level of help defense and support. For years, Aminu kept the Blazers defense from drowning by playing defense like he was trying to repair a levee, plugging holes and shoring cracks before a tidal wave of buckets burst through and swept the Blazers out to sea. Bazemore lacks the size to fill a similar role.
With their dearth of forwards and the injury to Collins, the Blazers will have to ask even more of a Kent. Along with Hood, he’ll be tasked with guarding up a position many nights. While he has the wingspan to credibly challenge shots at the rim, he’ll take a physical pounding from the Paul Millsaps and Julius Randles of the world. If Zach Collins comes back later than expected, and the Blazers don’t make a trade for more size, the team’s defense may rely on whether or not he can hold his own along the perimeter and in the paint.
Let me preface this by saying that I love the midrange. As someone who modeled his game after Wizards-era Michael Jordan, I fear and distrust the league’s increasing reliance on three pointers. Sure, Moreyball enthusiasts have the analytics on their side, but what are cold, lifeless numbers compared to the warm beauty of a CJ McCollum step back? What advanced stat can quantify the primal joy of watching Rodney Hood slam his defender into the post before releasing a soft fadeaway?
All that said, Bazemore needs to shoot fewer midrange jumpers. Neil Olshey brought him in as a dynamic wing to relieve some of the pressure on Dame and CJ. He shoots more reliably from three than Aminu or Moe Harkless, and can attack closeouts with enough ball control to create for others. Too many times, Bazemore chooses to do neither, opting instead to hoist from a step or two inside the arc. A third of those qualified as tightly guarded, so he’s not necessarily dribbling himself open, either.
Over the first five games, Bazemore has shot 5-14 on midrange jumpers vs 5-15 on three-pointers. That return on investment for deep twos is...poor. His midrange shots produce 0.71 points per possession, while his three-pointers produce 1.0. To make the math work, Bazemore would need to start hitting his pullup jumpers at an unrealistic rate.
This isn’t a case where the threes aren’t there. With all the shot creators on this team, Bazemore’s getting looks from beyond the arc. He needs to cast more of them. Too many times he’s stepping into a midrange, or pulling up short in transition against a backpedaling defender. Bazemore can make these shots, and that’ll be important when the games slow down and defenses tighten in the playoffs, but for now, he should cut them down.