Editor’s Note: This story was written before the NBA announced a suspension of the 2019-2020 season.
As the Portland Trail Blazers fall further behind the eighth seed, sentimentality for last season’s roster grows. The team is at risk of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013, glorifying the improbable Western Conference Finals run last year. This reminiscence provoked a question.
Who fits the current Portland Trail Blazers team better: Al-Farouq Aminu or Trevor Ariza? (For the purposes of keeping this debate focused, simply replace Ariza with Aminu on the current roster, injuries and all.)
Ariza’s only played 20 games for Portland; meanwhile, Aminu played 328 games (including the playoffs) for the Blazers over a four-year span. Although the samples sizes vary significantly, each player has displayed enough of his contributions and style for a somewhat-sound comparison.
As a forward on a roster touting Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in the back court, knocking down catch-and-shoot three-pointers is arguably the most important skill to possess.
Aminu’s inability to reliably do so plagued Portland in the playoffs time and again. Having three non-shooters in him, Moe Harkless and Enes Kanter cramped the floor too much for the guards to successfully operate.
In Ariza’s most recent postseason appearance – 2017-18 with the Houston Rockets – he saw a lot of similar opportunities as defenses overcommitted to James Harden, and he only converted 28.6% of his 5.4 attempts per game. However, in the prior playoffs, he made 37.7% of his 5.5 triples per contest.
Ariza is shooting 4.2% better on catch-and-shoot looks as a Blazer than Aminu did last year. More importantly, he’s making 45.9% of his corner triples, one of the most efficient sources of offense in the modern NBA. Aminu only converted 34% of his 94 threes from the corner in 2018-19.
As the third or fourth offensive option, both forwards primarily shoot when there’s no defender nearby to contest. On threes defined as “open” by NBA.com/stats – the closest defender within 4-6 feet when the shot goes up – Ariza made 45.2%. When no defender was within six feet – defined as “wide open” – that percentage dropped to 36.4%. Maybe the vague threat of an opponent trying to close out improves Ariza’s shooting motion.
The two significantly deviate in their other source of offense: dribble penetration. Ariza displays his experience when driving, almost always making the right pass and finishing well around the rim when no better option exists. On 70 drives in 20 games, he has a 14.3% assist rate and is shooting 65% in the restricted area.
Aminu stressed fans out when he put the ball on the floor. He focused on trying not to turn it over, leading to missed assist opportunities and forced shots at the rim. On 222 drives in 81 games – a lower rate than Ariza – Aminu had an 11.7% assist rate and shot 60.4% in the restricted area in 2018-19.
On the other end, both generally match up with the opponent’s best scorer, but how they defend that player differs.
Ariza plays aggressive defense and relies on quick hands to force turnovers. In 20 games with the Blazers, he’s averaging 1.6 steals in 33.4 minutes – higher than Aminu’s career-high for a season. Because Portland’s defense struggles so much, getting the occasional stop by lunging for a risky steal is beneficial.
Aminu plays more conservative defense. Instead of reaching for steals, he gives the opponent breathing room to effectively navigate screens or prevent a drive. Alongside other positive individual defenders like Harkless and Jusuf Nurkic, his cautious defense noticeably benefitted Portland. But alongside Anthony and Whiteside, plus the two undersized guards, it might be for nothing. He’d manage stay in front of one player, but the other four opponents would score without much resistance.
An underappreciated aspect of Aminu’s game was his rebounding. He and Nurkic fortified Portland’s seventh-best defensive rebounding numbers last year. This year, despite Whiteside’s gaudy rebound total, the Blazers rank 12th in defensive boards per contest and struggle to keep opponents off the offensive glass.
Ariza doesn’t see the same rebounding opportunities as Aminu because he plays small forward. Nonetheless, he’s averaging less than one box out per game, roughly three fewer than Aminu. He doesn’t have the same physicality or lift to compete with the trees on the glass.
Ultimately, in a small sample and at an advanced age, Ariza is the better option for this iteration of the Blazers roster. He’s a better shooter, more refined when dribbling and driving, and plays aggressive, handsy defense.
That being said, this Portland team would love to have a healthy Aminu – they desperately need his rebounding and defensive consistency. A forward pairing of him and Ariza could thrive alongside Lillard and McCollum.