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How Should the Blazers Approach Their Backup Big Man Situation?

Each of the Blazers’ backup bigs had forgettable finishes to 2020-21 and are unrestricted free agents to boot. How should Portland play their cards this summer?

Utah Jazz v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s been nearly five weeks since the Portland Trail Blazers last played with the enduring memory of their 2020-21 season coming in a 126-115 loss to the Denver Nuggets. For everything we’ve sought to forget about that six-game series, there’s one sequence that’s been difficult to shake from the collective psyche.

The moment occurred at the end of Game 3’s first quarter, with the Blazers’ subs — namely Enes Kanter — set to enter the game. Over their next eight halfcourt possessions, Denver put their GPS on the Blazers big, involving him in some variation of a pick-and-roll or a dribble handoff to test his agility. Sometimes, they upped their ante, adding CJ McCollum or Carmelo Anthony into that, forcing them into a quick defensive decision or rotation.

Over the next four-and-a-half minutes, they scored 19 points and turned a six-point deficit into a nine-point advantage by quarter’s end. Even the Nuggets’ bench players smelled blood in the water; they felt something in the air in a way only the great Phil Collins could. As history would soon show, Kanter was on the floor during that entire five minute span.

He’d only play another 47 seconds following that sequence.

Much of that situation wasn’t necessarily fair to Kanter. In each of his tenures in Portland, he’s been forced to outpunch his weight, playing the role as a season-saving starter while also moonlighting as arguably the game’s most potent offensive rebounder. It becomes a bit tougher to appreciate that luxury, though, when for the second consecutive postseason in Portland, he’s been schemed off of the floor. As he approaches the 2021-22 offseason as an unrestricted free agent, both he and the Blazers’ front office are left with much to contemplate. How should Portland attack this situation?

Is Kanter the right kind of big for Portland going forward?

Parting ways with one of the NBA’s all-time great offensive rebounders, regardless of how you slice it, would almost certainly have some level of drawback. On many a night in the regular season, one could look back on Kanter’s relentless rebounding pursuits and efficient offense as a major factor in wins.

It’s clear that Kanter’s style can be conducive to winning; Portland was 17-9 in 26(!) games in which he grabbed at least five offensive rebounds. But who’s lying awake at night wondering how this team is going to find scoring opportunities?

The defensive side of the ball is what’s most concerning. It’s become somewhat of a yearly occurrence, but opposing offenses have sunk their teeth into Portland’s pick-and-roll defense, with Kanter being among the biggest victims. Last season, 71 different players defended at least 25 “rolls” in the pick-and-roll; Kanter was second in points allowed (96), seventh in points per possession allowed (1.32), and sixth in possessions defended (73), despite starting in only half of Portland’s games.

Put your feet in Kanter’s size 17 Nikes for a second. If you know Portland hasn’t invested enough resources in both the proper backline defenders and the schemes and attention to detail to boot, how excited are you about another season of being targeted on screens possession after possession when it matters? It’s speculative, but we’ve already seen Kanter leave once, so there’s certainly no guarantee of his return. That means it can’t hurt to at least think about some alternatives.

In a limited free agent crop, who stands out?

On NBC Northwest’s Talkin Blazers with Channing Frye, the former Blazer talked about Portland bringing along a Blake Griffin-type player that can help facilitate and playmake for a Blazers’ bench comprised of gunners.

“They need a legit four man, to me. I think, Francis, the idea of Blake Griffin in Portland would be perfect. Like, a guy who could run the top, screen and roll, he could shoot a little bit, he’s physical, you could play him at the ‘5’, right? Like, if (Jusuf Nurkic) is hurt, you could play him at the ‘5’ for a little bit. Richaun Holmes would be also great.

They’ve got nothing that goes downhill. Everything is like 1-on-1, stepback threes … threes, threes, threes. Cause when they go downhill, they’re too small to really finish over big guys like that all the time.”

Anecdotally speaking, one has to agree in regards to Richaun Holmes’ would-be fit and skillset in Portland. It would also continue the longstanding tradition of bigs migrating from Portland to Sacramento (or some awkward, roundabout form of that: see Hassan Whiteside, Harry Giles III, Caleb Swanigan, Wenyen Gabriel, Anthony Tolliver...) But after coming off a season in which he averaged 14.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game and had arguably the best on-off numbers among rotation players, will his ensuing price tag be too hefty for the Blazers?

The Blazers’ big man situation presents a tough question that now has added ripples thanks to Zach Collins’ recurring foot fractures and Giles’ lack of playing time this past season. What other names are of intrigue? Daniel Theis? There’s ample competition there. Nerlens Noel, maybe? DeMarcus Cousins? It feels like a Neil Olshey-type move, and one has to imagine new head coach Chauncey Billups would covet a player he’s already coached before, even if his pick-and-roll defense also leaves a lot to be desired.

The possibilities don’t feel endless — largely because the money isn’t. There aren’t tons of centers capable of playing that Rudy Gobert role: helping orchestrate the offense in a five-out delay set and following that up with serviceable defense, especially among the bench. Perhaps there’s a world in which Kanter is as good as it gets, and he simply continues to be brilliant at what he’s always been brilliant at.

For that reason, the Blazers’ backup big situation is a story worth following. Even if it isn’t among the ten most important dominoes to fall in the very immediate future, it has reared its ugly head in each of the Blazers’ last three postseasons. And if they aren’t careful, that number could be on the incline.