We are in the throes of NBA Free Agency, and the Portland Trail Blazers have already started making some moves. As expected, nothing they’ve done has been particularly flashy. The biggest move so far has been re-signing Norman Powell, which, rightfully so, was very high on the list of priorities moving into the offseason. Besides that, President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey has made moves on the margins to try and improve the depth of this squad.
One of those moves on the margins was the addition of Cody Zeller. He was the first official signing of the Blazers’ offseason, joining the squad on what is reported to be the vet minimum. What does his signing mean for Portland and what exactly does he bring to the table?
Zeller has spent his entire NBA career with the Charlotte Hornets, and for the most part he’s done well. In his eight-year career, the 7-footer has averaged 8.7 points and six rebounds a game on 57% true shooting. His best season arguably was the 2016-17 season, the first year he averaged double digit points with 10.3 a game. He also averaged 6.5 rebounds per contest and nearly a block and a steal every game as well, all while posting his second-highest true shooting percentage at 60.4%.
This past year, Zeller put up similar numbers to his career averages, posting 9.4 points per game and 6.8 rebounds just under 60% true shooting. He put up those numbers while mostly coming off the bench, with only 21 starts to his name in the 2020-21 season. However, he only played in 48 games for the Hornets this past year.
This feels like a good time then to segue into the biggest concern about Zeller: his health. Since the 2017-18 season, Zeller hasn’t played in more than 58 games in a year. His injury history is long: He’s dealt with problems in his shoulder, hips, and knees all in just the last four years. He had a hand surgery back in 2019 as well as knee surgery in 2017 and dealt with hip, hand, and shoulder problems just this past season.
That’s a long list of injuries, and it is certainly not too comforting considering the Blazers’ history with oft-injured big men. But when he’s on the court, he adds value. Cleaning the Glass’s data has Zeller as a net positive in efficiency differential in every year except for two: his rookie season and the 2019-20 season when the Hornets were not great. This past year, he posted an efficiency differential of +5.3, most of that generating from the offensive end. The Hornets this year scored six points more per possession with him on the floor, which ranks in about the 89th percentile among bigs.
Zeller is a traditional big in the sense that he isn’t someone you rely on to stretch the floor. 75% of his shots came at the rim (within four feet of the basket) this season. 18% came from mid-range and the other seven percent from three. Much like Enes Kanter before him — who feels like an appropriate point of comparison considering he’s essentially taking his spot — you won’t catch Zeller drifting out to the three-point line anytime soon.
Blazer’s Edge’s own Danny Marang breaks it down well here. Apparently, Danny enjoys precognition on a level beyond most humans, considering he pinpointed Zeller as a target for Portland before free agency. Zeller is competent in pick-and-rolls and moves his feet well enough that he can relocate to find space whenever necessary. He’s not someone you can necessarily throw the ball to on the post and tell them “get a bucket” like Kanter, but he’s far from incompetent in that regard.
Unfortunately for Portland, Zeller doesn’t finish like Kanter does at the rim. Zeller only posted a field goal percentage at the rim of about 65%, which ranks in the 39th percentile among big men. As Marang broke down in the video linked above, he seems like he can generally finish around or at the rim; it’s just not at as high of a clip compared to Kanter.
One thing Zeller does noticeably better is defense. When watching Zeller, he doesn’t move around too slow and is able to step up to make key stops at various points. He’s never posted big counting stats defensively; the highest block percentage he’s ever posted is two percent, which he did in 2016-17. But he has a history of putting himself in good position to protect the paint.
Despite a reputation of being a good defender, defenses have struggled the past two years while Zeller is on the court. This past year, teams scored 0.7 points more per 100 possessions when Zeller was playing. The year prior, it was 2.8 points more, with teams posting an effective field goal percentage that was 3.8% higher. With Zeller on the floor, teams shot 2.8% higher at the rim and 5.8% better in the short mid-range (anywhere between four and 14 feet).
None of those numbers are particularly inspiring, and it most certainly is a departure from the norm for Zeller. Prior to the past two years, he had posted solid defensive numbers, the best year being — you guessed it — the 2016-17 year. Teams scored a whopping 7.5 points less per 100 possessions when Zeller was on the floor that year, which ranked in the 95th percentile. They also shot 1.7% worse, which was the 80th percentile.
There’s no question that the dip in numbers is at least slightly connected to his tough injury luck. That along with age and transitioning to a more bench-oriented role all are recipes for a dip in production. But even despite the clear downturn, he still projects to at least be better than Kanter, who was an absolute sieve on defense last year. Zeller doesn’t ameliorate all problems, but he’s not the clear negative that Kanter was.
In conclusion, Zeller is far from a sexy signing. Believe it or not, bringing in an injury prone yet productive big man that can eat up minutes off the bench isn’t exactly the kind of move that takes a team over the top. However, Zeller is a fine find at his price point. As long as he stays healthy, he should be a quality backup big for Nurkic.
The truth is that the Blazers were never going to do particularly much in free agency. Limited cap space and a clear imperative to re-sign Norman Powell will do that to you. Zeller is just one of several players — including Ben McLemore and Tony Snell — that provide some padding but don’t transform magically the Blazers’ ceiling. As our own Steve Dewald discussed with Brian Wilcox, the Blazers surely look different, but it’s unclear whether that makes them better.
The onus is still on Olshey to do more if the goal is to make a deep playoff run in Portland. Re-signing Powell was good, and Zeller should step into the Enes Kanter role of big off the bench well, but there’s more to be done. Olshey can’t rest on his laurels and say that getting several veteran minimum guys is what’s putting this team over the top. All that being said, one could do a lot worse than Cody Zeller.