Letting Al-Farouq Aminu walk in free agency was a long time coming for the Portland Trail Blazers.
He was an integral part of the team’s surprisingly stingy defense over the past few seasons, checking several positions over the course of 48 minutes and providing Portland with a sense of disruption and overall activity – both on and off the ball – its more physically-limited defenders couldn’t. The Blazers’ lack of size in the backcourt and ultra-conservative scheme made them imminently exploitable at certain points of the floor; Aminu’s energy and versatility often proved key to staunching the bleeding of those inevitabilities.
But he’s gone now, a loss that comes as no surprise after his playing time steadily diminished throughout Portland’s run to the Western Conference Finals. How the Blazers replaced Aminu is what’s raised eyebrows, and it could be the deciding factor between them building on last season’s progress and taking a step back in a wide-open Western Conference.
Zach Collins is a far different player than Aminu, as well as fellow offseason departure Moe Harkless. Their theoretical value to Portland rested on defense first and foremost, but also a comfort playing without the ball offensively. One problem: Aminu and Harkless, despite some fleeting stretches of hot shooting, weren’t even close to reliable from the beyond the arc. Worse, defenses felt comfortable leaving them away from the ball to make life extra hard on their star teammates, a dynamic that annually neutered the Blazers’ offense when it mattered most.
But Neil Olshey didn’t account for the absence of two stalwarts by bringing in a defensively-limited forward who could nevertheless help relieve pressure on Lillard and McCollum, further juicing an offense that finished an overlooked third in offensive rating last season. Kent Bazemore is Portland’s only significant addition on the wing, and he was acquired from the Atlanta Hawks before free agency. Mario Hezonja isn’t the answer for a team with aspirations of legitimate contention, especially playing small forward, and Gary Trent Jr. is a second-round pick who rarely saw the floor as a rookie.
It’s Collins who’s tasked with sopping up most of the Blazers’ newly-available minutes at power forward. From a team-building standpoint, increasing his responsibilities is certainly the right approach. Portland traded up in the 2017 draft to take Collins at No. 10; he wasn’t going to be an energy guy off the bench forever and likely would have proven over-qualified for that status given even marginal growth over the summer.
Whether the role Collins is primed to play this season is the right one, though, is a matter worthy of disagreement.
He’s best-suited for center long-term; even the Blazers are surely admitting as much in private. But Collins’ time in the middle will almost certainly be few and far between in 2019-20 given the odd makeup of Portland’s roster. Bazemore is the lone off-ball perimeter player who doubles as a plus defender and semi-threatening long-range shooter, and he’s way too small to check the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. There will be many important moments for the Blazers when Rodney Hood is left to guard the best players in the world.
Collins will inevitably be put on that island sometimes, too. His ability to move his feet in space and manage strong contests at the rim from behind is the chief justification behind his potential ability to hold up at power forward full-time. Collins isn’t quite Clint Capela of a couple years ago. Portland won’t readily switch him onto superstar ball handlers like it did Aminu, either, but his combination of quickness, length and impeccable timing as a shot-blocker makes him switch-worthy under duress of time and score or specific opponent regardless.
The Blazers didn’t always switch across four positions with Aminu and Harkless on the court, but the option of doing so when necessary mitigated much of the inherent weakness presented by their personnel. Portland was happy to let offenses target Lillard and McCollum on the block in those circumstances, confident the opposition assumed posting up undersized perimeter defenders was a better means of attack than sizing up Aminu.
Teams won’t feel the same way when it’s Collins venturing outside the paint to corral playmakers. His nagging tendency to foul will come into play there, too. And when the Blazers opt against switching actions involving Collins and a guard, they’ll be subject to exactly the type of defensive rotations their long-running scheme has sought to minimize.
It would be remiss to overlook the potential impact of Portland’s collective length up front. No team in the league will start a frontcourt tandem longer than Collins and Hassan Whiteside, and the same will be true once Jusuf Nurkic returns come spring to take the latter’s place. Pau Gasol, health provided, is a perfect fit for the Blazers’ drop pick-and-roll coverage. They were average defensively last season after finishing sixth in defensive rating one year prior, regression most easily explained by a drop from first in defensive field goal percentage at the rim to 16th, per NBA.com. An uptick in rim-protection numbers is very possible and would do a lot toward stemming the negative influence of Portland’s decrease in defensive versatility.
But that trade-off is hardly a formality, and maybe wouldn’t be enough to offset a potential loss of flexibility on the other end. Aminu made small strides with the ball last season, finishing more awkward, herky-jerky drives without turning it over, but has never been imposing offensively. Harkless is cut from a similar cloth, though he enjoyed more success as a cutter and post-up option on switches.
Collins, as well as he moves for a seven-footer, doesn’t address those longstanding deficiencies for Portland. He can put the ball down two or three times on a short roll and is comfortable in the dribble hand-off game, but certainly won’t be grabbing defensive rebounds and rushing up the floor to create a winning numbers game. He’s also limited in terms of attacking close-outs – should his shooting improve to the point defenders deem aggressive contests necessary, of course.
Collins’ shot 33.1 percent from deep last season, a respectable number for a big with nascent stretch to the arc. But he took just 1.6 three-pointers per game, fewer than his rookie year, and a whopping 96 of his 121 attempts came absent any defender within six feet of him, per NBA.com.
Collins will get a lot of looks like this in October and November, and it’s imperative he knocks them down at a respectable clip – as much for the points as the space created by defenses feeling like they need to guard him outside the paint.
There’s a case to be made that Collins isn’t ready to log a lion’s share of his minutes at center.
He’s still thin despite putting on noticeable muscle since he came into the league, a trait his unrelenting intensity and physicality hasn’t quite been able to overcome. Portland has long been one of the league’s best rebounding teams, but has struggled on both the offensive and defensive glass when Collins has played center over the past two seasons. Mason Plumlee, for instance, killed him on the offensive boards in the second round of the playoffs. Nikola Jokic, to no one’s surprise, bullied him one-on-one, mostly due to such a sizable discrepancy in strength and overall girth.
Maybe starting at power forward really is the next step toward Collins reaching his ultimate ceiling. It’s not like he’s going to be the Blazers’ best center soon anyway, not after Nurkic established himself as a consistent two-way force last season.
Still, asking so much of Collins with so little behind him seems like a mistake for a team looking to compete at the highest level right now. Lillard and McCollum, despite their tandem multi-year extensions this summer, aren’t getting any younger. The collapse of the Warriors’ juggernaut presents a golden opportunity for a long-shot team like Portland to win a title. Lillard probably won’t enter any remaining season of his career, at least in a Blazers uniform, with a better chance to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June than this one.
Collins alone won’t sink Portland’s championship hopes. Even in an expanded role, he won’t use enough possessions to loom quite so large. But the margins matter more than ever in a Western Conference where as many as six teams can talk themselves into title contention, and so much of the Blazers’ success on both ends hinges on a 21-year-old who seems stuck between positions and has only played more than 30 minutes once in his career to date.
Is Collins ready for so much additional responsibility? The answer could help inform the difference between extremes of Portland playing deep into spring and missing out on the playoffs altogether.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.