Blazers Trying to Straddle the Line in Rebuild

After losing LaMarcus Aldridge, their longtime franchise cornerstone, to free agency this offseason, the Portland Trail Blazers decided to forego an outright tank in pursuit of the elusive on-the-fly rebuilding effort.

Rather than entirely disassembling a roster that still had some intriguing young pieces, GM Neil Olshey decided not to worry about what he couldn’t control and made little-to-no effort to retain the team’s additional free agents, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez, once the team believed Aldridge was a goner. He even unloaded Nic Batum (before Aldridge actually left), who struggled last season and will be a free agent next offseason. Once everything shook out, he also doubled down on his only remaining star and extended Damian Lillard to the tune of five years, $120 million.

In replacing the guys who helped make the Blazers a top five Western Conference foe who seemed perpetually on the brink, however, Olshey made some intriguing maneuvers. Instead of totally bottoming out or trying to save face in the standings, he aimed somewhere in the middle and bought low on a plethora of sheer talent, bringing in several talented former first-round picks who still potentially have room to develop: Noah Vonleh, Mason Plumlee, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis. How all of these pieces fit together is unclear, but that’s what this season is for.

Each of these guys will have the opportunity to carve out a role on a Portland team that won’t be very good next season. Figuring out who fits where, and who works best with the team’s aspiring core players, Lillard and Meyers Leonard, will be the primary goal for the 2015-16 Blazers.

Lillard will finally have an opportunity to prove himself as a franchise player, a desire that allegedly clashed with Aldridge’s perception that he should automatically be that guy, despite his reluctance to carry out the extra responsibilities and expectations of a big-time star. That alleged wedge has been a big part of the scuttlebutt surrounding LMA’s departure, but he’s gone, and this is now Lillard’s team.

That could be a blessing and a curse for the point guard, who will surely miss the talented supporting cast he enjoyed both in the post and on the wings the last few seasons. Lillard is literally the only returning member of Portland’s starting five, so they’ll be leaning that much more on him to create and capitalize on opportunities, which will be more difficult to come by without as much talent around him. They’ll have to rebuild their team defense as well, which doesn’t bode well for changing his already appalling reputation on that end.

The Blazers have two incumbent players capable of boosting this transition, the aforementioned Leonard and combo guard C.J. McCollum, who came on late last season while replacing Matthews and Arron Afflalo.

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Leonard proved himself to be one of the most unique scoring big men in the league last season, a true stretch 5 who was the NBA’s only player to post 50/40/90 percent shooting splits, though he spent most of the year playing a power-forward-like role. He’s a capable shot-blocker, but needs to improve the consistency with which he contests shots around the rim.

McCollum is a lot like Lillard, though not as quick. He’s a tremendous shooter and has some creativity off the bounce as well, part of the reason Olshey has said he wants to give him a shot at point guard this year. On defense, though, he’s as much of a turnstile as his backcourt teammate, and if you haven’t caught the gist yet, he’ll be part of this team’s season-long effort to figure things out on that end of the floor.

The new additions offer potential help in that area. Acquired in the Batum trade, Vonleh is probably the most intriguing member of the bunch, a soon-to-be 20-year-old big man with outta-this-gym hops and a soft touch shooting the ball. After spending just a year in Indiana University’s pace-happy system and getting lost in the shuffle in Charlotte, however, his biggest issue in getting on the floor seems to be his grasp of the game. Vonleh has all the physical tools necessary to be a two-way force, but has struggled making quick reads and decisions, especially in the pick-and-roll, so there’s a chance that with an actual chance to get reps, he could develop some confidence in Portland.

It’s almost hard to believe that Al-Farouq Aminu is just 24 years old, but he is, and the Blazers seemingly got a bargain when they inked him to a four-year deal this offseason. Although he remains a virtual non-factor on offense, he doesn’t crater teams at that end like he used to, which is a big deal, since he’s an excellent defensive player who could probably guard any position in a pinch. Portland might actually ask him to do that, and he’ll prove extremely useful in that role as their defensive Swiss Army Knife, perhaps even sticking around post-rebuild as a niche guy.

Plumlee is the other addition who’s kind of a household name, having just played on the USA FIBA team last summer. Things have been mostly downhill for him since then, losing all his playing time in Brooklyn and getting shipped out after they re-signed Brook Lopez. He’s got some talent, however, defending at a fairly competent level and running the floor well. Those are important skills for a big man, although his ceiling might not be much higher than that. After the work Terry Stotts did working with the other Lopez brother, there might not be a better situation for this Plumlee.

All of these guys are flyers, and moreso Mo Harkless and Ed Davis than anyone else. Each player has bounced around the NBA during their first couple years, offering some discernible but limited skills that ultimately limits their ability to contribute. Harkless is a dogged defender who plays with a relentless energy that’s often uncontrollable, while Davis is a great scorer as a pick-and-roll man. The Blazers could use both of those things for right now, and if something else clicks for either of the talented youngsters, Portland could wind up with a useful piece.

That’s basically the strategy the Blazers have employed this offseason: if they have to play out next season, why not use it to get a head start on their rebuilding effort and potentially strike sleeper gold?

It’s an interesting strategy that might not appeal to fans who believe in the power of tanking and the potential to select a superstar talent who can turn the franchise around overnight. By acquiring guys who’ve been in the league, they probably won’t drift into the utter dregs of the league.

At the same time, though, Olshey has still given his team an opportunity for an organic tank. He’s put enough competent guys around his committed piece to derive a legitimate evaluation from next season, but since they’re all young, volatile talents who are still learning the NBA game, the team still has the potential to slide into the thick of the lottery race should those guys become total flops.

In that sense, he’s sort of attempted to play both sides against the middle, banking on finding a couple diamonds in the rough who aren’t quite good enough to push Portland out of the lottery’s lower end, but still good enough to pair with their new draft pick and incumbent contributors and put the team back on track very soon.

It’s a bold bet, and yet, one that doesn’t seem to have too much potential to backfire beyond this season.

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