Can This New Group Of Blazers Big Men Be Trusted?


April 3, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; New Orleans Hornets center Robin Lopez (15) looks on during the third quarter against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Hornets 98-88. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It may be overstated at this point, and I’m sure that if you’re here you already know, but the Portland Trail Blazers have had one great offseason. They filled areas of need with quality players and prospects, and general manager Neil Olshey has more than looked the part through all of the activity the Blazers have seen in free agency and the draft.

One of those areas of need that Olshey dealt? Another overstated narrative: the Blazers’ platoon of big men. Other than LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers trotted out a very weak group. The starting center position was manned by J.J. Hickson, a natural power forward, unable to defend bigger centers. Behind him, rookie Meyers Leonard led the way (proving to be more than a little raw), followed by “tweener” Victor Claver, who is more of a small forward than a true big, and Joel Freeland, who just might be one of the worst players in the NBA.

Olshey brought in two new faces to help address the concern up front. He acquired center Robin Lopez to replace Hickson as the starter, and also traded for Thomas Robinson to back up LaMarcus Aldridge at power forward. Lopez was the 15th overall selection in 2008 and is coming off of a career season, while Robinson was the 5th overall pick last year and was available cheap. Along with Meyers Leonard, who will continue to develop as a player after being drafted 11th last season, the Blazers’ frontcourt rotation is already miles ahead of where it was last season.

But with that said, the truth is that in relying on this group, the Blazers are setting themselves up for a situation where things could easily go awry.

Make no mistake, all of the players they added were talented. Last year, Lopez blocked 2.2 shots per 36 minutes while shooting a crisp 53.4% from the field and 77.8% from the line. He started all 82 games for the Pelicans and averaged 26.0 minutes per game, both career firsts for him. Robinson averaged 11.4 points and 10.7 rebounds per 36 minutes, which is indicative of his potential as a former 5th overall pick in spite of what was pretty clearly a down rookie year last season. Leonard, drafted 11th last year, is still in need of further development, but displayed a finesse outside shot combined with solid athleticism on that 7’1″ frame of his.

Unfortunately, in spite of their collective upside, none of these players are a sure thing.  Any of them could fail to step up as needed, leaving the Blazers right back where they started.

Lopez is the only one of these players, off of his rookie contract, now 25 and on the cusp of his sixth season in the NBA. He’s the most proven (and therefore the most reliable) of any big man on the Blazers other than LaMarcus Aldridge, which was fitting as he was brought in to start. However, that isn’t necessarily a feat to be proud of on this Blazers team, and for Lopez, indeed it isn’t. I mentioned his 82 starts and his 26.0 minutes per game mark from last season earlier. Those were actually well above his previous career-highs in both categories, as he had never started more than 56 games (2010-11) or played more than 19.3 minutes per game (2009-10) before that.

While Lopez had a nice season last year, finishing with a Player Efficiency Rating of 18.9 (the league average is considered to be 15.0), could last season prove to be a bit of an outlier? Lopez isn’t quite proven enough for us to know that’s not true for sure. Perhaps even more concerning than that, however, would be rebounding. Per 36 minutes, Lopez averaged an underwhelming 7.8 rebounds last season, even though he clocks in at 7’0″ tall. Unfortunately, his partner down low in LaMarcus Aldridge is a middling rebounder as well, averaging 8.6 rebounds per 36 minutes. Together, they could prove to be a tandem to be exploited by opposing teams.

When you turn your eye to the big men on the bench, you get even more concerned by the prospect of failure. Sophomores Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard will back up LaMarcus Aldridge and Lopez respectively, and both are coming out of unimpressive rookie seasons, to say the least.

Due to the lack of depth up front for the Blazers last season, Leonard was thrust into a role as the first big man off of the bench. It was a role he wasn’t ready for, and it showed as he was regularly beat on defense, not much of a presence on the boards, and still a work in progress on offense. He flashed his upside in the form of his 7’1″ frame, his mobility despite that size, and intriguing range for a center, however, he clearly wasn’t ready for the big time last season.

T-Rob doesn’t have it much better. Though he’s spent just one season in the pros, he’s been dumped by the Kings and the Rockets already. He was dominant in college, averaging 17.7 points and 11.9 rebounds, but he still has much work to do in developing his game. Robinson shot just 43.0% from the floor last year, with a horrible 52.3% mark from the free throw line. He regularly looked lost on plays both offensive and defensive, and the only thing he had going for him was his athleticism and activity level on the boards.

It stands to reason that both players will be improved in their second NBA season, but just how much? Either could be the first big off of the bench, but it’s questionable whether either can reliably give the production such a role would demand.

I love what the Blazers did this offseason in plugging holes, but Olshey took some risks in doing so. The big men he’s grouped LaMarcus Aldridge with all have their red flags, and things could all go wrong. I don’t believe it can possibly get worse than the train wreck from last season, but I would not like to see the worst case scenario for this team at all.

Portland could still bring on one more veteran big. That would be nothing short of a great move for them, giving the many young bigs on this roster a true veteran teacher. In fact, the only other veteran presence on this team is guard Earl Watson, and the Blazers wouldn’t hurt from having a second veteran in such a young locker room. On the floor, having a veteran big to go to could help if the event that their bigs slip up. Names of interest could include Kenyon Martin, Joel Przybilla, or Jason Collins.

As things stand now, however, the Blazers are running out a group of young and largely unproven bigs. LaMarcus Aldridge isn’t a bad leader at all for such a group. However, the Blazers have playoff aspirations next season, and if things don’t pan out as expected, they could be caught dead in the water.

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