When the Portland Trail Blazers dealt Damian Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks and then, subsequently, Jrue Holiday to the Boston Celtics, the plan was to retool the roster around youth and potential. Players like Shaedon Sharpe and Scoot Henderson were at the forefront of that strategy as the Blazers came into the season with eight projected rotation pieces age 26 or younger.
No position was more significantly rebuilt than the center spot. The plodding and often injured Jusuf Nurkic was dealt to the Phoenix Suns as part of the three-team Lillard trade. Drew Eubanks, Portland's backup center in 2022-23, had already signed with Phoenix as a free agent earlier in the offseason.
Enter Deandre Ayton, who was essentially swapped for Nurkic, and Robert Williams III, who arrived in Portland in the trade that rerouted Holiday to Boston.
The Blazers got more explosive, athletic and defensive-minded at the five, which was a long time coming.
But things haven't gone according to plan.
Williams' lengthy injury history traveled across the country with him. Despite head coach Chauncey Billups only playing him every other night, it only took six games for Rob Will to tear a ligament in his knee that required surgery and will keep him out for the remainder of the season.
What's more problematic than losing Williams, though, is how poor Ayton - the Blazers' supposed center of the future - has started his career in Rip City.
Deandre Ayton is becoming a serious concern for the Trail Blazers
Suns fans have seen this show before. Ayton puts up solid traditional stats that point to a legitimate starting center, but a closer look shows an overrated player whose physical talent is easier on the eye than it is on the advanced metrics - or win/loss record, for that matter.
The 2018 draft's No. 1 overall pick can roll out of bed and put up a double-double. Ayton has career averages of 16.4 points and 10.4 rebounds. In 21 starts with the Blazers this season, the 7-footer is scoring 12.5 points per game to go along with 10.5 rebounds and a career-high 1.2 steals while shooting 58 percent from the floor.
He's not blowing the lid off the box score, but Ayton has been at least a league-average starting center, right?
Not really, no. In fact, his underlying numbers are worrisome, and it's already time to start thinking about using the "B" word when it comes to his role in the Lillard deal. Ayton is already dangerously close to becoming a bust as the on-court centerpiece of the most massive trade in franchise history.
If we set the criteria for a starting NBA center as any player who's started 15 or more games at the five, Ayton is 25th among all qualifiers in defensive rating (115.1). He's 38th among all starting centers - that is, any center who's started a single game at some point this season.
He's 33rd of 35 in offensive rating at 104.8. His -10.4 net rating is also 33rd ahead of only Utah Jazz center ohn Collins (who isn't a center) and former Blazer Zach Collins. Ayton's abysmal net rating is 45th among all centers.
The 26-year-old is doing nothing to protect the rim for the Blazers, either. He's 30th out of 35 in blocks and 53rd among all centers in points allowed in the paint. He ranks 34th in defensive win shares.
Maybe more frustrating than anything, which Suns fans can again attest to, is how good Ayton is capable of being on certain nights. In the five Portland wins (ouch) he's been the starting big man, his defensive rating of 102.2 is better than Rudy Gobert's, and his net rating of 6.5 would make him a top-15 center.
There are obvious mitigating factors here - the Blazers are terrible, he's dealt with knee soreness and missed a handful of games, and Portland has only had its full rotation for two-and-a-half contests all season - but Ayton's been a massive disappointment.
There are still some hopefully promising draft picks coming down the line, but so far, Toumani Camara is the best player the Trail Blazers received in return for Damian Lillard. That's not great.
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