NBA

Should the Trail Blazers plan to play short ball?

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As the NBA evolved into a “pace and space” offense, the utility of the traditional 7-foot center took a nosedive. Tall men still impact the ground, but they’re just as likely to run and shoot from the perimeter as they are near the edge.

This has sparked a debate over the value of the NBA center. Are the major pivots in hibernation, waiting for the next trend change, or have they gone the way of the dodo? And what’s the connection to the Portland Trail Blazers and their revamped lineup? That’s the subject of today’s Mailbag Edge from Blazer.

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David,

There seems to be a discussion about what a team needs on the front line, length versus athleticism. Last year, the Blazers got killed under the rim, running 6’7″ and 6’8″ forward against other teams. It was even cruel to watch. Still, neither of conference champions Boston and Golden State led big centers for long minutes. Their successful approach was to have speed, athleticism and teamwork among the little big guys. What is your view on this and do you think the Blazers can currently compete with higher front lines?

Sat

This is a hot topic of debate for sure. Ultimately, the issue can only be seen through the prism of other issues.

Who do you have?

It’s all well and good to say that the Warriors and Celtics have excelled this year without great success, but how and why they did it matters. Saying they succeeded without centers is different from saying they succeeded because they were centerless.

Golden State fielded at least three players in its rotation with big defensive assets. Draymond Green is a franchise-changing unicorn. Gary Payton II and Klay Thompson regularly receive praise for their defense skills. This allowed the Warriors to close the gap between should play defense for 48 minutes to box play defense for 48 minutes.

This is the key to getting along without a safety net. It’s not about your point defense up front and blocked shots behind. It’s about reading the ground and spinning fast enough to get every play covered, adding enough intimidation factor on the tail that you can actually disrupt the ball carrier when you get there. You don’t need five great defenders for this to work, but having three certainly helps. Also, your non-defenders need to be athletic enough to cover the space (and buy into the system enough that they aren’t de facto sieve).

Obviously, it helps that Golden State also features some of the best shooters the universe has ever seen. Not depending on disks saves energy. Racking up three points with every shot keeps you in the game when your defense slips. Thompson and Steph Curry are unlike anyone else in the league in this regard. Having Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole as backup plans doesn’t hurt.

Boston’s story is a bit different, but note that they feature two transcendent forwards in Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Brown, Al Horford and Marcus Smart are known as apt defenders. They also follow this “three pillars, everyone buys and make sure you can score big” approach.

Do the Trail Blazers have that kind of composition? The answer is a definite maybe. They certainly have huge goalscoring potential with Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons. Payton is now on their roster, along with Jerami Grant. Nassir Little has the potential to become a very good defender. I don’t know if any of them are elite. They definitely need time to grow and gel. Portland’s smaller defenders also need to catch the spark. It will be a work in progress.

In the meantime, the straw that will stir the drink for Portland’s defense initially will be Jusuf Nurkic. He is mobile and active enough to fill the gaps left by perimeter defenders. At times, he’s been Portland’s best defensive option. I expect him to return to that role at the start of the season this year. But the premise of this question assumes that Nurkic isn’t there. If so, I expect the Blazers to have trouble filling his shoes, even though some other teams are playing relatively centerless.

Who are you facing?

A few NBA teams field elite centers: Denver, Philadelphia, probably Minnesota with their two-headed “Katbert” now. It’s safe to say that no one can defend these All-NBA-level players, even with other 7-footers. Just because you have a center doesn’t mean you can compete with Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid.

The lack of post-productivity in the modern era strengthens the case for a non-traditional approach. Even the best centers no longer back down their opponents. A 6’7 defender can sometimes bother mid-range jumpers and three-pointers more effectively than a huge guy, simply because they can get out quicker.

Even taking all this into account, the centers are still not useless. Rebounding becomes an issue when playing small against opposing pivots. Coaches are likely to change the game plan if they know you have nobody over 6’8 in the lineup. It’s not like Jokic and Embiid are allergic to three-footed kicks. Throw a 6’7 forward at them from the point and they’ll adapt.

Stop and look at the other side of the coin as well. Playing a heavy 7-footer never gave teams much of an advantage, but skilled crosses usually found a way to make an impact. With more teams getting smaller, a reasonably good pivot has more opportunities to exploit. “Our guy might not be the league’s MVP, but you know what? Tonight he can probably score on you.

The Blazers probably won’t make Nurkic the center of their offense, but the idea of ​​giving him away just to get smaller doesn’t make sense. He has the ability to get over, even tag, smaller defenders. Portland won’t need it for 48 minutes, but even 8 minutes of advantage could turn a game around. Why wouldn’t you want this option in your arsenal when the rest of the league is hungry for big players?

When do you play?

Unless an advantage is clear and consistent, it’s likely to pay more dividends in the regular season than in the playoffs. The game changes when the opponent has nothing to think about for two weeks except to exploit your weaknesses.

If the Blazers had Draymond Green, we would have a different conversation. Unless they replace Nurkic with a player of that caliber, I’d be nervous about coming up against the Nuggets or Timberwolves in the playoffs, starting the series at a size disadvantage.

The idea would be to “best of both worlds” there. There’s nothing to say Portland can’t acquire or develop players to fit the ‘6’7, play all positions’ mould. They could run different lineups, supplanting their traditional center at intervals while keeping him actively involved for the match advantages he provides. By the time they’ve found themselves small for the big parts of the game – and in all critical situations – then a more permanent transition might be in order.

For now, however, I think your initial concern is warranted. Portland can probably get away with their current frontcourt as long as Nurkic is healthy and playing reasonably well. If he goes flat — or worse, gets injured — the Blazers will struggle to make up for it with the players currently on the roster. There just isn’t enough talent and size in the same packages to take them where they want to go.

Thanks for the question! You can all send yours to blazersub@gmail.com!

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