The Portland Trail Blazers's decision to sign Al-Farouq Aminu suggests a shift in the team's philosophy.
It is not by accident that two other members of Portland’s starting lineup—all of whom were signed to deals by the Blazers directly rather than acquired via trade—happened to hit free agency at the same time as LaMarcus Aldridge. That arrangement of expiring salary gave Portland room to bring everyone back if things were going well and an opportunity to get creative if things were to go poorly.
We’re now seeing the latter course in action. In the first hours of free agency, Portland reportedly agreed to terms with forward Al-Farouq Aminu on a four-year, $30 million deal. One could feign ignorance in all of the chatter around Aldridge to this point to claim that Aminu might be his defense-first counterpart in the frontcourt—a replacement on the wing for Nicolas Batum. More realistically, Aminu’s pending deal is an acknowledgement of the awkward position that Portland now finds itself in. Aldridge is all but gone. That he already has a foot out the door recontextualizes the Blazers’ roster from top to bottom and dramatically changes the lens through which it must view its own free agents.
An Aldridge-led Blazers team would have ample reason to bring back Matthews and Lopez, both valuable components of a contending core. Without his commitment, the calculus changes in re-signing a 27-year-old center whose game worked best as an Aldridge complement and a 28-year-old wing in recovery from a devastating Achilles tear. It would take some sacrifice and salary cap maneuvering for the Blazers to even create enough space around the cap holds for Aldridge, Matthews, and Lopez to fit Aminu’s new deal—which, as noted by Nate Duncan of Real GM, is likely to start at a shade over $7 million. This corroborates what many already hold to be true: Aldridge, at the least, is not long for Portland.
That sobering realization puts the Blazers on a new competitive timeline. The only players on the books for Portland are Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Mason Plumlee, Noah Vonleh, Gerald Henderson, Meyers Leonard, Allen Crabbe, and Chris Kaman. While there’s enough potential cap room in play for the Blazers to accommodate multiple max salaries, this summer’s list of compatible, max-worthy, unrestricted free agents is rather slim. Blazers GM Neil Olshey could still spend every penny of available room under the cap on veteran free agents (including Lopez and/or Matthews) if he so chooses. Or, as suggested by Aminu’s signing, he could go another way: Acquire young, flexible talent that won’t be aging out of its prime by the time the Blazers are ready to contend again.
Aminu qualifies. Some might find a $30 million deal rich for a 24-year-old with a largely one-way game. Their concerns are valid. But this is ultimately only a slight bump above the $5.5 million mid-level exception and should essentially fall on MLE scale as the cap jumps over the next two seasons. Aminu is being paid the wage of a valuable contributor because he is one; flaws and all, Aminu is a starting-caliber forward on the strength of his defense and rebounding. He’s also, at a lanky 6'9", a perfect small-ball countermeasure. Aminu can cover ground quickly enough to neutralize shooting power forwards while still playing a role in protecting the basket. If the way of the future is through the style of the Warriors, Aminu’s value should increase by the day.
It need be noted that Aminu is not a scorer and, despite his and the Mavericks’ coaching staff’s best efforts, not a shooter. That didn’t stop Dallas from scoring incredibly well in nearly all of its most-used lineups featuring Aminu last season. His limitations on that end do more to define his role than undermine his team. So long as Aminu is allowed to focus his energies on on cutting, screening, and offensive rebounding, he has the spatial awareness to contribute while staying out of his teammates’ way. The simplistic portrayal of any non-shooting player as a detriment to spacing understates the value of those like Aminu, who understand where they are both in the literal space of the court and the broader context of a team hierarchy.
In context, this makes Aminu’s defense all the more valuable. He can play primarily on the wing if Portland so chooses, where he’s capable of lining up opposite elite perimeter scorers while posting rebounding numbers exceptional for his position. He could also be a quicker option at the four to cover those that Vonleh, Plumlee, and Leonard are ill-suited to guard or cover slighter fives if the occasion permits. That flexibility (and Aminu’s upward, if subtle, trajectory) gives Portland a piece of value at a time of particular uncertainty. We don’t yet know what the Blazers roster will look like once restocked to the point of challenging for the title. Aminu’s age and price point, however, suggest that he could contribute to that roster in any of the variety of ways his game allows.