Following the most successful five-game series loss in recent NBA playoff memory, the Portland Trail Blazers and coach Terry Stotts closed the book on their first post-LaMarcus Aldridge season.
Like Phoenix did with Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, the Blazers built their identity around two attacking point guards in Damian Lillard and Most Improved Player C.J. McCollum.
Yes, Portland provided proof the Suns’ model isn’t a failed experiment. There was also proof two ball-dominant point guards can play alongside — and sometimes at the same time as — a silky-smooth gunner like Allen Crabbe or, for Phoenix, Devin Booker. Like the Blazers, the Suns could be able to roll with three guards in stints, and it may not take Suns coach Earl Watson to draw from Stotts’ genius to make it happen.
This discussion, however, isn’t going where you think.
All of these guards are quite obviously different players; the Suns’ two point guards aren’t the shooters as the Blazers’, for one thing. But with more lineups of more perimeter players being used across the NBA, it’s worth pointing out the complaints about Phoenix running out too many guards is a bit tired (Feel free to complain about the specific players to your heart’s content).
That leads us to the intricacies of what Portland did at the other positions.
In the past year, the Blazers appreciated the undersized power forwards for their value and versatility, acquiring the collection of young and undervalued rotation players Al Farouq Aminu ($8,042,895), Ed Davis ($6,980,802) Mo Harkless ($2,894,059), Mason Plumlee ($1,415,520) and Noah Vonleh ($2,637,720).
The Suns should follow suit by targeting low-profile, high-energy bigs with the versatility to — if not flat out switch onto perimeter players — help and recover.
The 2015-16 Suns were a turnstile at the power forward spot for a number of reasons but nobody would mistake anyone on the roster as a versatile defensive presence after P.J. Tucker. And one man wasn’t going to cover everyone else’s mistakes.
Portland showed just how to use such players with Aminu and Harkless, younger and more athletic defenders than Tucker.
While any lineup in Stotts’ offense would be relatively successful with shooters like Lillard, McCollum and Crabbe on the court, it was their offensively limited frontcourt that quietly shined playing with the dynamic guards.
Of three-man lineup combinations that played 50-plus games together this season, the best net rating — offensive points per 100 possessions minus defensive points per 100 possessions — belonged to a group that included none of the Portland perimeter stars. Instead, Aminu, Harkless and Plumlee led the team in outscoring opponents 10.8 points per 100 possessions.
With Lillard and McCollum, that trio played 290 minutes together over the season and outscored opponents at 14.4 points per 100 possessions. The defense behind the two guards was the key reason why.
Looking at the center spot, Portland also got similar production by scavaging the league for young, athletic players like Davis, Vonleh and Plumlee.
The Suns would be keen to copy the blueprint of what exactly to piece around a guard-oriented system that should remain in place no matter how Watson handles a complex group that will include some combination of Bledsoe, Knight, Booker, Archie Goodwin and perhaps Bogdan Bogdanovic.
Tucker returns with a team option, but after that the power forward cupboard remains bare.
Jon Leuer could be had on a reasonable free agent contract and Mirza Teletovic has expressed his desire to return with Watson’s interim tag erased.
Targeting defensively-versatile combo forwards would be economically viable and conducive to improving the roster assuming the same group of guards return.
Notable combo forwards on the market
Harrison Barnes, Luol Deng, Harkless, Marvin Williams, Lance Thomas, Jared Dudley, James Johnson, Robert Covington, Jonas Jerebko, Solomon Hill.
Notable potential combo forwards in the draft
Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, Dragan Bender, Jaylen Brown, Marquese Chriss, Juan Hernangomez, Taurean Prince, Brice Johnson, Cheick Diallo, Jake Layman, Dorian Finney-Smith.
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