The Portland Trail Blazers’ 2016-17 season was a year defined by high ambitions and unmet expectations. The team saw a regression to the mean after shocking the league just a year prior, but there is plenty of talent on the roster that can help the team improve.
Ahead of 2017-18, Oregon Sports News’ Jared Wright and Bryant Knox will be breaking down the strengths, weaknesses and recent showings from each and every Trail Blazers player. Today, we take a look at the Chief himself, Al-Farouq Aminu.
Unlike some of his teammates, Chief had a down year in 2016-17. A season after appearing in all 82 games and setting dozens of career-highs in categories, Aminu couldn’t replicate that, for various reasons. His shooting suffered, contributing to his 11.3 PER and negative Offensive Win Shares (-0.1).
One reason is sheer variance; it would have been foolish to expect a career non-shooter like Aminu to maintain a near league-average three-point shooting percentage, and role guys like Chief typically regress to the mean some after a career year. Another reason would be injury; Chief was not as durable/lucky last season as he was the year before, and I’d imagine that the time he was out there, he was less effective than usual due to more than the usual number of nicks and bumps.
The two most interesting explanations for Aminu’s downturn might be his coming off the bench for all but 25 of the 61 games he played, and the fact that he played virtually all his minutes at the power forward position. Being sent to the bench in favor of Moe Harkless must have stung some, given that they’re virtually the same type of player (though Harkless is three years younger), and Harkless, to his credit, did enough to convince Portland coach Terry Stotts to continue starting him even after Aminu, the guy that had started all 82 games in 2015-16 (with a 56-44 split between minutes at the 3 and 4), came back off the disabled list.
Playing out of position likely didn’t help Chief much, either. Not only is power forward a much different position than small forward (3s are typically out on the wing, while 4s usually play closer to the basket), but banging down low for rebounds on a constant basis is not work the willowy, six-foot-nine Aminu was prepared for.
Even though 4s are starting to downsize as the NBA is favoring speed over size, there are still teams that either employ two traditional big men, or have a tall 4 that is also highly skilled (think Anthony Davis or Kristaps Porzingis). Those matchups took their toll on Aminu, who lacks the bulk to bang with behemoths and lacks the height to truly challenge the Durants and Davises of the world.
Aminu should have an easier time of it if he plays the 4 again this season; the NBA is trending ever smaller.
What He Brings to The Table
The two qualities Aminu brings to the Blazers are also the two qualities that seem to be lacking in most of the forwards in Portland recently: toughness and defense. Whomever the top offensive weapon is on the enemy team is the one Aminu usually guards, though Stotts has changed up the assignments in an effort to throw Harkless and others into the deep end.
Though Aminu himself is only entering his age-27 season, he is one of the older heads on this callow Blazer squad. The one word that sums up what he means to the Blazers is also his nickname, Chief. He’s not the leader, but he is an elder, and willing to do whatever it takes to help his team win…except take an open three-pointer.
When Aminu is out there with the starters, he is the bellwether for the Portland attack, in a sense. If he’s hitting his open shots, or being paid any kind of attention by the defense, things go easy for Portland. If he gets the Andre Roberson Treatment (not being guarded or cared about in any way), the Blazers are playing four-on-five, and if the opponent is a solid or elite team, Portland will obviously struggle. A big reason the Blazers have a reputation for slow starts is due to Aminu not being able/willing to punish defenses for leaving him open; it wouldn’t surprise me if that was why Stotts started Harkless, even though Moe isn’t much better at shooting.
Still, Aminu has value when he’s out there. He’s the only one among the 4s and 5s, other than a motivated Jusuf Nurkic, that stands a chance of keeping up on defense. Meyers Leonard is utterly clueless, the rookies need time to learn NBA defense, and Ed Davis has some trouble when drawn away from his safe spot in the paint.
What to Expect In 2017-18
Sadly, I think Aminu’s shooting in 2015-16 was an outlier. Other than the restricted area, Aminu shot 35% or worse from every area of the floor in 2016-17, and even though this was still an improvement over his performances before coming to Rip City, it seems like this might be the norm. Given his age and what he’s asked to do for the Blazers, it seems like what we saw from Chief last year is what we will get.
I do expect him to play his usual solid defense, provide one or two big plays a game, and get a few “CHIIIIIIEEEEEEFFFFF!” calls from the Rip City faithful here and there. It’d be nice if he shot more from three, though, if only because a 2-6 night from beyond the arc means he made a couple outside shots.
If he were on a team with better defenders, Al-Farouq Aminu might have even more impact than he does for the team he’s currently on. A team with Chief as its best perimeter and frontcourt defender is doomed to be middle of the pack on D, at best. Still, Chief will try his damnedest, and we will still love him for it. As far as I’m concerned, he’s earned the right to be a Blazer for as long as he wants to be.