January 16, 2019
The first signing of the free agency period is a useful barometer for how the new financial market operates.

Only hours into the free agency moratorium period on Wednesday morning, Dallas Maverick free agent forward Al-Farouq Aminu reportedly agreed to sign a four year, $30 million free agent contract with the Portland Trail Blazers.

Preconceived notions of value are changing rapidly in the context of the salary cap and on the court. Aminu is an illustrative example. Under past salary cap climates, paying a tweener with a broken jump shot $7.5 million annually would be frowned upon. That may not be the case anymore.

Offensively, Aminu offers what is best described as a raw package of skills – a non-threat as a jump shooter having failed to develop his range to the point that garners difference making defensive attention. Even from the corners, a requisite safe-haven for otherwise shaky shooters, his accuracy leaves a lot to be desired. When deployed as a nominal small forward, these shooting concerns are exacerbated (although playing with a shooting four like Dirk Nowitzki negates some these issues).

By the same token, an offense could squeeze some more spacing by using him as a power forward in smaller lineups, where his shooting may be comparatively more impactful. In reality, however, the significance of this nominal shift in position with regard to floor spacing might be negligible. It’s become clear that non-threats from the perimeter can be easily ignored, particularly in the playoffs, where scrutiny is razor sharp and teams become more daring. While the playoffs are not an immediate consideration, the Blazers have cherished three point shooting under Terry Stotts, and any offseason improvement Aminu makes as a shooter will be a bonus.

Despite the shooting woes, last season the Dallas offense was similarly effective with Aminu on and off the court, as he demonstrated an improved assertiveness off the dribble and as a passer. That sort of development is critical for a limited offensive player like Aminu, as it enables him to keep the offense flowing. By no means is Aminu a playmaker, but his turnover rate has declined every year, as his comfort level grows and he builds an increasing awareness of his limitations.

Some overlap between Rick Carlisle and Stotts’ systems will aid the transition to the Blazers. Depending on the context of the game and the surrounding pieces, expect Stotts to have Aminu split time between forward spots. In Dallas, Aminu was estimated to have shared an even distribution of time at both the three and the four.

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Despite Damian Lillard’s gravitational pull, playing Aminu next to Gerald Henderson on the wing with two traditional bigs would make for disastrously tight spacing. Contrastingly, lineups featuring multiple shooters such as Meyers Leonard and C.J. McCollum could allow for Aminu to be more freely deployed on the wing. Those sort of considerations place inherent situational restrictions on when and where he can be used, prohibiting Aminu from being seen as a direct replacement for the departed Nicolas Batum. On balance, however, throughout his career Aminu has probably been most effective as a four.

Nonetheless, that type of analysis has a particularly offensive subjectivity. Aminu’s positional deployment will also be driven by the opponent’s lineup choices to downsize or implement stretch-fours with limited post games. Just as hiding a minus-defender is an adjustment motivated by an attempt to generate a net gain, accommodating a non-shooter is a similar juggling act.

Aminu’s proficiency and flexibility as a defender is where he retains his core value. Measurements for the offensive side of basketball are easily ascertainable. Attributing the value on the defensive end remains a generally more elusive task. Consequently, it’s easy to ignore or underrate (possibly subconsciously) the value a player may bring on the defensive end. It seems obvious, but a player can generate a net gain through his defensive capability

Despite being a defensively challenged group, Dallas was significantly improved with Aminu on the floor. On the ball, his length and athleticism makes him a meaningful deterrent, although occasional spurts of inattentive daydreaming can hurt in off ball scenarios. But NBA defense systems are complicated and nuanced, particularly for a player oscillating between forward positions, and at 24, Aminu could alleviate some of these faults with greater experience. He still projects as a plus-defender.

In the small-ball context, burly, traditional big-men may be able to exploit a strength deficit in the post on one end without an alarming level of concern for Aminu’s jumper at the other. But the validity of that unease is questionable. Teams are increasingly willing to bait post-ups against particular matchups, and the number of fours capable of truly exploiting Aminu on the block is a select group.

Aminu is an elite rebounder for his size and position. On the wing, that makes him a nice piece to plug and play with Portland’s assortment of young big men, not all of who are particularly adept as glass cleaners. As a small-ball four, it makes him useful too – a rare interchangeable piece capable of switching onto perimeter players while maintaining order on the boards. There is great power in the ability to neutralize the pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop, and dribble-handoff actions that pervade the contemporary NBA, by switching assignments on the fly.

Although the context of the rising salary cap in 2016 and 2017 has been alluded ad nauseam, those projections remain the relevant reference point for analysis of new, long-term free agent contracts. Aminu’s deal represents something approaching what in the current climate would approximate mid-level exception money.

That’s an acceptable price to pay for a young, above-average defender who fits the development timeline of the Blazers’ existing core pieces. In essence, Portland is betting that any spacing issues created by Aminu’s problematic shooting will be more than offset by his exploits on the other end. At the price they are paying, it’s a decent bet.

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Andrew Cutler

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