NBA Position Battles: Who Should Be the Starting Power Forward for the Portland Trail Blazers?

The starting four spot for the Trail Blazers has been a revolving door of mediocre performers all year. Has anyone stood out?

The Portland Trail Blazers are struggling this year, currently sitting at 15-22 and out of the playoff picture, as compared to last year when they finished 44-38 and grabbed the Western Conference's 5 seed.

There are plenty of places to point fingers for their slow start (some might say Damian Lillard's defense is to blame, for instance), but it's hard not to look at the gaping hole at power forward as part of the reason for their struggles.

Damian Lillard is a given at point guard, as is C.J. McCollum at shooting guard, while Maurice Harkless has started every single game he's played this year as the team's small forward, and Mason Plumlee has at center. The starting four position, in the meantime, has been Al-Farouq Aminu's spot for 16 of the 19 games he's been healthy, and it has otherwise been divided between Ed Davis (11 games), Meyers Leonard (5 games), Noah Vonleh (4 games), and one game of Harkless shifting to the four and Allen Crabbe starting at the three.

And the returns haven't been all that pretty in either case. Looking at the per-36 numbers of Aminu, Davis, Leonard, and Vonleh (we'll leave the Harkless out of it for now, seeing as how the sample size is small, the fact he is undersized for the position, and he's played 76% of his career at small forward), there's only one standout, based on efficiency alone:

Player PTS/36 FG% 3P% FT% REB/36 AST/36 STL/36 BLK/36 TOV/36
Al-Farouq Aminu 8.4 31.3% 26.9% 60.0% 8.3 2.9 1.6 0.6 2.0
Ed Davis 8.4 50.5% - 64.9% 10.8 1.1 0.7 1.2 1.7
Meyers Leonard 12.6 36.7% 33.3% 95.2% 7.0 1.6 0.2 0.9 1.3
Noah Vonleh 9.4 39.5% 31.6% 72.0% 10.7 0.6 0.9 1.1 2.3

Aminu, Leonard, and Vonleh are all shooting under 40% from the field, which is kind of disgusting from the power forward position. Davis, meanwhile, has been his usual efficient self (career 56.2% shooter), while leading the quartet in per-36 rebounds (10.8) and blocks (1.2) -- the kind of numbers you want from your power forward.

Looking at the advanced, efficiency-based statistics, Davis once again comes out on top:

Category Al-Farouq Aminu Ed Davis Meyers Leonard Noah Vonleh
nERD -2.7 -0.7 -2.1 -1.6
Offensive rating 85 114 98 91
Defensive rating 110 112 114 111
Player efficiency rating 7.9 10.7 7.9 8.3
Win shares -0.2 1.0 0.1 0.0
Win shares per 48 minutes -.023 .079 .008 -.001
Box plus/minus -2.8 -2.3 -5.2 -7.0
Value over replacement player -0.1 0.0 -0.4 -0.4

Davis leads all four players in each of the above stat categories with the exception of defensive rating (in which all four are comparably bad). The difference in offensive rating alone is enough to give Davis the nod, but the overall differential in things like our proprietary metric, nERD -- a player ranking that measures the total contribution of a player throughout the course of a season, based on his efficiency -- and player efficiency rating (PER) is enough to see that he's the best option out of the four at the four if you're going off these particular measurement tools (even if all four candidates have decidedly below average PERs).

And on the topic of defense, the Blazers' rim protection numbers don't necessarily favor Davis, but they do show the weakness created by starting an undersized small forward like Aminu at the four by default.

Al-Farouq Aminu 2.2 4.1 52.6%
Ed Davis 1.8 3.7 48.9%
Meyers Leonard 1.6 3.6 43.8%
Noah Vonleh 1.4 2.9 48.9%

Leonard has protected the rim exceptionally well this season with a 43.8% field goal percentage allowed in that range, but Davis -- our leading candidate, to this points, for the starting four job -- also has a very respectable 48.9% rate that pairs well with starting center Mason Plumlee's 49.3%.

Davis certainly looks like the Blazers' best option at power forward based on all the numbers we've looked at so far, but since this is a team game and lineup chemistry is extremely important, let's look at how each five-man lineup (the four entrenched starters with each of our candidates at the four) has fared so far this season.

5-Man Lineup MIN Off Rtg Def Rtg Net Rtg REB% eFG%
Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Plumlee 148 114.8 106.1 8.7 48.0% 57.5%
Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Davis, Plumlee 164 122.1 122.1 0.0 55.3% 57.1%
Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Leonard, Plumlee 56 111.2 103.5 7.7 42.7% 53.2%
Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Vonleh, Plumlee 48 102.4 136.6 -34.3 47.3% 46.2%

While Davis has been the clear statistical standout of the four on an individual basis, the way that the starting lineup has performed on defense with him playing power forward has been straight up atrocious (122.1 points allowed per 100 possessions). It's balanced out by an elite offensive rating (122.1 points scored per 100 possessions) and rebounding rate (55.3%), but the putrid defensive performance can't easily be ignored.

So, what's the final verdict? Well, a shrug emoji, basically.

Aminu has been flat out horrible this season (with a career-low 40.9% true shooting percentage), but the Blazers have performed well enough with him lining up next to the four regular starters at the other positions to leave him there for now. Davis has been better than Aminu in just about every way from a statistical standpoint, but starting two non-spacing bigs like Mason Plumlee and Davis together is obviously not a great option in today's pace-and-space NBA, and the lineup data hasn't been kind to that combo. If Aminu continues to struggle mightily, however, Davis is the next best player currently on Portland's roster for the job (although they could always trade one or more of their plethora of guards/wings for a more serviceable big before the deadline).

For now, the Trail Blazers' starting four position will remain a bit of an enigma without a clear and obvious best option.