With training camp opening in a couple weeks one of the big questions is what we'll see and what we stand to learn in the pre-season. In a sense the answer is "not as much as we've become accustomed to". For the first time in recent memory we know that every position will be manned by somebody with experience who is capable of handling the role put before them. Whether those positions will be manned optimally is a separate question, as yet undetermined. But even the Blazers' fall-back position leaves every slot filled by someone we can live with. We're not facing potentially devastating, or even unknown, options. That takes some of the stress off of training camp and the pre-season.
On the other hand the team being stocked with quality players puts more emphasis on how roles and positions will be filled. Battles for limited playing time will provide most of the intrigue early in the year. It's not guaranteed that the rotation that exits October will be the same one featured in January but the initial confidence the players earn from the coaching staff will be a barometer for their early season success. One of the main pre-season questions is going to be "Who's in and who's marginalized?" That's going to make October more exciting even without the excess stress and mystery surrounding the team as a whole.
Given that, here's my shot at the top seven storylines of the pre-season.
1. How many minutes can Greg Oden carve out?
I fully expect Oden to reclaim the starting position this year. Ideally he would come into camp in shape, motivated, and dominating and make a run for it from the start. Delaying the evolution would be somewhat disappointing as it would reflect on his progress. That said, Oden's progress is no sure thing. Based on last year's performance he doesn't have many guaranteed minutes, let alone a guaranteed spot in the starting lineup. The Blazers will want to play him as much as they can but how much that ends up being depends on him. Since he is at the heart of Portland's hopes for improvement this will clearly be the most significant story of the coming month.
2. How the heck is the small forward rotation going to work?
Nicolas Batum showed a lot of promise when thrust into the starting role last year. Martell Webster was also showing signs of finally putting his game all together before he got injured. Travis Outlaw has been the most prominent reserve player for the Blazers the last couple of years. Even with Outlaw playing power forward as well you still have three guys lined up for 48 minutes of time. Will Webster's experience and shooting ability catapult him into the starting lineup? Would Batum be better served being a situational defender off the bench? Does Travis lose or gain minutes? How will all of them be affected by the point guard transition and by Oden's (hopefully) increasing role? This is the position where literally anything can happen which makes this the most exciting story in the offing.
3. Will the Blazers run more on offense?
You don't want to tip your hand completely before the regular season starts but with Andre Miller coming on board there's certainly an opportunity to shift the running game into a higher gear. If that's going to happen it'll have to start coming out in October. Another question lies in the penumbra: How will Miller blend into the halfcourt sets? He's a different kind of point guard than any we've had. If he's effective you're going to see ripples in the offense.
4. Do we finally have a pick and roll defense that works?
Unless the Blazers radically overhaul the defense Miller and Oden are the keys here. Miller is experienced enough to know what Nate wants out of a point guard defending against the screen. He also has enough of a body to manage it. Oden has to be quicker in his rotations in order to help. I expect an adjustment period but I'm hoping for the Blazers to cope much better by the time the season starts.
5. Where do you find minutes for Rudy?
Fernandez' rookie season was a success but the ground rules are changing this year. First of all, Rudy himself is going to want a more significant role. He was visibly frustrated last year with his minutes and the situations in which he was employed. He'll not make it through a duplicate season happily (or probably quietly). Second, the parameters for Rudy finding more playing time have changed. In your rookie season it's all good. Whatever you give they'll be happy with. Defense, dribbling, and continuity are all going to be issues set before Fernandez this year. He could end up with a stellar season. He could end up frustrated. He could end up somewhere in between. Early indications might tip which way the season will go for him.
6. How much has LaMarcus grown and how much can we lay on his shoulders?
While he doesn't have as much growth room left as Greg Oden does, LaMarcus still has room to contribute more. He's obviously the main guy at his position. He's a dependable scorer for whom the door is open to become a world-class scorer. Can he step through that door? You know the Blazers will depend on him as much as they can. His physical strength, mental dedication, and the evolution of his offensive repertoire will help answer that question. It's entirely possible for LaMarcus to be the story of the pre-season if he wishes, and that's even having been the second best player on the team last year. He's got the potential in him.
7. Who comes in shape?
This question will be answered on Day One. It's mundane but it's always important. We've seen the results of players trying to play their way into game shape during training camp and pre-season. The results are often slow progress followed by high potential for injury. If the Blazers really are dedicated to reaching above last year's mark one of the first indications will be their fitness at the start of camp. Anyone who has slacked off can pretty much expect to lose minutes on this roster. Hopefully that's not an issue.
Yes, I left out the point guard battle as I expect this to be the biggest non-story of the camp. I'm sure all of the experimental lineups will be tried. I'm sure Steve Blake will get the chance to start and Jerryd Bayless will get extended minutes somewhere in the pre-season. But when the regular season starts Coach McMillan has a habit of sticking with the odds. The odds say Andre Miller is the starter and there probably won't be much doubt about that.
You may argue with me about the point guard story or about any of them, of course. Feel free to add your own anticipated storylines below as well.