The single most obvious question facing the Portland Trail Blazers as they enter the 2012-13 season is, "Who, if anybody, can play?"
Close on its heels, though, comes the follow-up, "And what position are all these guys going to play?"
Since the Blazers are now graced with the "rebuilding" label they're under no obligation to field a balanced team. As the Minnesota Timberwolves can tell you, sometimes you have to live with six power forwards in your top eight players before the roster shakes out and you can start talking about fit as well as talent. The Blazers' mission right now is straightforward: accumulate as much talent as possible, regardless of stripe or position.
Nevertheless, you also have to ask yourself how much of a chance the young/new players that Blazers fans hope will excel this season will get. If you eliminated twists, turns, shoehorning, and excuses and just nailed each player into the position they're best suited for (and would be most comfortable in), Portland's roster would look something like this:
PG: Damian Lillard, Ronnie Price
SG: Wesley Matthews, Elliot Williams, Nolan Smith, Sasha Pavlovic, Will Barton
SF: Nicolas Batum, Victor Claver
PF: LaMarcus Aldridge, J.J. Hickson, Jared Jeffries, Joel Freeland, Luke Babbitt
C: Meyers Leonard
Astute observers will note that 2/3 of the roster sits at either the shooting guard or power forward positions. These guys will either lack playing time or will have to fill roles for which they're less than ideally suited.
At this point in the conversation people tend to chime in with, "But Player X can play Position Y!!! The Blazers just shift this guy here, the other guy there...problem solved!"
We're not talking about what the Blazers will be forced to do because of an imbalanced lineup. Obviously somebody will have to play center so guys like Hickson, Aldridge, and Freeland are going to get moved. It's the same story with Babbitt and Barton at small forward, perhaps Smith at point guard. Roles will be bent. Schemes will be invented. The Blazers will put five players on the floor at every tip and out of every huddle.
The fact that they're going to do this can't disguise the two problems inherent in it:
1. In general you want to maximize players' strengths, which means playing them where they're best and most apt. You may gain advantages converting a player you're also at a disadvantage to teams who don't have to. You don't see the Lakers playing Kobe Bryant at point, nor will you see them with Dwight Howard at power forward. They're getting the most out of every player they have without second-bests. Switching a guy's position because of team need rather than personal aptitude means you're not getting the best out of that individual. You're a step behind teams who can.
2. When looking at this edition of the Blazers you have to note that most of these players are young and/or new to Portland, if not to the league. That's the last time you want to monkey with someone's game. We don't even know what these guys can do when their talent is maximized. How do we gauge them when shifting to a less-than-ideal position? Does this guy stink or is he just not meant to be a small forward?
As we've said before, nothing the Blazers do or don't do is going to make much of a difference this season. But the two items we just listed show why this isn't going to be Portland's model going forward...why plenty of these guys are destined to depart.
The depth chart--the natural one, not the de facto one the Blazers will end up employing--also shows that it's going to be hard for multiple players to break out at once. It may be hard for some players to break out at all. I'd be surprised if Nolan Smith and Elliot Williams each got a chance to have a fantastic season. Also Blazer fans will probably have to root for J.J. Hickson or Luke Babbitt as a sentimental favorite, not both. In fact it's a bummer that four guys who are probably natural power forwards in this league--albeit in radically different styles: stretch four, banger, scoring wiz, all-around defensive veteran--all sit behind the team's only clear star. They might not have 10 minutes per game to split between them at their best position. I expect you'll see good things out of all of them at the positions into which they'll get plugged, but I wonder if we'll see the best of any of them.
If this were an "embarrassment of riches" situation it'd be one thing, but this is the opposite. It's not a logjam, more like a bunch of sticks in a puddle. All these guys need experience, chances to grow and acclimate and prove themselves. They're looking for a great start or a good re-start to their careers. Damian Lillard will get that. So will Meyers Leonard. Everybody else is going to have to fight like hell in practice, take a number, and hope.