Training camp for the 2012-13 NBA season begins next Tuesday. Before the festivities commence (along with the requisite Media Day chaos) let's take a look at some important issues facing the Blazers in their first week back on the court. While nothing is set in stone this early, even a few days could reveal the direction in which these decision points are heading.
1. How is LaMarcus Aldridge getting his offense?
It's a new year, this time with a brand new coach and a new system. LaMarcus Aldridge's offense has been embroiled in a dualistic tug-'o-war since he came into the league. Does he play inside or outside, face up first or post, left block or left elbow? Whatever the choice has been, he's been good at it. We don't know how much ceiling remains in his offensive potential, if any. We're going to find out. Making Aldridge comfortable and productive should be Item #1 on Coach Terry Stotts' to-do list, as LaMarcus carries this team. Will that mean more high-percentage close looks, a more player-friendly and diverse set of outside options, or something else altogether?
2. Who plays center, how much, and when?
How the Blazers utilize Aldridge may well determine who gets to play beside him in the center position. Talent and skill play a factor, but experience might tell early. We're going to see three candidates. Coach Stotts has already dubbed J.J. Hickson as the "pre-camp starter", an honor which will last as long as a Voodoo Doughnut in a dorm room if Hickson doesn't score low and rebound hard. If J.J. shows well, though, those two attributes might be enough to earn the early-season look. Both of Hickson's competitors will be playing their first games in the NBA this year. Meyers Leonard is a natural center but he needs technical work in multiple areas. Throwing him out to start in Game 1 may not be prudent. Long-awaited Euro-vet Joel Freeland has more basketball experience than Leonard and more positional experience than Hickson. If he plays sharply he could prove an ideal compromise candidate. It's not exactly an epic three-way battle but the Blazers will take it, considering they're having trouble finding even two people to fill most other positions.
3. What was Nolan Smith able to accomplish over the summer?
The Elliot Williams injury stole so much emotional energy from Blazers fans this summer that they're likely to have forgotten the earlier semi-tragedy: guard Nolan Smith getting rung up like the Liberty Bell in July with a Summer-League-ending concussion. Smith is looking to make his mark this year with more aggression, better awareness, and more efficient offense. How much work was he able to put towards those goals after the injury? The loss of Williams has opened up opportunities at shooting guard. Smith could see minutes behind Damian Lillard as well. Assuming the Blazers will add talent as they build, Smith will never find the door open more widely than it is now. He should be on a mission to impress and rip minutes from the moment camp opens.
4. Is this the end of Luke Babbitt or another beginning?
Luke Babbitt barely saw a game in his rookie year, earning only 137 minutes of playing time in a 3900+ minute season. Left for dead in his sophomore season, he experienced a resurgence with the team spiraling into a coaching change and the lottery. He responded to more late-season playing time with a sterling three-point percentage and new confidence. Then he laid an ostrich egg in Summer League. Who is the real Luke Babbitt?
Technically Babbitt has survived longer than two Blazer General Managers now. Not many marginal players get past a third. Neil Olshey has no allegiance to the young forward. Babbitt has no guarantee of a contract past this year. You'd can't say time has run out on a 23 year old but you can ask how many chances a guy is going to get. Shooting never goes out of style but marginal defense and a shaky sense for the game (and one's role in it) get old quickly. Babbitt doesn't have to shine this year but he does need to register something in whatever reserve forward minutes he can garner. As with Smith, Babbitt's attitude and intensity will be under scrutiny from Moment One.
5. Can Adam Morrison add anything to this lineup?
You don't want to be asking this question about your team. You really, really don't. But here we are. The Blazers do have some small-forward minutes up for grabs. The Blazers like shooting this year and will likely build their offense around it. Their bench is thin and short on experience. The upper lip of this franchise is bare. Would they look better with a 'Stache?
The first question is whether Morrison knows how to stay in this league at all. Aggression and hustle are key. The second is, do the Blazers sacrifice anything more playing Morrison for his experience than they would playing Babbitt or Will Barton or Victor Claver? Start watching which unit(s) Morrison plays with and how crafty he is in holding onto the position if he ends up playing alongside guys who will actually matter this year. The horse is dark here but it hasn't been led out to pasture yet.
What other immediate issues will be illuminated in the earliest days of the new season? Weigh in right below.