The pre-season is underway and Coach Stotts is playing coy about Portland's center position. Who starts, who plays, and why?
Let's begin by defining terms. A player, maybe several players, will start for the Blazers at center this season. That does not mean the Blazers have a starting center. In an ideal world the answer to your question would include none of the candidates currently under consideration for the post. J.J. Hickson would be a power forward while Meyers Leonard honed his craft as a reserve and Joel Freeland filled 4 and 5 roles off the bench. Had the Blazers succeeded in signing Roy Hibbert this summer that's the scenario we'd be looking at. Everyone would be happier for it as well, save maybe those three players. Any discussion of Portland's center position early this year has to be viewed in that light to be meaningful. The real answer is that we're not going to find a real answer, at least not right away.
But as the old saw goes, the Chinese character for "crisis" also means "opportunity". Hickson, Leonard, and Freeland will all get a chance to prove themselves. Chances are the Blazers will find something to be happy with in their efforts.
My guess is that you're going to see center roles and minutes change as the year progresses. Hickson may well get the early nod because he's the only one of the three with a NBA game under his belt. Having taken the court 277 times (as opposed to 0 and 0 for Leonard and Freeland) will give Hickson a leg up in knowing what needs to be done even if he's not classic center material. For this reason Hickson will likely scoop up any crunch-time minutes allotted to these three.
That said, the Blazers aren't driving towards a lineup featuring Hickson at the 5. The sooner somebody can take that position from him the sooner Portland's real chances at success begin. If all else fails the Blazers will keep the center-power forward positions fluid enough that Hickson and LaMarcus Aldridge can drift between them. Even better would be one of the two rookies stepping forward and sending Hickson to the bench at either position while Aldridge remained a 4.
The top dog in the contest for the future is obviously Leonard. He's a lottery pick, a 7-footer with great lateral quickness. He wasn't that experienced at the collegiate level, though. Throwing him against true NBA starters could damage his confidence, get him beaten into submission, or inculcate bad habits that he won't easily shake. Among the most risky is the designation "foul prone". Once refs see a big guy as a hacking machine they don't grow out of that impression even if the player improves. The safest plan for Leonard is limited, targeted, yet steady minutes, increasing as he matures. I wouldn't be shocked if Leonard ended up starting for the Blazers in the latter stages of the season. If not, he'll still win that job down the road, provided Portland doesn't pick up a proven guy to take his place.
The wildcard here is Freeland. He could jump ahead of Hickson if his pre-season showing is good enough. He's got more height and probably plays the role better. He'll be a better rebounder than J.J. There's a chance he could start early or in the middle of the year, providing Hickson doesn't shine. On the other hand Freeland may get killed trying to play the position. We'll have to see. Whatever happens, I don't see Freeland as a long-term answer at the 5 though. Leonard is going to leapfrog him at some point.
My best guess is that Hickson starts the season at center but fails to impress there over the long haul. The Blazers will get some mileage out of Aldridge or Freeland in the middle, experimenting and trying to make it through. Then as the season winds down Leonard will get a serious look with minutes to match. Who knows really, though? It's hard to predict when any way you go means making the best of a precarious situation.
Register your guesses in the comments. How does the season develop for Portland's pivots? I'm curious to hear ideas.