Pre-season 2014 has come and gone for the Portland Trail Blazers now. Looking back over the course of 7 games, here are some general impressions from the exercise.
1. The Blazers seem confident that what they have will work.
Portland's starters took the floor together only 3 times over 7 games. Time spent together on the court as a full unit: approximately 71 minutes.
Coach Stotts tends to use the pre-season as an extended warm-up. With little to prove in exhibition games, nobody new to integrate into the starting lineup, the trend intensified this year. It's hardly a new thing.
Long minutes took their toll on the team last season. Conserving the starters may be part of the early-season game plan.
Still, you wonder if the Blazers are that airtight. You could argue that the San Antonio Spurs regard pre-season the same way. You could also argue that the Blazers are not the Spurs...yet.
Maybe the starters are ready to go as-is. They're certainly walking and talking more like veterans than we've ever seen. On the other hand, the Blazers could be remembering themselves as they were at the end of last season instead of preparing for how they'll be at the start of this one. It'll be interesting to watch continuity during the first few weeks, also to see how much opponents have adjusted to Portland's system and whether the Blazers can adjust in turn. Over it all this question will hover: is this team prepared to earn their place again or did the rush of last spring convince them that they have it coming to them anyway?
2: Stock Up--CJ McCollum
McCollum placed first or second in minutes played among Portland's reserves in every pre-season game. His performances ranged from brilliant to unremarkable, but the Blazers appear to be giving him in the inside track on a backcourt rotation spot. His combination of ball-handling and scoring ability make him a tantalizing backcourt prospect.
3. Stock Up (sort of)--Meyers Leonard
A couple of the more obvious pre-season changes involved Portland's young, neglected center. First, he played. Second, he played a stretch, face-up power-forward role instead of back-to-the-basket center. This allowed him to see the floor, use his speed, and show off his jump shot....a far stronger part of his arsenal than his post moves. On defense he got to set high screens and spin or slip instead of bodying inside and getting tabbed for the rebound. Leonard fits more naturally intro Portland's power forward role than he does at the five. It worked as much as anything has for him.
Until Leonard makes an impact when the games count, however, these development are still in the "really good...for Meyers" category instead of really good overall.
4. Stock Down--Thomas Robinson
While Leonard has ascended (somewhat) Robinson's impact has slipped during this pre-season run. This may be apropos of nothing...a sign that Leonard needs more work or more of a look in his new role while Robinson is a known quantity. Except Robinson isn't a known quantity. He's been up and down like a frog on a pogo stick. If he were the #1 option off of Coach Stotts' bench you'd think he'd get a major work-out in this run-up to the season. Instead he barely topped 10 minutes per game, the majority coming from a 27-minute start against the Los Angeles Lakers in which McCollum, Leonard, Will Barton, and Allen Crabbe all got more run than he did.
Every year several bench players receive the dreaded, "Stay ready, your time will come" advice. If pre-season is any indication, Robinson is joining that group. His time will come at some point. The question is, time for what? I'm not sure anybody knows the answer at this point.
5. The vets are solid
Chris Kaman and Steve Blake have proven they know what they're doing and they understand their supporting roles in the lineup. That's a nice positive for the Blazers...less raising the ceiling than solidifying the floor. That shouldn't be underestimated, though. The team is tip-toeing into the land of not needing everything to go right all the time in order to succeed, rather needing nothing to go majorly wrong. Kaman and Blake should help with that.
Kaman fit in with the offense well this past pre-season, averaging over 10 points a game on 60.8 percent shooting in just under 19 minutes per contest. He showed a solid jumper and some nifty moves down low, and Kaman could end up shouldering a large part of the bench scoring load early in the year.
6. Stotts' playing rotation isn't set in stone, but we now have an idea of what it should look like early on
The starters will again get plenty of minutes, but Blake and Kaman will be contributing off the bench consistently to start the season. Freeland and McCollum will likely be the next guys off the bench, while Stotts will probably use Dorell Wright, Barton, Robinson and Leonard situationally. Allen Crabbe and Victor Claver will likely start the season out in street clothes.