With the 2014 Las Vegas Summer League officially coming to a close for the Blazers last Friday in a two-point loss to the Jazz, Portland fans now have a few months until training camp opens and the team begins preseason play October 7 in Utah.
Sure, some Blazers will participate in various Pro-Am leagues between now and then. And Portland forwards Nicolas Batum, Victor Claver and (possibly) guard Damian Lillard will represent France, Spain and the United States, respectively, starting in late August at the FIBA Basketball World Cup. For the most part, though, the focus of most of the players on the Blazers roster has shifted to resting or training individually for the next several weeks.
Portland GM Neil Olshey kicked off free agency earlier this month by letting guards Mo Williams and Earl Watson loose, opening up two spots on the roster. When center Spencer Hawes -- the Blazers' first target with the Mid-Level exception -- opted to join the Los Angeles Clippers, Olshey wasted no time in signing 32-year-old center Chris Kaman to a two-year deal.
With just one roster spot open and a glaring hole in the backcourt left by Williams' departure, veteran point guard Steve Blake was brought in for two years using the Bi-Annual exception.
Now with 15 players under contract for Portland going into the 2014-15 season and competitive play mostly wrapped up for the summer, it's time to take a look at how coach Terry Stotts might distribute his minutes next year.
The starters will remain the same, with Lillard and Wesley Matthews in the backcourt and Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez rounding out the frontcourt.
Stotts has famously relied heavily on his starters the past two years, playing his bench unit fewer minutes than any other NBA team both seasons. Still, all four remaining starters from the 2012-13 Blazers squad played fewer minutes per game in 2013-14 than the season before, and Lopez only averaged 31.8 minutes a night last year.
Assuming full health, it's probably safe to say that Kaman and Blake have the backup minutes at their positions nailed down -- meaning roughly 20 minutes a night each, if Lillard again plays occasionally off the ball.
That leaves minutes at backup shooting guard, small forward and power forward up for grabs heading into the season. Claver and guard Allen Crabbe appear to still be buried on the depth chart, with center Meyers Leonard again a strong candidate to draw several DNP-CDs next season, as well.
Backup minutes on the wings will be fought for by guard CJ McCollum, Will Barton and forward Dorell Wright. Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland will compete for most of the reserve minutes behind Aldridge at power forward.
For much of last season, Stotts favored an eight-man rotation. Williams was the first man off the bench, playing both guard positions and Freeland backed up Lopez at center until a February knee injury forced him out of action until the end of the season. McCollum, Barton, Wright and Robinson all floated in and out of the lineup as Stotts re-maneuvered an under-manned reserve unit on what seemed like a weekly basis.
So who is now the first shooting guard off the bench? Currently, it appears McCollum and Barton will be neck-and-neck through training camp for that distinction. McCollum was the more accurate shooter last year -- particularly from outside, where he hit 37.5 percent of his shots compared to Barton's 30.3 percent on limited attempts -- but "The People's Champ" was a more reliable passer, rebounder and turned the ball over less, even while displaying a much more erratic, change-of-pace style of play.
In five Summer League games, McCollum out-shot Barton from three-point range (34.5 percent compared to 22.7 percent) and from the field overall (47.9 percent vs. 37.7 percent). The second-year guard out of Lehigh University outscored Barton and turned the ball over less, but the third-year swingman from Memphis was the better rebounder and compiled more assists.
Stotts will likely again play McCollum and Barton situationally; if he needs to inject energy and rebounding into the game from the backcourt, Barton should get the nod. McCollum has proven to be the more consistent shooter thus far when comparing the two young careers and might be a safer bet off the bench than Barton, while still maintaining the ability to break out for a big scoring night. Barton probably has a slight advantage in that he can also play at the small forward position, so some of his minutes may come there and even across from McCollum at times on the wings. Though there was some noise earlier this offseason about one or the other picking up some minutes at the backup point guard spot, the signing of Blake means those minutes with Barton or McCollum as the lead ballhandler will probably be situational, at best.
Wright could still find his way on the court -- he averaged 14.5 minutes in 68 games last year, a chunk of his time coming as a stretch-four when Aldridge missed several games -- but he's coming off one of his worst seasons as a pro and will be fending off Barton for playing time behind Batum. If he can regain some of the consistency he's displayed over his 10-year career -- 36.4 percent shooting from deep and 42.6 percent from the field compared to 34.2 and 37.4 percent, respectively, last year -- Wright should be a part of the rotation. If not, though, his future in Portland looks bleak and Stotts will either shift Batum and Matthews around accordingly to keep the small forward position covered or play some of the younger guys.
Robinson appeared ready this offseason to take over the minutes left at power forward behind Aldridge, demoting Freeland in the playoffs last year and playing in all 11 postseason games. Does Robinson's thumb injury affect his spot in the rotation next season? Freeland is considered by many to be the safer, more consistent bet as a backup in the frontcourt, but at 27 years old, he is much closer to his ceiling than Robinson, who led the Blazers Summer League team with 8.7 rebounds per game in three outings and displays tantalizing ability while still struggling to play within the team's framework at times.
How do you see the distribution of minutes by Stotts playing out next season? Barring major injuries, is it possible that a consistent rotation can be carved out of this current Blazers lineup, or will Stotts have to adjust the playing time he doles out in conjunction with the streakiness of his young players? Do the additions of Kaman and Blake to the bench mean Portland won't have the league's least productive reserve unit for the third season in a row?
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter