Today we have a special treat: reflections from three of our Blazer's Edge staff members (along with a little bit of my perspective) on lessons learned from the Portland Trail Blazers pre-season and the leap into the new year.
Why is this special? Well, to you it's just a roundtable, but let me take a moment to let you know how our staff works.
We now have 20 of the finest, most enthusiastic basketball writers to be found working to bring you the best Blazers material possible. We all focus on our daily tasks in our departments, but there's also a hidden Blazer's Edge that few get to see. Our group communication channels get lively sometimes as people chat behind the scenes about the subject they love so much. Imagine walking into a room with 19 of your friends, all of whom are just as passionate about your favorite subject as you are, a number of whom are beginning to be cited as "experts" on the subject. In that environment the mere drop of a pin will create a reaction, echoing and bouncing as ideas get expressed and refined by excited, involved voices.
Once a year we all try to get together for a staff dinner, which is just crazy fun conversation as we throw topics back and forth. It's like bobbing in a waterpark wave pool that surges for 3 hours straight. We get mini-versions of that experience most every day as we check in with each other. It's amazing.
So today you get to experience a little bit of that. At 9:00 p.m. last night I blasted across our group channel for volunteers to share reflections from the pre-season. Three people responded immediately: Adrian Bernecich of our news staff, David MacKay, news department editor, and Timmay, our GameDay editor and all-around good guy. I fired out some questions to get things rolling and off we went. That's how it works around here, folks. Just give us a reason...
Enjoy your inside peek at life on the Blazer's Edge staff. And by the way, if you're interested in joining same, watch for a post in the morning detailing what we need and how to apply.
Dave Deckard: Let's get this started easy. What are your biggest take-aways from the pre-season? Any surprises?
Adrian Bernecich: Hmmm, I think Moe Harkless has been a pleasant surprise. (it really shows how much Jacque Vaughn held him back/ignored him in Orlando). Allen Crabbe has also done quite well, which is interesting because both these guys will by vying for the same position. I'm still curious to see where and how CJ McCollum is used. As for the big men, Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh have played surprisingly well together despite the fact that neither is traditional center.
Timmay: The biggest surprise for me was how composed the team looked from the opening game, and how well they executed their system. Six months ago these players may not have recognized each other without name tags. Now, they look like they've worked together for at least a season. It would have been very easy for them to look like a Summer League team, or worse, the Philadelphia 76ers. Instead, from the opening game, they looked in sync. There were certainly new-teammate problems, such as players out of position and bonehead plays. But the percentage was far lower than I expected.
Dave Deckard: Points for the Sixers stab, Tim, and I agree with you about how they look but I want to explore one of Adrian's points first. Allen Crabbe. Is this for real? I have my doubts still.
Adrian: I think he's proving he can be a rotation player - not necessarily a starter. He has the potential to be a genuine 3 and D prospect. Until Hendo is fit, I suspect he'll either start or backup CJ at the 2. I also think Stotts trusts him on D, as was seen on multiple occasions last season when Nic was out. I think he's the kind of 3rd/4th wing, 3rd/4th guard that most teams need.
David MacKay: Personally, I'm a big believer in Crabbe. Recognizing that summer league and preseason games will never be as accurate a talent gauge as games during the regular season or playoffs, there has been little not to like in his exhibition performance. Some players manage to look good despite making numerous mistakes because the level of competition is lower in the off-season. Crabbe is not one of them. He looks good because he makes the right plays on both ends night in and night out. Basketball IQ doesn't just disappear in the face of more daunting opposition. That being said, his production will drop off with his usage when the regular season rolls around. He probably won't average the 13.2 points per game that he is at the moment. Still, he has "solid role player" written all over him. Offensive efficiency? Check. Defensive fundamentals? Check. Confidence to make the most of both? Check. Check. Check. This is his year to really define himself as a player.
Tim: I have to admit I still have my doubts about Allen Crabbe. I've definitely seen improvements this preseason, he looks more comfortable on the court, and he clearly worked on his shot over the summer. This is an extension of Summer League, where he had the green light and enjoyed some success. To me, defense is his key to minutes. He showed some good defensive chops last season, but also was usually surrounded by 4 players who knew the system intimately, so he could dedicate his focus to his footwork and D. Now? He's actually one of the few players who is a veteran of the defensive system. He'll need to take things to the next level. I could see Crabbe having a successful run in the NBA, but as Adrian mentions, it's very likely as a 3-and-D player. Those are always in demand. This is the perfect year for him to make his name.
Dave: Tim, you mentioned that the team looks surprisingly cohesive. To that I'd add committed to the system and to playing hard. This surprised me a little too. I was expecting more disjointed play. Granted we've seen that on individual sets, but as a team they look quite...accomplished. To what do you attribute that? Coaching, system, meeting early to practice together, personalities, or maybe it's just pre-season and defenses aren't honed in yet? What do you think?
Tim: If a team looks this cohesive from the first preseason game, Terry Stotts has to get a fair share of the credit. He's the one who created the system, and is coaching these players. And they look this good already. As a coach, he has far surpassed my originally-meager expectations. He feels like a keeper. But he's not alone. Some credit needs to go to Damian Lillard for his decision to bring the team together for bonding. The pictures said more than any words could: these players actually got to know one another. This translated to the annual "Blazers arriving early" mini-camp sessions, which surely played a role in the composure of the staff. But lastly, Neil Olshey deserves a mention. This is now his team, and he found a set of cheap under-used cast-offs who have been surprisingly adept at quickly picking up Stotts' offensive and defensive schemes. That doesn't feel like an accident.
Adrian: Good point Tim. It makes me think that even if one of Matthew, Lopez, AAA had stayed, this might not have been possible. What I'm saying is that Dame needed all of his "elders" gone in order for him to completely take control. I wonder whether Neil & Lillard sat down prior to free agency and pretty much said that if LA goes, everyone else goes; because in this case there's no one drowning out Dame's voice. Wouldn't have minded seeing Neil's "Big Board" on July 1.
Dave: I don't get the idea that Neil Olshey sits down with his players to consult, but I wouldn't be surprised if he kept Lillard informed. But you're dead right that nobody on the roster has the clout, talent, or experience to override Damian. This team was designed with precision to play the way it does and to follow the man it follows. So far it looks like everybody's on board with that. I wonder what will happen during the regular season crunch when playing time becomes an issue. If somebody gets buried on the bench, does he rebel? How strong is the infrastructure with so many young players, most of them new to the franchise and each other. I guess we'll find out.
Speaking of players on the bench...Moe Harkless. He's had as impressive of a pre-season as anybody, yet Al-Farouq Aminu is presumed to play in front of him by most pundits. Same question with Moe as we had with Crabbe: is he for real? Where do you see him fitting in?
Tim: I agree that Harkless has had an eye-opening preseason. He might be my single biggest surprise on the new roster. As soon as training camp opened, there were murmurs that Harkless was a revelation in practice, but it's hard to take that seriously. There's always some player who is "wowing everyone in practice!" but it doesn't translate to the court. Plus.... well, c'mon, the Blazers got him for a pre-chewed half-stick of sugar-free gum. Surely he MUST have major flaws, right? Maybe we'll see that he does, but I sure enjoyed watching him in preseason. He has a chance of being a breakout player this season. There has been some focus on CJ McCollum having a shot at the Most Improved Player award, but if Harkless keeps this up, everyone watch out. That includes you, Al-Farouq.
Adrian: I don't know, I think Aminu starts due to his length (defence - this how we spell the noun is Aus), experience. Not sure whether he is a better playmaker but he seems to look to handle the ball more than Mo. I think starting wings of Henderson and Aminu is solid and makes up for Lillard's defensive holes at the 1 (similar to Batum and Matthews last season). Having said that I really like Harkless, especially his athleticism and ability to get to the rim.
Dave: I guess this is one potential problem I see. You don't have a veteran-young guy progression here, nor at many positions on the team. There's no natural pecking order. Yet as in all seasons, some guys will be favored and some will not. You can say it's a meritocracy, that good play earns time on the floor, but that's small comfort to the guy who's sitting behind a player at the exact same stage of the career arc. I see one scenario where the Blazers are like teflon, determined to let everything slide off of them and have a fun season, making the team plane kind of like a young guy party bus. I see another scenario where losses grate on players and erode their ability to believe in each other and the system. Again, only time will tell, I suppose.
So look, the Blazers lost a lot of players in the off-season. Excluding LaMarcus Aldridge, if you could make one of those players boomerang back to the roster right now, which one would you choose? Or would you choose any of them?
Adrian: As I mentioned earlier I don't think bringing any of them back would have been good for Dame's leadership aspirations. As much as I love Wes, I think if I had to pick one it would have been Lopez. Not only for what he does on the court, but I think out of all of them, he would have been the only player who would have happily come in line under the new Lillard regime.
Tim: I guess I shouldn't be surprised that Wes was the first name that popped into my head too. But I'm just not sold that the "old Wes" will return post-injury. I pulled up last season's roster and looked through the names. And to my surprise, I guess my answer is "none of them". This roster is so different, and moving in a completely different direction. It almost feels like fan-whiplash from watching it happen. None of the former Blazers make sense with this roster. If I had to choose one player... well, I know his reputation wasn't the best after a couple injury-riddled seasons, but I think Nic would probably be a nice addition to this team. He'd probably fit in just fine. However, his presence might actually get in the way of ongoing development. So, farewell, former Blazers, it'll be weird to see you in other jerseys, but weirder to see you in the red and black again.
David: Honestly? Nicolas Batum. Yes, he had an abysmal 2014-15 season, but he is the one non-Aldridge piece that could legitimately take a substantial amount of pressure off of Lillard without stepping on his leadership toes. Given the perceived offensive shortcomings of guys like Aminu, Davis, and Plumlee, this roster could use another playmaker. On the whole, I think most of Portland's fresh faces with the highest ceilings are big men anyway, so I see a wing that makes his teammates better (without competing for minutes with those who need them most) as a huge plus.
Dave: OK then, let's finish up by turning this the other direction. Besides Damian Lillard, name me two players who will still be on this team in 5 years.
Adrian: Meyers Leonard because I think if he keeps developing the way he is, we have to hold to him given an obvious push around the league for stretch big men. (Who would have written this even 12 months ago?) Leonard was second of Neil's Portland draft picks and given has growth and potential Olshey will hold on to the big guy for as long as he can. And while I don't think an extension will be done before this season starts, he will be retained as a RFA next season. He just oozes potential and in five years he will HOPEFULLY be hitting his prime.
I wanted to say CJ next but I just done know given his similar skill set to Dame and I almost went for Harkless next but the sample size is too small so...Noah Vonleh. In five years he will be 24. If Meyers and Vonleh can develop into what we all hope they can be we are a couple of wings away from genuine contention. I've just have such high hopes for Noah and I really hope he comes through. He has the potential to be a quadruple-threat big man who can get to the rim, dribble, shoot and defend. I even wonder whether he could play spot minutes at the 3.
Tim: The first one is relatively easy: CJ McCollum isn't going anywhere. I think the team is high on him, and his late-season progress looks legitimate. He'll sign his rookie extension for a price that will probably look obscene based on today's cap numbers, and will be a contributor for years to come.
The second one is definitely a tougher choice. But I have to go with Noah Vonleh. He's just starting his second year, and has a virtual dump truck full of promise. If he continues to grow into his role, the Blazers will want to keep him around as a rotation player into the future.
On the other hand, I'm not sold that Meyers Leonard will be here in 5 years. The Blazers have done a wonderful job of developing him, but I could see them "flipping him" for assets, selling high to a desperate team when Portland feels he's peaked. His upcoming contract could be a sticking point too.
David: Oh man. Five years is an eternity in basketball. The only guys that had been here for at least five years by the end of last season were Aldridge, Batum, and Matthews. My first instinct is to say McCollum, but that means he will have spent the first seven years of his career in Portland by the time the 2020 season arrives. The NBA landscape shifts far too much for me to say with confidence he'll still be wearing red and black next decade. Still, he was the first name that came to mind, so he's earned a place in this hypothetical.
I suppose Noah Vonleh gets second billing here. He was a lottery pick in a loaded draft, he is still just 20 years old, and the Trail Blazers already have a clear path to lock him down through 2018-19 if they so choose. He will be here for quite a while unless he flops in a major way, which I don't see happening unless injuries or coaching changes play a part. Portland acquired him with the thought that he could be a pillar for their future.
Feel free to address any or all of these topics in the comment section below, or make up your own! Maybe some of the staff will come by to chat with you too. Thanks to Tim, Adrian, and David for participating on such short notice!