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NBA Scouts’ Impressions of the Portland Trail Blazers

With six days until the NBA regular season begins, the Trail Blazers have question marks remaining. How do NBA scouts think the team will fair in 2016-17?

NBA: Preseason-Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In their Western Conference preview, the Sports Illustrated staff granted anonymity to NBA scouts in exchange for their honest impressions of each team. Statements were present in a sort of ‘stream of consciousness’ format, so we’ve parsed through the Portland Trail Blazers portion below. To read the article in its entirety, follow this link.

The Good

Portland takes the Northwest with 49 wins. They should have a top 7 offense and get by OK on defense.

This is not at all unreasonable. The Trail Blazers finished with a record of 44-38 last season and have improved on paper since then. As a team that maintained core continuity, added pieces to shore up weak points, and counted Gerald Henderson as their biggest offseason departure, modest improvement is expected.

This team starts and ends with Lillard. He’s the best point guard in the league besides Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. He’s good enough to will a team into the playoffs and to make some noise from there. You can rely on his game, his personality and his leadership. Offensively he has it all.

Positional rankings can be disputed, and there are cases for other players here, but that’s not quite the point. Lillard is the foundation of the Trail Blazers’ offense. How far they get as a team will depend largely on what he can do as an individual, in spite of solid depth and a ‘team first’ attitude.

McCollum is one of the best ball-handlers in the league and he’s got a little Kyrie Irving in his game. He can make threes but he prefers getting the clean look from mid-range.

McCollum is one of the league’s most efficient pull-up shooters, which is great for Portland. With Evan Turner anticipated to initiate the offense at times, however, we may see a sizable percentage of McCollum’s shot attempts come in catch and shoot situations. We will see how and if this really affects the ways in which he scores.

Starting Aminu as a small ball four was easily their best lineup. He’s emerged into a defensive stopper who can shoot the three just a little bit, although his form is terrible.

Head coach Terry Stotts has stated that Aminu will play primarily (but not exclusively) power forward this season.

The Bad

Lillard’s defense gets nitpicked for good reason. He wants the challenge but he still has work to do in pick-and-rolls.

The biggest knock against Lillard is how frequently he gets swallowed on high screens. Entering his fifth NBA season, we probably won’t see much change here.

McCollum breaks down defensively but he puts so much pressure on you the other way that he usually makes up for it.

Last season, there was a lot of talk about whether or not Lillard and McCollum could be a successful backcourt duo since both of them are net negatives on the same side of the ball. The Trail Blazers’ strategy seems to be surrounding them with others that patch those holes.

What exactly does Vonleh do? Not a playmaker, not a huge rebounder, not a knockdown shooter, not a lockdown defender. If he wants to get paid he probably has to become an energy guy.

This is a fair, if perhaps slightly dated, assessment. Vonleh put a heavy focus on rebounding in summer league and continued to emphasize that skill in NBA preseason. He has to find a niche to get on the court, but he’s not really lacking direction at the moment.

Plumlee is an average or slightly below-average starter. He can make plays out of pick-and-roll traps. They understand that his back to the basket game is nonexistent and he’s not a shooter. Stotts covered up his flaws well.

When a coach’s ability to hide a player’s flaws is noted as a positive for the player, it’s not exactly a glowing review. Plumlee is a competent center and a strong passer, but he does not really excel at typically sought after “center” skills. He does not actively hurt the team either, though, so there is something to be said for someone that consistently does what is expected of them.

Even though they paid him, there are probably going to be nights when Leonard doesn’t even play. He’s a stretch five who can shoot it but he’s still not guarding anybody and he doesn’t have any other plus skills. He’s a decent passer, I guess.

True, though DNP’s may be more a function of roster depth than anything else. If he does sit, that kind of tells you where his utility is in comparison to that of his teammates. It can be reasonably claimed that Leonard is an improved defender that is helpful against larger, back-to-the-basket types, so “not guarding anybody” is a bit reductionist, but not egregious based on what we have seen from him.

The Curious

Stotts has had some tough situations in the past with Aldridge leaving and rebuilding teams. But this might be his toughest job yet because he’s got so many options to juggle now and there are expectations now. He has a lot of people to keep happy when it comes to their touches and shots after everyone got paid.

Of the players making $9 million and up this year (Lillard, Allen Crabbe, Turner, Leonard, Moe Harkless), only two will start. There are only so many minutes to go around. Although the relationship between salary and playing time has not been an issue with this iteration of the Trail Blazers, it is something worth monitoring since Stotts is in uncharted fiduciary territory.

I would start Crabbe over guys like Turner and Harkless because of his shooting. Putting him out there with the two star guards gets Portland to its natural style. … I don’t really understand the Turner move because he’s taking away possessions from either Lillard or McCollum, and that can be a slippery slope.

Turner is intended to create for Lillard and McCollum, rather than take possessions from them, but it is a valid concern. Although Turner is a gifted facilitator, he is also pretty ball-dominant. Whether or not he opens a new window of off-ball play for the guards or hampers them as a superfluous or unwilling conduit is yet to be seen. The question may turn into “Which player better helps cover Lillard and McCollum on defense?” if it comes down to it, in which case, both are respectable options. If preseason lineups are any indication, Harkless could be the favorite to start at small forward anyway.

There is plenty to be optimistic about in Portland, but it is plainly too early to affirm or debunk anything with 100 percent confidence. Yet, input from qualified, objective observers is still quite valuable.