Welcome to the eve of the Portland Trail Blazers’ 2016-17 regular season campaign! At this time tomorrow we’ll be previewing Portland’s opening night matchup with the Utah Jazz. Before we get to that point, it’s time to engage in an annual tradition: examining the questions the Blazers will need to answer over the next 82 games (and beyond?)
With the Blazers experiencing less turnover during the summer of 2016 than at any time since Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter roamed the court, they face fewer true unknowns entering the season. The flip side to that welcome pronouncement: the issues before them tend to be chronic, with no easy answers. There’s no Hassan Whiteside—or even Dwight Howard—to cure their ills. Portland will depend on internal development with a dash or two of Evan Turner to transform them.
As the Blazers reshuffle, re-deal, and hope to play their hand a little bit better this time around, here are five issues they’ll need to tackle.
What’s Going on at Starting Forward?
The Blazers were comfortable enough to enter last year’s playoffs with Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless as their starting forwards. Though results were mixed, the duo provided better support than any other forward tandem the Blazers tried prior. Having found no magic answers in free agency, the Blazers will return to the same experiment to start this season.
From the early weeks of summer the front office trumpeted Aminu as a potential power forward. Statistics indicate the team succeeds with him at that position. But there’s a difference between filling a role for part of a season and starting for the entire season with other teams game-planning for you. Aminu could be a tenacious pit bull defender, eating ground and forcing miscues. He could also become a stretch four who doesn’t actually stretch, getting posted up and scored on by taller opponents at the other end.
Harkless can probably ride his jack-of-all-trades status to steady minutes at small forward. If the team produces around him, he’ll be a deadly dagger in the back of opponents. That dagger will seem pretty short if Portland needs another main weapon, however. Harkless’ situation would be more secure if Portland’s frontcourt were set around him. As it is, he’ll have to adopt Aminu’s capacity to cause chaos and hope that no small forward candidates behind him prove themselves worthier.
No matter how much genius accompanies unorthodox lineups, they usually carry costs. The potential for Aminu and Harkless in a tornado buzzsaw lineup is great. The detriments remain an open question.
Is Mobility Enough at Center?
Early this pre-season the Blazers showed a willingness to send their centers farther out on the perimeter on defense, helping to force turnovers and (when they communicated well) playing better and more aggressively against screens. This is the approach you’d expect from a team featuring Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, et al. Portland’s bigs shouldn’t stand still. They’ll probably cede a little bit of space in the paint if they can make the initial attack against it harder.
The questions here are two:
- Will ability to cover ground suffice on its own? None of Portland’s big guys are premium defenders. They’re adequate but the intimidation factor is low, inside or outside the lane. The Blazers used to worry about getting to a spot. Now they have to worry about effectiveness when they arrive.
- What will the Blazers do if the answer to Question 1 is no? They have plenty of bodies but few alternatives. Davis is not likely to give you much more than Plumlee defensively, nor is Meyers Leonard. Festus Ezeli provides a wrinkle but he’s injured and his future is unsure. Even when he returns, it’s likely his minutes will be limited.
Basically Portland has one answer to the defensive question repeated many times over. If that’s not the right answer, they’re out of luck.
How’s the Turner-Crabbe Dance Going to Work?
Evan Turner was Portland’s big signing this summer. He can handle the ball and make plays from the shooting guard position, perhaps swinging to small forward in a three guard lineup. Allen Crabbe was Portland’s big RE-signing this summer. He can hit from all ranges at the shooting guard position, perhaps manning the three-spot as well. They’re different players but they’re slated for the same potential minutes.
The Blazers could play Turner and Crabbe together with a point guard, but those situations should be limited given the backcourt talent available. Unless they thread the needle in minute- and shot-distribution, one of these guys is going to be underutilized. Neither is at the stage of their career where they can accept that. Neither has the overwhelming talent to make the question moot.
If one or the other lacks playing time and shots, are the Blazers as deep as advertised?
(This question could be asked of the frontcourt as well.)
Is This CJ McCollum’s Year? If So, What Does That Look Like?
CJ McCollum had a fantastic coming-out season in 2015-16. He scored 21 points per game, shot 42% from the three-point arc, and won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award. His mantra coming into 2016-17 is consistency. Whatever he’s capable of—and it’s a ton—he needs to show every night.
Normally you worry whether a player can produce at a consistently excellent level. Given McCollum’s talent and approach to the game, that’s nearly a foregone conclusion. His role on the team is far less settled.
The Blazers didn’t acquire anyone who will take away CJ’s carte blanche scoring approach. 20+ ppg is a near guarantee. But if he played on a team without Damian Lillard (and now Evan Turner) his portfolio would also include play-making, consistent ball-handling, and deep-seeded team leadership. He’ll still get the opportunity for all three in Portland, but will he be able to maximize his talent in all those areas?
Lillard and McCollum are tight off the court. They look out for each other on the court as well, but often fall into a “My turn, now your turn” pattern. This is not true synergy. Their games need to be seamless and complementary to make room for the other scorers the Blazers will need eventually.
Peanut butter and chocolate are both exquisite, but the proportions have to be just right and the blend beyond reproach to crank out enough Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups to meet demand. Portland’s starting backcourt isn’t quite at Mass-Produced Candy Level yet but they did catch fire against the Golden State Warriors in the second round of last year’s playoffs. Having that trend continue is a prerequisite to greatness.
Will the Defense Get Better?
Nobody has ever question Terry Stotts and Damian Lillard when it comes to offense. The coach and his point guard have nursed productive scoring seasons out of the most brutal of lineups, to the point of looking like geniuses. Portland’s defense has never caught up to their offensive prowess.
Coach Stotts has vowed that things will get better. From the stars to position players, the Blazers have acknowledged that defense is the key to taking the next step to credibility. Will this be the year it happens? If so, the Blazers could be scary. If not, they’ll remain a nice team to watch but a hard team to take seriously.
Bonus: What Are the Expectations This Year Anyway?
After the defection of LaMarcus Aldridge and the ensuing dismantling of the roster, the expectations for the Trail Blazers entering last season were simple: survive and try not to get crushed. 44 wins and a pair of playoff series later, they exceeded those expectations handily.
Most pundits have the Blazers ranked between 4th and 6th in the Western Conference this year. Some accompany with an asterisk: if there’s any team primed to backslide, it’s Portland. Others wax enthusiastic, claiming the Blazers are a dark horse in a conference that looks equally balanced after the first two slots are granted. (And even #2 isn’t that secure.)
So what does success look like for Portland this year?
If they’re to exceed last year’s performance, they’ll need to make the Conference Finals. On the other hand, few would have been surprised to see them bow out in the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers. Injuries colored that series. Given that, would a repeat of the second round be satisfactory. Is avoiding obvious failure good enough for a young team that’s still growing?
If you’ve got an answer to this question, share it in the comment section. Meanwhile remember, less than 48 hours until tipoff! Join us here at Blazer’s Edge for all the preview, Game Day discussion, and recap action you’ve come to expect, plus a few more surprises.
Happy start of the season, everyone!