Who is going to start at small forward for the 2016-17 Portland Trail Blazers? Local fans have been asking this question ever since President of Basketball Operations and GM Neil Olshey invested nearly $150 million in Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner this summer. With Al-Farouq Aminu making the move to power forward, the door seems open for either player to claim the starting job.
Coach Terry Stotts, however, may have other ideas. In the team’s impressive preseason debut against the Jazz on Monday night, Stotts eschewed the payroll and went with continuity by pegging incumbent Moe Harkless as the fifth starter.
Of course, the “preseason is the preseason,” and nothing more, so it’s tempting to write off Stotts’ decision on Monday night as a non-indicative whim. But looking at his preseason history in Portland reveals a trend that belies a nonchalant dismissal of Monday’s game. Here are the starters for every first preseason game Stotts has coached in Portland:
2012: Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, J.J. Hickson
2013: Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Thomas Robinson, Robin Lopez, (Aldridge did not play)
2014: Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Aldridge, Lopez
2015: Lillard, CJ McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, Mason Plumlee (Aminu did not play)
Moving beyond the first preseason game, here are Stotts’ starting lineups for the last preseason game each season:
2012: Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Aldridge, Hickson
2013: Lillard, Will Barton, Batum, Aldridge, Lopez, (Matthews did not play)
2014: Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Kaman, Lopez, (Aldridge did not play)
2015: Lillard, McCollum, Harkless , Leonard, Plumlee (Aminu did not play)
Stotts generally uses the last preseason game as a dress rehearsal for the regular season, so it’s striking to note that his starting lineups are virtually identical to the first game of the preseason after accounting for DNPs.
Even more striking is the fact that Stotts has ostensibly used his regular season opening night starting lineup in every first and last preseason game that he has coached. That includes years like 2014 when the roster had little turnover, and seasons like 2015 when multiple starting positions were up for grabs.
Stotts’ coaching history would thus imply that Harkless will be the starting small forward when the Blazers open the season against the Utah Jazz on Oct. 25 at the Moda Center.
Already choosing Harkless as a starter does have a certain logic. Aminu and Harkless were arguably the team’s most effective defenders last season, especially when working in tandem. The added versatility of being able to switch the two forwards at will against almost any matchup aligns close with the NBA’s en vogue defensive philosophy of “switch everything.” Pegging Harkless as a starter in early October also hypothetically adds continuity to the rotation and gives Stotts a chance to map out his rotation in greater detail during the preseason.
Of course, there’s a $145 million elephant in the room: Does it make sense from a salary cap perspective to offer Crabbe and Turner exorbitant deals to come off the bench? Even in the age of exploding payrolls that move will draw deserved scrutiny.
Utilizing Harkless as a starter also begs the question of how he jumped from apparent offseason afterthought back into the team’s top-5 lineup. Was the delay in signing him a negotiation tactic? Has he significantly improved? Or does Stotts simply prefer Harkless’ synergy with the other four starters?
With all that said, Stotts did do something unusual with the rotation on Monday night - he significantly changed his second half starting lineup by inserting Crabbe and Ed Davis. Generally he has stuck with his first half starters after halftime, with exceptions made for injury replacements. So it is possible that there is still room for Crabbe to sneak into the spot Harkless currently occupies.
Readers - has Harkless already locked down the starting job? If so, do you agree with that decision? If not, who should start in his place? Let us know what you think in the comments!
Eric Griffith | @DeeringTornado | GoBlazers87@gmail.com