The NBA preseason is a time for evaluating players and making key roster decisions. For each of the league's 30 coaches, October presents an intricate puzzle that's got to be figured out. You've got a heap of talent and only a limited amount of time to make sense of it - who's worthy of a serious role? Who's still a step behind? What have you got here, anyway?
In the case of this year's Trail Blazers, the puzzle pieces at the moment are both starting to slide into place very nicely, and not. Some things, we know. We know that Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will be on Terry Stotts' lineup card at the two guard spots in permanent ink. We know that Al-Farouq Aminu will have a firm grip on another starting role whether it's the three or four, and it will probably be the four the vast majority of the time. At least as far as the starting five is concerned, that leaves only two positions left undecided - center and small forward. The former will be an interesting battle, but the two key combatants have yet to suit up; we're still waiting on Meyers Leonard and Festus Ezeli to get fully healthy, so that battle will have to be fought another time.
That leaves the three-spot. To me, this is the most interesting question of the Blazers' preseason - what does Stotts do at the crucial wing position? Who starts, who hops off the bench first and who gets what-sized slice of the 48-minute pie? Nothing will be finalized during these seven preseason games, but we can at least hope to gain a little clarity.
The incumbent starter, of course, is Maurice Harkless, who enjoyed a solid two months with the first team from March to May last spring. The Blazers were 8-3 in the regular season and had a strong playoff showing after inserting Moe - Stotts absolutely can't be blamed for sticking with what worked last year, or at the very least considering it. Having said that, you can bet that when Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey spent $145 million this summer on Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe, he was doing it for a reason. Both of them can probably expect heavy minutes.
This isn't just about who wins the starting job and who doesn't - that's too simplistic. There are no real losers here, as all three guys deserve to play meaningful roles this season and all probably will. But it'll be interesting to see how the minutes get divvied up and the lineups get arranged. Each of the three players has a unique set of strengths and weaknesses - Stotts' job will be to figure out how they fit with the rest of the team and whether he can mitigate any shortcomings they have. One of the Blazers' best features this season will be their depth. The trick is using that depth optimally.
With this in mind, each Blazer small forward presents big questions that will need to be answered this season. From where I'm sitting, here are the most pressing ones:
Can Harkless provide the Blazers with more spacing from the wing?
The book on Moe Harkless last season was a pretty simple one - great athlete, big, strong, can run and jump, plays in transition, defends multiple positions, hustles for loose balls. Does just about everything - except he can't shoot worth a lick. He arrived in Portland as a 30.9 percent career shooter from outside, and the hope was that playing in Stotts' offense could help him improve a little. Didn't happen. In his first season as a Blazer, Harkless' percentage from deep was 27.9.
In a vacuum, this hurts plenty - an extra five percent on 140 attempts would be seven 3-pointers, which is 21 points, and that’s absolutely enough to swing an extra game or two. If Harkless were even a respectable shooter, it would have made a huge difference. But beyond that, you've also got to consider the ripple effect that Harkless' poor shooting had on the rest of the Blazers' offense. A great distance shooter provides spacing; a poor one has the opposite effect. The onus is on Harkless to change that.
In the first preseason game against the Jazz, we saw a slight glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, Harkless was capable of punishing teams that ignore him on the perimeter. This is, as the kids say, big if true. Watch what happens early in this possession as Harkless sets a screen for Lillard out near the 3-point line - Utah's Derrick Favors never even considers switching or chasing Harkless out there to the arc. Instead he just drops back, and he stays there for basically the entire possession and ignores Harkless all the while. Utah packing an extra body into the paint is devastating as a pair of Blazer drivers - first Lillard, then Crabbe - fail to penetrate the lane. Crabbe's got no choice but to kick out to Harkless when he's wide freaking open, and fortunately for him, Harkless is able to knock this one down.
He went 2-for-4 against the Jazz on Monday, which of course means basically nothing in and of itself. But there's been some buzz this fall about the young forward improving his form, and to Harkless’ credit, he did look really smooth shooting the ball in the preseason opener. If he could start to make a few looks from distance this season, it would be huge. That would mean not only points on the board, but also more open space in the middle for the Blazers' other perimeter guys to create. A year ago, we'd have all assumed that a Harkless-Aminu pairing at the starting forward spots would mean playing zero potent distance shooters in the frontcourt. What if it now means two?
Can Crabbe evolve, becoming a little bit less predictable offensively?
Speaking of other Blazer perimeter guys creating...
Crabbe has always been one of the Blazers' most efficient scorers. In terms of effective field goal percentage, which gives extra weight to 3-pointers, Crabbe was the third most accurate shooter on the Blazers last season, trailing only big men Ed Davis and Meyers Leonard. His ability to sneak around screens, get separation and create open jumpers made him one of the most important players on Stotts' bench.
If he ever wants to be more than a bench guy, though, mixing up his game is the next step. Consider this: Of Crabbe's 678 shot attempts from the field last season, only 13.3 percent of them were at the rim and 6.9 percent were between 3 and 9 feet, according to basketball-reference shot data. Those are ghastly low numbers - for comparison's sake, Harkless was at 50.1 and 11.7 percent respectively last year, meaning he attacked the paint about three times as often. This made Crabbe fairly easy to defend, because you never had to worry about him blowing by you and going to the basket - that just wasn't a thing he did.
But what if he started doing it?
If you traveled back in time two years and showed this clip to my 2014 self, I'd have laughed you out of the room. Crabbe, whizzing past his defender and going right to the basket, attacking one of the game's best rim-protecting centers? Impossible! But here he is in 2016 doing it. If this is a real thing this season, it will make for an exciting new dimension to Crabbe's game that makes him a lot tougher to stop.
Crabbe has always been an efficient 3-point shooter. For his career, he's 38.5 percent from deep. But a scorer who never mixes it up is like a poker player who never bluffs - you always know exactly how to play them. If Crabbe is willing to attack the paint (against Rudy friggin' Gobert, even!), it will force opposing defenses to react. Rim-protecting guys like Gobert might have to cheat a step or two closer to the elbow to keep A.C. from penetrating, and that will open up new possibilities for the Blazers' offense like backdoor cuts to the rim for the Harklesses and Aminus of the world.
Of course, this is all assuming that Crabbe adds to his game another key aspect that's not totally there yet - passing. Crabbe only assisted 7.2 percent of the Blazers' baskets when he was on the floor last season, which is lousy for a wing player, and also added to his predictability on offense. Imagine if Crabbe had the total package - if he could shoot, put it on the floor and attack, or even drive and kick to create for teammates inside or out. If he had all of that, he'd basically be a third guy in the Lillard/McCollum mold, and that would be downright terrifying for the other 29 teams in the NBA. I'm not saying Crabbe will get there, necessarily, but I occasionally see flashes that indicate it's possible.
Can Turner fit into the offense, playing with pace and purpose?
One of the most interesting macro questions I have about the Trail Blazers this season concerns their pace. Last year's Blazer team averaged 96 possessions per game, good for No. 13 in the NBA - I think they're capable of upping that number quite a bit this season. It seems intuitive that playing faster is to their advantage. Physically, they've got the youth and depth to bring more energy than most other teams in the NBA, and mentally, they've got guys who are capable of thinking on their feet and making good, quick decisions. Faster probably means better.
Evan Turner is one reason that I worry about the Blazers' pace. He's not a slow player, per se, but he does have his moments where he drags the play to a halt by dribbling around and methodically figuring things out. It comes and goes. The Blazers looked their best last season when they were decisive and crisp about how they moved their bodies and moved the ball. Turner doesn't always fit into that paradigm.
This is a successful play for the Blazers, given that it ends with a Crabbe made 3, but I hate it nonetheless. Watch what happens between 12 and 7 on the shot clock - those are valuable seconds ticking away, and Turner spends them 28 feet from the basket where he's obviously not a threat. He dribbles, he weaves back and forth, he looks for something that never materializes, and eventually he just wings it to Crabbe for a jumpshot and a prayer. He's lucky that it goes in. This isn't the way the Blazers play when they have their A game.
If I could make one request of Evan Turner this upcoming season, it's this: Evan, whatever you do with the ball in your hands, just do it decisively. Get the rock, choose a course of action and go with it quickly. Don't let the Blazers' offense stagnate. That rarely ends well. When Turner makes fast decisions, though, he's often capable of good things.
This is simple yet beautiful. Turner gets the ball in a chaotic situation after an offensive rebound; he ends up matched against Favors, a rather lumbering big man, and he quickly recognizes that he can be a step quicker. So Turner catches with 20 to shoot, takes a few steps at Favors, crosses over, steps back and boom. With 16 on the clock, he's nailing an elbow jumper. If he'd done his Bad Evan Turner thing and pounded the ball for five seconds, the Jazz would have had time to reset their defense and put Turner in a tougher matchup like Gordon Hayward, but with Good Evan Turner out there, no shot. The Blazers end up with an easy two points.
Perhaps it's not fair to judge the good or bad Turner yet. After all, making quick reads is dependent on knowing your teammates' tendencies and being comfortable with them, and both the above plays came from the first half of Turner's very first preseason game with a new team. He was a week removed from his first day of camp - and not only that, he played a lot of minutes next to guys like Shabazz Napier and Grant Jerrett who aren't likely to share much time with him during the season. The longer he plays with Dame, CJ and everyone else, the better he'll get.
Still, though, this is the preseason, and it's a time for developing good habits that will stick with you the rest of the year. All of the guys discussed here have work to do this fall - Harkless with his shot, Crabbe with his versatility, Turner with his quick playmaking. How each of the three perform will have a major bearing on how they fit on the Blazers this season. The regular season is now just 18 days away, and these three all have their work cut out for them.