It's late September, and we all know what that means - we're just a few precious days away from hearing the two words that every NBA fan spends the summer longing to hear.
Well, sort of. Everyone eagerly awaits training camp every September, but less because of what it actually is than what it represents. In and of itself, there's generally not much interesting about a bunch of guys meeting up in a gym, shaking off the cobwebs and slowly working back into game shape for a season that's still a month away. No one's excited about camp itself. We're excited about what comes next. It's all about building up the anticipation.
For a week, though, camp is all we get, and in a lot of cases it's boring. This is especially true when you've got an established team reconvening after a straightforward summer. When all you're doing in September is rolling it back, there's not much to talk about.
I remember my first NBA training camp. It was the fall of 2010, and I was covering the Celtics on a daily basis. When the C's got back together for camp late that September, it was basically a week of business as usual. They had just been to the NBA Finals that spring and they'd retained almost everyone, so there wasn't much intrigue in camp. We all knew Doc Rivers' core would consist of Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The fifth starter would be whichever of Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal and Kendrick Perkins was healthiest that week. (Spoiler alert: It was usually none of them.) In camp, there wasn't much to figure out. I spent a week commuting back and forth between Boston and Newport, R.I., and I basically learned nothing.
Teams like that are boring in September.
The 2016-17 Portland Trail Blazers, however, are not that kind of team.
On one hand, it's true that the Blazers are bringing almost their whole roster back from last season, much like that Boston group did six years ago. On the other hand? There are still countless questions this team has yet to answer. Last season was a revelation, as a young group of Blazers dramatically overdelivered and cracked the playoffs, but it doesn't mean their entire future crystallized overnight. A lot remains fluid.
Some teams go into camp with no questions to answer. The Blazers right now? Well, I'd reckon they've got about seven.
1. Is Evan Turner really a starter?
By now, we've all heard the rumor that Evan Turner was promised the Blazers' starting small forward spot when GM Neil Olshey first offered him a contract back on July 1. We've been going off of that assumption all summer, and also by extension assuming that Al-Farouq Aminu will slide down to the four more permanently. Now, I don't know about you, but I've gotten more and more suspicious about this as the offseason has dragged on. The more time I get to dwell on this, the less I believe it - or at least, the less I assume it's set in stone.
All the ingredients are in place for a position battle in training camp. First of all, you've got a coach in Terry Stotts who's historically been fairly slow to make firm decisions about the non-star players in his rotation. Just look at Moe Harkless and Allen Crabbe, who happen to be the two main guys competing with Turner for small forward minutes - both of them saw their roles in the Blazer rotation jerked around a lot last season. Who's to say things will stabilize now?
Harkless and Crabbe both have a lot to offer as starting small forwards. In Harkless' case, you get continuity from last season's starting five, as the Harkless Lineup was absolute dynamite for Stotts toward the end of last season. It could be great again, with Moe offering a nice dose of rebounding and versatility on D. With Crabbe, you have the tantalizing chance to go pedal-to-the-floor with shooting, surrounding Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum with even more perimeter weaponry.
I'm not saying either choice is necessarily better than just starting Turner, but there's absolutely a chance. Stotts would be crazy not to at least experiment with some lineup changes this preseason.
2. Is the center role up for grabs?
I suppose Mason Plumlee makes the most sense as the Blazers' starting center to begin the season, if for no other reason than incumbency. The job was his last year, he handled it well, so it should still be his to lose. But in training camp, he could totally lose it. The Blazers spent $15 million on Festus Ezeli this summer for a reason - last year's team was the sixth-best in the NBA offensively and No. 20 on defense, and Plumlee didn't do enough to address the latter issue. Ezeli would be a definite needle-mover defensively, as he's got the chops not only to protect the rim but also to guard quicker guys in space. If Stotts is serious about Portland's defense being above-average this season, Ezeli will definitely need minutes.
There's also the outside chance - er, at least I think there is - of the Blazers relegating both of their true centers to the bench and starting Meyers Leonard instead. The thinking here is the same as with starting Crabbe - quite simply, the Blazers are scary good when they maximize their shooting all over the floor and space the defense out. I've been saying for a while now that I'm tempted by the idea of a Lillard/McCollum/Crabbe/Aminu/Leonard starting five. The defense might be an issue, but man. That squad of shooters would be mighty difficult to stop.
We'll have to see what Stotts has in mind at the center position. (Also, stay tuned for more on Meyers later.)
3. Will this team play big or small?
This is one of the more interesting big-picture questions the Blazers will have to figure out this fall. By all accounts, the plan is to move Aminu to the power forward spot and have him play there almost exclusively. That's not a bad idea, as Aminu has played very well at the four thus far, but it does raise some additional questions about how the rotation will look long-term.
Think about Ed Davis, for example. Davis is a traditional power forward - a 6-foot-10, 230-pound dude who sets up around the basket, devours rebounds and scores efficiently from close range. Those habits have value. Davis did all of those things very, very well for the Blazers last season, to the point where you even heard his name in NBA Sixth Man of the Year conversations once or twice. Nothing against Aminu at the four, but when you lean on that approach too heavily, Davis' value is one of the things you're sacrificing.
It's true that as the modern NBA takes shape, stretchy power forwards like Aminu are going to have more value. Having said that, it's still a matchup-dependent thing. There are still plenty of big power forwards getting heavy minutes in the NBA - just look at Zach Randolph, Enes Kanter, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge, to name four. My hope is that while the Blazers continue embracing small ball, they also take some time this fall to work on their traditional two-big system a bit too. Having the capability to play both ways will be situationally useful this season.
4. How will the Blazers share the basketball?
Another fascinating big-picture issue. The Blazers already had a little bit of a logjam last season in the "primary ball-handler" role - Lillard and McCollum were both fantastic with the ball in their hands, and it's a shame there was only one rock to go around. Now, with Turner in the mix and Crabbe poised to seize a larger role for himself, it's going to be interesting to see how Portland's perimeter guys share the touches.
As I wrote in this space last month, the idea of Turner as solely an on-ball guy has been way overblown. Turner averaged only 55.8 touches per game as a Celtic last season, significantly less than both Lillard (89.0) and McCollum (70.4) in Portland. By shifting from the one-two hybrid role to more of a full-time three, Turner will probably see even less time pounding the rock. But how will he handle this transition? How will he make himself useful on the wing, given that he's not a great shooter and a less athletic slasher than someone like Harkless?
It's not just Turner who raises these questions. Everyone on the Blazers who's not Dame and CJ - think Harkless, Aminu, Crabbe and on down the list - will need to make themselves useful without the ball this season. When you've got two of the 10 best creators in the NBA on your team, you've got to step aside and let those guys do their thing. Everyone else has to fit around the margins.
5. Will Meyers Leonard really be back?
There are two layers to this one. The first is, quite literally, whether Leonard can get back on the floor soon. When the Blazers announced in early April that the big man was having surgery to repair his separated shoulder, the initial prognosis was that he'd miss 6-8 months. You do the math. That means he'll return to the court in early October at best, early December at worst. Let's hope for the Blazers' sake that he ends up on the early side - Leonard is one of the most interesting pieces in Portland's rotation, and it'd be really nice to have a preseason to experiment with using him in different lineups.
But beyond just whether Meyers is back, the other question here is whether he'll be, you know, back. Leonard is a finesse player who needs to have his body right to find his shooting form. He's already coming off a wildly inconsistent season - remember, he went from shooting 28 percent from 3 last November to 46.2 percent in March - and it would be really nice to see health, stability and a reliable jump shot from him to start the season. Stotts couldn't count on that last year - and as we all remember, that led to some strange lineup choices that Leonard could never quite come back from.
Speaking of which...
6. Is Noah Vonleh still relevant?
Oh right - that guy. The guy who stole Leonard's spot in Portland's starting five and managed to hold it down for 56 games before Stotts finally shook things up in March. It's weird saying this about a guy who just started 56 games, but I could easily see Vonleh being out of the rotation entirely this season unless he shows up to camp dramatically improved in some way.
I've harped on this point a lot over the last few months, but it bears repeating - Vonleh last season basically showed no plus skills at the NBA level. According to data from Synergy Sports, Vonleh averaged 0.64 points per possession when used as a spot-up shooter, 0.73 as a pick-and-roll guy and 0.40 in straight post-ups. Those numbers are absolutely dreadful. A few questions ago, I was discussing the Blazers' dilemma between playing big and small, especially as it relates to the power forward spot; Vonleh is the rare guy who is neither. He doesn't do "big guy things" or "little guy things" well. He's a tweener in the worst way.
That said, Vonleh has been old enough to drink for less than a month. He's still incredibly raw, and he's still under team control for another two seasons (like Ezeli, he's a "2017-18 team option" guy). There's no reason for Stotts and the Blazers not to give Vonleh reps in training camp, toss him some minutes in the preseason and find out if he's improved any. At his age, and his draft lottery pedigree, it wouldn't shock me if he has. Now's the right time of year to find out.
7. What is this team's identity?
This is the big, over-arching one. How are the Blazers going to play this season, anyway? Last year, they set a tone for the Lillard/McCollum era, and it's one that just might endure. They've played a pacing, spacing style that spreads the floor, moves the ball and creates lots of open perimeter looks. Will that continue into this coming season, or will the Blazers show up this fall looking a little different? How will Turner's playmaking affect the formula? What about Ezeli's presence in the middle? Will Crabbe or Harkless leave more of an imprint than last year?
You might think that when the Blazers spent over a quarter of a billion dollars this summer just on retaining their existing roster, that meant they were committed to rolling it back. But last year's team only won 44 games, and there's no doubt the Portland brass has its sights set on bigger things in the future. What will they do to break through and be even better in 2016-17? What does Stotts have up his sleeve?
It won't be long before we all get to find out. Thank heavens for training camp, am I right?