After almost five months with no Trail Blazers basketball, the wait is finally, at long last, coming to an end. The Blazers will retake the court on Monday night, tipping off what is sure to be an interesting preseason schedule, to say the least. With all the moves GM Neil Olshey made this summer and the difficult personnel decisions that coach Terry Stotts will now have to make, there will be no shortage of drama this October. This is the most exciting exhibition schedule Portland has had since ... well, last year. But still. It's exciting.
Will Evan Turner actually get the start at small forward for Portland - and if so, will he play well? What roles will Allen Crabbe and Moe Harkless have if they're coming off the bench? How will Stotts divvy up minutes at the center spot, considering he's got about a trillion guys competing for them? What, if anything, will injury-rehabbing guys like Meyers Leonard and Festus Ezeli bring to the table? How will Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum share primary playmaking duties? Oh - and who is this Jake Layman guy, anyway?
That’s a lot of questions, with only 19 days to answer them. And here's the thing - that's just on the Portland side. If you ask me, preseason basketball is just as interesting from a "scouting the opposition" standpoint as it is for observing your own guys.
The Blazers are playing seven games these next three weeks, against six different teams. All of them are sure to be interesting. These are fast-changing times in the modern NBA - 2016-17 will be our first season without three sure-fire, first-ballot Hall of Famers (Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett), likely our last season with two more (Paul Pierce and probably Manu Ginobili) and our first opportunity to witness quite possibly the best superteam yet created in the Superteam Era (that would be the Warriors, in case you forgot). Every season begins with storylines out the wazoo, but that's especially true in a year in which so many teams are turning the page on notable chapters in franchise history.
Today, let's look at the six teams on the Blazers' preseason slate in particular. What's their big, overarching narrative going into this season? What's their biggest question mark?
What's their story? Every year, there's at least one team that emerges in the preseason as Basketball Twitter's darling - the young team that hasn't had much success yet, but every hoops hipster is tracking their every move, hoping they can someday say they were watching before it was cool. Recent holders of this title have included Charlotte, Milwaukee and New Orleans. This year, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the hipster pick is Utah. The Jazz haven't been a real contender in the West since the end of the Deron Williams era, and in the last three years, they've won 25, 38 and 40 games. This year, everyone's picking them to do big things anyway. The Jazz have one of the game's best defenses when Rudy Gobert is healthy, they've got a pair of budding stars in Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward, and they made some sneaky-brilliant moves this summer to bolster their depth. These guys could win 50.
What should you watch for? A lot of things, really, but if you want just one? I'm curious to see how this team looks with a real point guard at the helm. Last year's Jazz dealt with some injuries and ended up with Raul Neto and Shelvin Mack running the show; they now have the newly acquired George Hill in the starting spot, and the young Dante Exum is healthy and waiting in the wings. Hill's an underrated guard who's skilled defensively and can play on the ball and off; Exum is raw, but he's a fireball athletically and may thrive this season. Capable floor leadership might be the final element the Jazz need to break through and become a top-4 team in the West.
What's their story? The Suns were a joke last season, losing 59 games and netting themselves the No. 4 spot in the draft, but it's not like they were devoid of talent. There are some interesting pieces on that roster - Eric Bledsoe is a borderline All-Star when healthy, Devin Booker might be one of the game's best young shooting guards and Tyson Chandler is not washed up yet at age 33. Plus the Suns used that No. 4 pick on Croatian big man Dragan Bender, then flipped a handful of other picks for Sacramento's No. 8 selection and took Huskies product Marquese Chriss. The West is crowded and the Suns are unlikely to compete for a playoff spot this season, but they'll nonetheless be fun to watch.
What should you watch for? Both lottery picks are nominally power forwards, but they're dramatically different players from one another; Bender is a Euro big man with one of the sweetest jump shots in this rookie class, and Chriss is a superathlete with length and explosiveness who should do a little bit of everything for Phoenix. So how will the two gel? Will Suns coach Earl Watson play them together, with Bender spotting up from the arc and Chriss roving around everywhere, or use them more separately? Who one will have the better season in a vacuum - and perhaps more importantly, which player will fit better next to Chandler? If the Suns are going to get better in the next 2-3 years, it will likely be because at least one of these two guys breaks out. Let's find out who, shall we?
Los Angeles Lakers
What's their story? Speaking of jokes...
As a Boston transplant and Portland convert, it brings me joy on multiple levels to declare it - the Lakers are currently at their low point in franchise history. Last year's team was the worst in the West at 17-65, and to be blunt, it would shock me if they didn't finish last in the conference again next spring. The good news is the Lakers have moved on from the misery of Kobe's decline phase, but that doesn't mean they're any closer to winning. This new roster can best be described as a bizarre mashup of has-beens and aren't-yets. Timofey Mozgov is 30 and just got paid $64 million to play until he's 34; Brandon Ingram was born when "Men in Black" was still in theatres, which makes me feel extremely old all of a sudden. The Lakers have some pieces, but the roster doesn't make a ton of sense, and it might be a while before it does.
What should you watch for? Just to see who pops, I guess. With all due respect to Luke Walton, it will probably be years before this Laker group starts to look like a cohesive team, but they've already got some interesting individual talents. Ingram is a center in a wing's body, and he can shoot and make plays too; he might excel in the NBA right away. D'Angelo Russell should be better at the point with a year of experience (plus, let's be honest, Kobe's ball-stopping out of the way). Julius Randle averaged a double-double as a rookie last season; now he's got to get more efficient. Larry Nance Jr. is interesting as a bench guy. The Lakers are not good, but if one or more of their young pieces has a big season, they'll at least be somewhat watchable.
Los Angeles Clippers
What's their story? The Clippers have had pretty much the same nucleus in place throughout the five years since they traded for Chris Paul, but now they might finally be on the clock. Paul and Blake Griffin both have opt-outs in their contracts next summer, and both have still yet to sniff a Western Conference Finals berth; there's speculation out there that if the Clips come up short yet again this spring, it might be time to blow it up once and for all. That's one narrative, anyway. On the other hand, CP and Blake are still only 31 and 27 respectively - far from washed up - and they're at the helm of one of the NBA's most consistent winners. Who knows? Maybe this group has another successful half-decade ahead.
What should you watch for? Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, you already know. Nothing's changed with those guys. For my money, the more interesting story this year is what comes of the Clippers' newfound depth. Check out the list of guys Doc Rivers added this summer: Marreese Speights, Raymond Felton, Brandon Bass, Alan Anderson, Dorell Wright. Not a star in the bunch, but that's five very solid rotation players, and among them they can cover all five positions. All getting paid basically the minimum, too. The Clips were criticized in 2015 for falling apart in the playoffs because their shallow roster succumbed to fatigue; if a few of the new guys pan out, that might not be a problem anymore in 2017. I'm particularly intrigued by Anderson who, along with defensive standout Luc Mbah a Moute, might give L.A. a jolt of perimeter defense the team hasn’t had since Matt Barnes skipped town.
What's their story? Much like the Suns above, Denver is a team that's certainly not a real threat in the West, but not without its fair share of talent either. There's not a superstar anywhere on this roster, but there's a really solid rotation of 10 guys who can all play. Emmanuel Mudiay is a promising young point guard who should come back more confident in year two. Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic are two beastly young centers. Danilo Gallinari, when healthy, is the rare combination of stretch-four, playmaker and versatile defender. Will Barton might win NBA Sixth Man of the Year (though his former teammate Allen Crabbe will totally put up a fight - I'm calling that now). The Nuggets are interesting. If they were in the East, they might luck into a No. 6 seed. In the real world, they might be just one piece short of being truly competitive.
What should you watch for? Mudiay's improvement. Coming out of the 2015 draft and heading into Summer League, the teenage point guard was billed as one of the best players in a stacked rookie class. He showed flashes in his debut season with Denver, but his play overall was marred with inefficiency - bad shots, turnovers, all sorts of rookie mistakes. His PER was 9.9. This tends to happen with young point guards, though, and especially when they're lottery picks who land on bad teams without a winning culture around them. The hope is that Mudiay, who turns 21 late in the season, comes back this year and shows signs of maturation. If he does, the Nuggets could have a real cornerstone guy for the next half-decade or more.
Golden State Warriors
What's their story? If you've read this far, you probably like basketball, and if you like basketball, you probably already know this one. The Warriors won 67 games and won the Finals in 2015. In 2016, they broke the NBA's all-time record by winning 73, returned to the Finals, took a 3-1 lead and then shockingly lost to LeBron James and the Cavaliers. They already had Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, who are good; they have since added Kevin Durant, who is also good. Let's move on, shall we?
What should you watch for? Where to begin?
Obviously, the shiny new toy here is Durant, and everyone will be dying to see how he looks in the blue and gold. Chances are, he'll look pretty devastatingly good. The upgrade from Harrison Barnes to KD is significant - he's a far better 3-point shooter, a fast-improving playmaker and one of the best isolation scorers in the history of basketball. Adding that to the Warriors' already amazing offense is just unfair. But again - you know that. Luckily, the intrigue doesn't end there with the Dubs. Consider also:
- Where will the Warriors find rim protection without Andrew Bogut or Festus Ezeli? Can they cobble together enough competent minutes at center from Zaza Pachulia, Anderson Varejao and David West?
- Will Draymond have the ball in his hands less with Durant around? Will the Warriors be worse off without his versatility as a playmaker from both sides of the pick-and-roll? Will Durant take on a similar role, serving as both screener and screenee with Curry?
- How will the Warriors balance their need for rest with their (relative to last year, at least) lack of depth? On one hand, they'll need to pace their guys this year after two long, exhausting seasons; on the other, do they have enough warm bodies this year without Barnes, Bogut, Ezeli, Speights, Brandon Rush or Leandro Barbosa? How do you replace all six of those guys while still keeping your remaining players rested?
- Is Curry healthy? Like, for real? Totally and completely?
- Aside from their main four stars, basically everyone on Golden State's roster is either under 24 or over 30. Are the younger guys ready? Will the older guys decline?
- What if JaVale McGee ruins everything?
The Warriors were the best team in basketball last season, Finals result not withstanding; barring something absolutely bizarre happening, they'll be the class of the league again. This team will almost certainly dominate, but every little minuscule challenge they face will be a fascinating one. Come Oct. 21, the Blazers will have a chance to be one such challenge.