It’s Labor Day weekend, which means that it’s just about a month until the Portland Trail Blazers’ preseason kicks off with a home game against the Utah Jazz. After a long season and two playoff rounds of covering the team this year, I was ready to enjoy some downtime - that feeling lasted exactly 2 weeks. Labor Day weekend is when it really hits me that we’re just around the corner from seeing actual basketball be played again.
A lot of fans seem to find the preseason lacking, if not boring. I get that point of view, but pretty much disagree in every way. I love the preseason.
Of course, the actual on-court product is a bit watered down. Guys are working their way into shape, unable and sometimes averse to going all out. Starters play limited minutes early in the schedule. That can be a deterrent for some fans to dedicate in-arena hours and dollars. But for me that first preseason trip to the Moda Center is like seeing an old friend again with the added bonuses of lighter traffic, semi-decent weather, and shorter lines for concessions.
Sure, most of this is due to the stands usually being mostly full, instead of the usual regular season attendance, but that’s part of the charm. Of course, there are still a lot of things to glean from the actual action on the court, which help prepare everyone for the upcoming regular season.
Low Minutes Players Getting Some Run
The lifeblood of armchair quarterbacks everywhere, watching end-of-the-bench players get a little on court action is always good to generate a little premature excitement. Inevitably, a Luis Montero, Pat Connaughton, or even a Tim Quarterman will have a nice run for a couple of games and generate a little buzz among the Blazer faithful. Just as inevitably, these guys will ride the pine for most of the season. This always gives fans and analysts something to talk about during the season though – “We just need to give Montero some minutes, you saw what he could do during preseason when he dropped 22 on the Suns!”
Of course, 95 percent of the time, this is an absurd notion, but having that glimmer of possibility in the back of your mind always makes the regular season more compelling. Fans always hoping for that next Drazen Petrovic, Jermaine O’Neal, or even Will Barton.
System Adjustments/New Pieces
Preseason is the fan’s first opportunity to see new faces and any potential new wrinkles within the system. This is probably the best reason to watch preseason basketball. So much has been written about Evan Turner’s arrival in Portland and how the team might use him; now we get to actually see the answer. Last preseason, Terry Stotts surprised everyone by using the same basic offensive sets, with some additional dribble hand off and flares on the weak side thrown in, despite losing four of his five starters.
With Turner’s ball handling and mid-range capabilities, it will be interesting to see how things evolve on the court this year; remember, Stotts doesn’t design end-points to plays, so much as create potential split-second advantages all over the court for players to capitalize on. I’ll be looking to see how well Turner capitalizes on these advantages, as well as what advantages he provides for our backcourt while he is playing off the ball.
Festus Ezeli may or may not play in the preseason, so with he and Meyers Leonard both sidelined, we won’t get an answer to the “who is the Blazers’ best option at starting center” question. But if Ezeli is able to go, we can get a good look at how his pick and roll/paint defense really impacts our defense as a whole, even if the starter question is on hold for now.
Similarly, the preseason can answer questions about Portland’s regular season rotations. As the preseason progresses, Stotts tends to increase his regulars’ minutes to the point that they are essentially playing a simulated regular season game in the second to last preseason game.
I’m always interested to see what sort of minutes new additions and players potentially impacted by said additions receive. Is Turner going to start? Play a bit of shooting guard to spell McCollum/Lillard? What kind of minutes is Allen Crabbe going to receive? How do Aminu/Harkless shake out at the forward spots? Can Jake Layman or Pat Connaughton get any meaningful minutes?
Of course, the aforementioned injuries to Leonard and Ezeli will leave some of the frontcourt questions unresolved for now, but there is enough intrigue on the wings to make this a very interesting preseason for Blazer fans to watch.
Energy Level and Cohesiveness
Preseason is a great time to watch for developing team chemistry as well as looking for overall on court energy/hustle. This year’s Blazers team is built on young players who take the mentality of being overlooked and underrated. It was widely reported that most of the Blazers met up in San Diego for group workouts and bonding time last season and the team has done the same this year. The comradery and dedication to getting in shape before training camp will hopefully continue to reap dividends when the team hits the preseason. If there is a lack of on-court energy by mid-October, you know there may be a problem, but with this group, I don’t see that ever being an issue.
After a long offseason, the time is almost here. We can put an end to a lot of speculation, and get some answers to questions that we’ve all had over the last several months. I can’t wait until we get to see how it’s going to shake out.