Just a week away from beginning their 2017-18 NBA regular season schedule, the Portland Trail Blazers still have plenty of lineup questions to answer. Jusuf Nuric, Damian Lillard, and CJ McCollum are guaranteed starters. The next four positions in Portland’s rotation, if not exactly a mystery, remain fluid.
Yesterday we asked Blazer’s Edge readers to fill in those positions with the players they thought merited inclusion in Portland’s top spots. Some selections were near-unanimous, others divided. Today I’m giving you my picks, with explanations why certain players did or didn’t make it.
Starting Small Forward
Reader Consensus: Moe Harkless
My Pick: Moe Harkless
With Evan Turner trending towards point guard—his ball-handling skills would be wasted alongside Lillard and McCollum as a starter anyway—Harkless remains the clear choice at small forward. This presumes that Al-Farouq Aminu remains a power forward in Portland’s scheme, otherwise all bets are off. The Blazers could go off the board with an Aminu - Caleb Swanigan tandem and try to crush opponents physically.
Failing that, Harkless gets the nod for his Jack-of-All Trades arsenal (yes, “master of none” applies too). His three-point shot was slightly more reliable than Aminu’s last year. The Blazers will sacrifice shooting at the forward positions no matter which way they go but they can’t ignore it completely. Harkless creates a nice target for Nurkic on backdoor cuts, can fill the wing on the break, and has the quickness and stamina to keep motion alive on both ends of the floor. He’d make a better reserve than a starter, but Portland’s lineup isn’t solidified (or talented) enough to justify putting him there now.
Starting Power Forward
Reader Consensus: Split between Aminu and Swanigan
My Pick: Aminu...for now.
Starting Aminu over Swanigan is a little bit about defense. Aminu is Portland’s best defender. They can’t preach or enact the defensive revolution they so desperately need without him near the center of the action. It’s also about winning and keeping up appearances thereof.
Any forward who distinguished himself above all comers would find immediate purchase in Terry Stotts’ lineup. The Blazers don’t have that player in the fold. Absent clarity, they probably need to go with a veteran over a rookie. Experience matters, plus veteran status earns them more leeway. If the Blazers get off to a slow start with Aminu, it won’t be blamed on Aminu. The same cannot be said if they start Swanigan. They can’t afford questions about focus or an extended debate about victories versus development. Nor will they want to mess with Swanigan’s confidence and progression by putting him in a spot he’s not ready for. NBA veterans would test him hard; plenty of starting NBA fours pack more talent than Swanigan has ever seen.
Aminu won’t occupy the position forever. (Maybe not even for much longer. Noah Vonleh will return at some point.) But Aminu is still the initial choice.
First Player off the Bench and Reserve Point Guard
Reader Consensus: Evan Turner
My Pick: Evan Turner
The guy’s had a good preseason. There’s nobody left in the backcourt to challenge him for minutes at either position. He packs a variety of skills and he’s Portland’s best defender at guard. For all these reasons Turner’s “first player off the bench” (or at least “high minutes/key player off the bench”) designation will probably last the season. Reserve point guard may not. Turner is impressive when posting against smaller guards but his face-up dribble isn’t point-guard-prime, he’s not quick on the drive, he doesn’t have a great outside shot, and the ball doesn’t move when he’s scoring in the post. Using him at point is a nice wrinkle. Once it becomes predictable, opponents may be willing to eat whatever points he generates in the paint in order to force turnovers and disrupt passes.
If Swanigan’s growth continues, he may challenge for significant bench minutes as well. The starting frontcourt is shakier than the backcourt, leaving more openings and court time available. Swanigan’s skill set pairs with first- and second units nearly interchangeably. The same will be said of Zach Collins after his conditioning and weight stabilize. The rookies may not bloom fully this season, but encroaching on rotation spots will not be beyond them for long. Anyone who’s disappointed in known quantities like Aminu or Turner hogging the hardwood should wait a few months and see what transpires.
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