So Melo isn’t coming. I’m disappointed because I think he would be a perfect addition to the Blazers’ starting five—but after months of playing “will he or won’t he” I’m just happy to have some closure with the whole situation.
The NBA is a year-round league now, with the offseason garnering as much, if not more attention than the actual season itself. Generally, as a certified basketball junkie, I’m all about it; the more the better. But if I’m being honest, this summer—which has been regarded as one of the wildest offseasons in league history—has really worn on me. I’m really just ready for some actual basketball. I know a lot of you are feeling that way too.
The good news is, the season unofficially kicks off this morning, with the team holding Media Day. All of the players are rolling into town, and training camp for the 2017-18 officially starts Tuesday. While the roster remains largely the same as last year’s—Allen Crabbe is gone, Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan are in, and neither Paul George nor Anthony will be wearing a Blazers uniform this season—there are still questions surrounding this team. Questions that can’t be answered in offseason discussions, and can only be resolved through training camp and actual preseason games.
Here are the four biggest things I’ll be watching for as the team gets ready to kick off another year of Blazers basketball:
1. Jusuf Nurkic showing improved mobility
We’ve all seen the pictures on social media this offseason; Nurkic running, lifting weghts, or just posing while drenched in sweat. He’s looked noticeably more trim, and now, thanks to a piece by CSNNW’s Jason Quick, we know that Nurkic has shed 34 pounds. While Nurk has never been on the lean side, he was noticeably heavy when he came to Portland.
At Blazer’s Edge Night last season, Dan Marang and I came to the conclusion that he weighed 300 pounds—20 over his listed weight of 280. Turns out that we were pretty close. Quick reports that Nurkic weighed in at 309 pounds when he was traded to the Blazers and is now down to a svelte 275. While this won’t just reduce the load on his lower extremities, it should do wonders for his quickness. Nurkic will never remotely resemble a jump-out-of-the-gym explosive center like DeAndre Jordan, but he will benefit from being more agile in two specific ways: avoiding cheap fouls and coming out of the paint to defend the pick-and-roll.
Throughout his career, Nurk has been prone to picking up cheap fouls when he isn’t able to establish defensive position quickly enough. He also has shown a habit of fouling when he’s gassed. No matter what shape he’s in, he’s a massive body that can clog the lane on defense. I’m excited to see what he can do with a bit more mobility.
2. Pat Connaughton, Archie Goodwin, and Anthony Morrow sticking 3-pointers
I’m confident that Morrow is making the roster, but I sure would be intrigued by a little competition for some backcourt rotation minutes. Whoever out of the three earns playing time—or makes the roster, in Goodwin’s and Morrow’s cases—is going to have to do so by sticking the catch-and-shoot 3-pointer with consistency. The Blazers need that guy. Can one of these three step up?
3. Caleb Swanigan may just have an opening
I love his story but I wasn’t personally high on Portland selecting Swanigan with the 26th pick. Then I saw Summer League. Granted, most of the competition won’t sniff NBA minutes this year, or possibly ever, but Biggie was clearly on a mission—rebounding and hustling with seemingly endless reserves of energy. I still don’t know how well he can play at the NBA level with his size and the defensive challenges that accompany it, but I’m not going to bet against him to at least get a few minutes here and there.
It really becomes a question of roster makeup. Portland has Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard, Al-Farouq Aminu, Swanigan, Zach Collins, and Noah Vonleh, all of whom play at least some minutes at power forward. But with Vonleh possibly missing up to the first two weeks of the regular season, there will be minutes available. Maybe Aminu continues to play the four and Ed Davis comes back fully healthy and that’s that, but I’m excited to see how the competition shakes out for the backup minutes in the early going. I don’t know if Swanigan’s going to get time, but I’m confident that it won’t be for a lack of effort.
4. Using Evan Turner differently
Evan Turner makes a lot of money and was the worst rotation player in the league from October through December last season. There, I said it. It’s out of the way, let’s move on. Turner managed to find ways to play within the offense—as opposed to playing “you take it, now I take it” with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum—before breaking his hand and missing just over a month last season. While he’s still not a great fit for the way Portland plays, I don’t think there’s any way Turner stumbles out of the gate like he did last season.
With Crabbe now jettisoned to Brooklyn, coach Terry Stotts has surely been thinking of ways to better utilize Turner. I’d love to see some side pick-and-roll action with Nurkic, similar to the Nic Batum/Robin Lopez pairing from three years ago. While Turner isn’t nearly the 3-point threat that Batum is, he and Nurkic could play a nice high/low game, especially if Nurkic continues to show the ability to pop off of a screen and hit 18-foot jumpers.
While the big-splash roster move never came, there are still plenty of reasons to be excited for this team. The possibilities are maybe not endless, but there is a lot of reason for optimism in Rip City. The guys are back in the practice facility this week, the first preseason game is next week, and finally we can get back to talking Blazers basketball.