Today we continue our series on questions facing the Portland Trail Blazers as they enter the 2019-20 regular season. We know guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will be great, as always. What other factors could make the difference between a good season and a great one?
So far we’ve uncovered:
Question #4: Who Plays Forward?
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are synonymous with the 2010’s Portland Trail Blazers. Whatever weaknesses Portland may have shown during the decade, starting guards were not among them.
To Lillard and McCollum the Blazers have added a more-than-decent center rotation consisting of Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, and new acquisition Hassan Whiteside.
The big gaps in Portland’s roster have always come at forward. For years they’ve gotten by with prospects, journeymen shooters, and defenders. The holes haven’t been glaring, but patches seemed to wear thin every season.
Though the Blazers added significant firepower and name recognition this summer, the basic shape of their roster didn’t change. They’re still strong at the 1, 2, and 5 positions; they’re asking plenty of questions at 3 and 4.
Do the Blazers have a clear, guaranteed starter at either small forward or power forward this season?
- Rodney Hood and Kent Bazemore boast more talent than the rest of Portland’s forwards combined. Both are natural shooting guards fighting in a higher weight class at the three spot.
- Mario Hezonja started 54 games at small forward for the Orlando Magic and New York Knicks over the past two seasons. He’s coming off a season shooting 41% from the field, 28% from the arc. He’ll need a ton of defensive chops to make up for those numbers if he repeats them in Portland.
- Nassir Little is a rookie who shot 27% from the arc in his only year in college.
- Zach Collins split time between center and power forward last year for the Blazers. He packs enough defense and height to play the four, but his offense needs serious work.
- Skal Labissiere had a promising 2017-18 season but appeared in only 22 games total last year, unable to crack the rotation in Portland.
- Anthony Tolliver and Pau Gasol bring plenty of experience and would make decent utility starters, but neither projects to play big minutes.
From this patchwork quilt, the Blazers must cobble together a semi-consistent lineup.
If history is any indication, it’s unlikely that their opening night starting duo will persist through 82 games. Head Coach Terry Stotts spent the last two seasons juggling between Moe Harkless, Jake Layman, Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Noah Vonleh. None of them besides Aminu really stuck. Any one of that quintet might have the inside track to a starting position when compared to the eight candidates the Blazers field currently.
Last year’s mantra in Portland was consistency, This year’s well might become “fluidity”. The Blazers might make do with situational minutes and matchup-based substitutions at the forward spots.
There’s something to be said for that approach. If your options are all average to sub-par—as was likely true over the past couple seasons—consistency is overrated. Stotts now has a buffet of skills and players to choose from. The utter lack of consistency at the forward positions may come back to bite the team, however. The Blazers would benefit if one of these players steps up and wrests the starting nod from all others, leaving the remnant in their far-more-suitable bench roles.
If that happens at either the three or the four, the Blazers can probably get away with shuffling players at the remaining position of need. Otherwise, they will keep seeking unexpected contributions from interesting players to fill 40% of their floor space all season long.
Do you have any opinions about who will start, or even play major minutes, at the forward spots? Share below, and stay tuned over the weekend as we count down to the biggest single question facing the Blazers this year!