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Blazers’ Youngsters Key to Stabilizing Roster

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How will the Trail Blazers replace the production that departed in the offseason?

Portland Trail Blazers Open Scrimmage Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Heading into the 2019-2020 NBA season, the Portland Trail Blazers will feature the biggest lineup turnover since LaMarcus Aldridge left in free agency after the 2015 campaign when the only starter to return the next season was Damian Lillard.

Gone are Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, and Jusuf Nurkic is on the shelf until at least February, so there are going to be at least three new starters on opening night--and that doesn’t account for Seth Curry, Jake Layman, Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard and all of their production off the bench.

When you look at what Portland lost overall this offseason, nearly 50 percent of their total minutes played (47.48%) went out the door via free agency or trade. With them went 50 percent of the rebounding, 37 percent of the points, 48 percent of the steals, and 40 percent of the threes taken a night. That’s a lot of production, regardless of your feelings towards the players that left. What does that mean for the Blazers heading into the season fresh off a Western Conference Finals appearance?

We’ll start with what SHOULD be the smoothest of the replacements based on what his role and expectations are going to be, and that’s Hassan Whiteside. While there are certainly questions about motivation and perhaps what Whiteside sees as his potential role, the basketball fit makes the most sense. Whiteside is one of the better rebounders in the entire league, which is great because nearly all of Portland’s rebounding is off the roster right now.

The active player with the highest rebounds per game returning right now is Damian Lillard (4.5) for reference. While it’s easy to say that X player(s) will fill that gap, only Whiteside has demonstrated that capability. For those that are quick to say that Zach Collins will fill that void, keep in mind that Collins’ rebound rate (12 percent) was outdone last year by: Enes Kanter, Jusuf Nurkic, Meyers Leonard, Skal Labissiere, Al-Farouq Aminu and Caleb Swanigan, with Evan Turner and Maurice Harkless right on Collins’ heels.

Nearly every big that Coach Stotts has had in his system has the same role on both ends of the floor. Defensively, players are excited to play centerfield and contest shots in the paint, drop coverage/ICE pick and rolls, play to the shot values, and deny high leverage opportunities. On this side of the ball, I don’t think anyone is overly concerned coming into the season with Whiteside as the starter. He’s shown the ability to protect the rim/paint (even if he does go chasing from time-to-time) and that will likely be sufficient enough. The Blazers aren’t suddenly going to ask him to switch on the perimeter and chase wings around, so it’s probably okay here.

Offensively, players have to work out of the pick and roll, screen on and off ball, roll with gravity and chase offensive rebounds when appropriate. Where this deviates is that Stotts has often had more than basic facilitation of the offense FROM the post, not just TO the post. Whiteside is just not a great passer in any sense of the word: as both a skill, like the actual passing of the ball AND the vision. That’s okay--not everyone has that ability, but as a function of the motion offense that’s going to be a bit of a learning curve. How well Whiteside adjusts here will probably be indicative of how well he can fit in over a longer period, but in the meantime, 14 points and 12 rebounds will look pretty tasty on a nightly basis.

This is just a long way of saying that Whiteside is likely the guy that covers up the giant hole that is vacant because of the Nurkic injury in the best way possible. Everything else is probably a little less clear. Luckily, Lillard has been through MORE than this in the past. Replacing three starters is 25 percent easier than replacing four! Right? RIGHT?!

The big questions now come in the form of who starts at the four (Collins)? Who is the starting wing (Hood) and who is the bench initiator/scorer (Simons)? While we know who those guys are going to be, what is really fair to expect of them?

Like Whiteside, Rodney Hood does have a background in the area he’s being asked to step into. As a starter with the Utah Jazz, Hood was a capable performer on the offensive end to the tune of 14 points, 3 rebounds on 42/38/84 splits. Compared to the production Portland has had at that position for nearly a decade, these are incredible numbers. I don’t think it’s any kind of stretch to imagine he could replicate that here in Portland if his three comes back around to what it was in Utah. You take those numbers on every day that ends in “y” and you don’t ask questions--which is what it appears Portland has done here. There are plenty of questions about defense heading into next season, as Aminu and Harkless were both more than capable--but just how capable and at what cost offensively? How that storyline plays out is going to be very interesting: the trade off from Harkless/Aminu and their perimeter defense, versus the offensive production of Hood and possibly Collins.

Speaking of Collins, the level of expectations for the third year big man range from minimal to exceptional. When I asked fans what they thought Collins’ basic box score would look like as a starter, a very common response was that 15 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks was well within reach. This isn’t to knock Collins in the least bit, but since 2000 there have been 12 players in the league who’ve reached that stat line in their first 5 years in the league and they are as follows: Andrew Bogut, Elton Brand, Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, Serge Ibaka, Chris Kaman, Andrei Kirilenko, Yao Ming, Josh Smith and Hassan Whiteside. Perhaps toning that expectation down just a little bit is the safer play.

I believe Collins is ready on the defensive end to contribute to the tune of blocked shots; however, I’m a bit less sure of the rebounding. As stated earlier, Collins’ rebounding rate hasn’t exactly been stellar. His rate at Gonzaga was significantly better, but that was in the WCC and often against second unit bigs. However, rebounding is typically something that translates well from college to the pros, so I’m very much wait and see on that right now. The opportunities will certainly be there, that’s for sure. He’ll pick up some minutes at the backup 5-spot and that could help buoy his total.

As for his offensive production, without a definable skill set it’s hard to see his touches going up all that much. He’ll have chances on put backs, working without the ball and the occasional spot up, but if I were assigning a pecking order of offensive touches it would probably go; Dame/CJ/Whiteside/Hood/Simons/Bazemore/Collins. You could likely swap Bazemore and Collins, but at this time I don’t think he has a case to be above anyone else there. That probably puts Collins around 5-6 field goal attempts a night, and it’s hard to put up double figures without the requisite shots, even if he discovers a consistent three-point shot.

Finally, what and who might be the biggest wildcard of the season: Anfernee Simons. As things sit, Dame and CJ are taking roughly 40 of the 90 available shots each given night, so that leaves about 50 for everyone else. Let’s say between Hood and Whiteside they take up 20 shots. You’re now down to 30 shots between Simons, Collins, Bazemore, Hezonja, and Tolliver.

From what we’ve heard/been told, Simons will be featured off the bench and he’ll have a green light when it comes to getting shots off, so I’m going to cut him 8 shots a night to start for an average. That’s what was given to Hood last year, and it seems fair that a guy that Portland has talked up so much would get that level of treatment. That’s more than what was given to Curry, Turner, Harkless, Aminu or Layman last season, but I think it’s probably fair that Portland views Simons as more offensively gifted and worthy of those possessions than any of those guys.

Where Collins will likely be more limited in his offensive opportunities, Simons might just be given a little bit more leash--so much so that his scoring could crack double-digits in much the same way that Allen Crabbe was able to do so. However, with Simons’ ability to create his own shot he won’t be reliant on set up/spot up opportunities. In a way, Simons could cover up for the loss of Curry and then some. That’s a pretty lofty expectation, but one that may be BELOW what Portland quietly hopes for from the second-year guard. The high bar is probably set at 12 points, 3 assists and 37 percent-plus from three, which would put him in pretty good company--although that is not nearly as indicative as the 15/8/2 stat line for Collins.

With all of this said, there’s still going to be opportunities for Bazemore, Hezonja and Tolliver, possibly Labissiere and Gary Trent Jr., as well as whoever else Portland opts to sign. How Stotts chooses to play out the first few months of the season is going to be very interesting. How much leash the young guys are given, how long until each unit comes together, how effective each unit will be, etc., are all things to consider. What we know now is that a lot of ‘givens’ went out with seven different players. There’s uncertainty outside of Lillard and McCollum for the first time in four years and with this new season, there are new questions.