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Who Gets That 14th Roster Spot For the Trail Blazers?

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Which of the Blazers’ three training camp signings is the best fit for this roster?

Golden State Warriors v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers currently have 13 players and one two-way contract locked in for next season. Failing a trade for Ben Simmons — cough, cough — using CJ McCollum and pieces, this team is essentially what it will be on opening night with one minor addition required to meet league requirements.

Over the past two weeks, former lottery picks Dennis Smith Jr., Marquese Chriss and Patrick Patterson have signed training camp deals in the hope they can be that minor addition.

Now, Portland President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey rarely goes into a season with the maximum 15 players on the roster as he likes the flexibility. With the current state of the Blazers’ finances, he’s got extra incentive to stick with 14.

Up until Summer League, the assumption was either Michael Beasley or Kenneth Faried would get the nod. But if the pair were trying to impress Olshey, they were doing it wrong, as neither were very good.

So, let’s revisit the regular season roster as it stands.

  • Starters - Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington, Jusuf Nurkic
  • Bench - Anfernee Simons, Tony Snell, Nassir Little, Larry Nance Jr., Cody Zeller
  • Deep bench - Ben McLemore, CJ Elleby, Greg Brown
  • Two-way player – Trendon Watford

And here is the predicted minutes distribution.

  • PG – Lillard (28), McCollum (12), Simons (8)
  • SG – McCollum (22), Simons (11), Powell (9), Lillard (6)
  • SF – Powell (24), Little (16), Snell (8)
  • PF – Covington (28), Nance Jr. (18), Little (2)
  • C – Nurkic (26), Zeller (17), Nance Jr. (5)

Totals - Lillard (34), McCollum (34), Powell (33), Covington (28), Nurkic (26), Nance Jr. (23), Simons (19), Little (18), Zeller (17), Snell (8)

Which one of Chriss, Smith Jr. and Patterson makes this team?

Injury history/defense - the argument for Chriss

With Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum starting at the two backcourt positions, you’ll never be able to call this roster balanced. But bringing in Nance Jr. helps this team look relatively equitable across the five positions. My concern is durability. Lillard, McCollum, Powell and Simons have a relatively clean injury history, aside from a few broken McCollum foot bones, so no real need to worry here, touch wood.

The frontcourt, particularly the center rotation of Nurkic, Zeller and Nance Jr., hasn’t even come close to playing a full season in recent memory. What if all three succumbed to injury at the same time? It’s not a ridiculous proposition. Another frontcourt signing would be the most logical next step.

Chriss was taken with the eighth pick in 2016, and has since spent time with the Phoenix Suns, Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers and the last two seasons with the Golden State Warriors where he started to mature and carve out a career. Unfortunately, he suffered a broken leg last December before being traded and waived by the San Antonio Spurs. Not a great sign if you’re trying for a healthy frontcourt insurance policy.

A broken leg is not an easy injury to come back from — just ask Jusuf Nurkic — but all reports suggest the 24-year-old is fighting fit. Let’s just hope his physical attributes haven’t disappeared.

He’s a leaping highlight reel, finishing around the rim, and usually on it, thanks to solid footwork and incredible athleticism. His career shooting percentage within three feet is a stroke under 63 percent thanks to the reliability that athleticism allows for.

The only drawback on the offensive end is his longer range shooting: it doesn’t really exist at 29 percent. As a result, the 6’9 Chriss will struggle to spend sustainable minutes at power forward.

On the other side of the ball, he’s not the subpar defender he was once thought of as. In fact, he’s actually competent defending the pick and roll, perhaps we can thank those two years spent with Draymond Green. And given his age, there is still plenty of room for improvement with little pressure playing support to Nurkic, Zeller, and company.

A lack of facilitating depth - the argument for Smith Jr.

Smith Jr. was picked by the Dallas Mavericks with the ninth selection in the 2017 draft, one spot ahead of another former Blazer. Two years later he was traded to the New York Knicks in the infamous Kristaps Porzingis deal before being sent to the rebuilding Detroit Pistons at this year’s deadline.

While Nurkic and Nance Jr. have playmaking chops they’ll never be called point center or point forward respectively. This team could probably do with another point guard to save someone like Rodney Hood (see Portland’s road win against the Philadelphia 76ers last season — I know Rodney is no longer on this team) playing lead guard minutes when Lillard and McCollum are out.

Lillard will always play as much as his body allows with the more natural shooting guard McCollum providing respite. For the past 12 months, Olshey has been pushing Simons as this team’s third-string distributor but, like McCollum, he is also more inclined to look for his own shot. So outside of Lillard, there is no other real point guard on this roster.

Like Chriss, the 6’2 Smith Jr. can jump out of the gym but on pure basketball skill he’s more a jack of all trades, master of none. He’s a meh three-point shooter at 32 percent, with a decent 11.8 points 4.4 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.1 steals. His defense has improved since his first days in Dallas but there’s just not a lot that stands out.

However, we need to consider context. Outside his rookie season, Smith Jr.’s role his been blurry at best, first watching the Mavericks draft Luke Doncic into his role in 2018, competing for minutes with Frank Ntilikina and Trey Burke in the Big Apple, and then arriving in Detroit to find Killian Hayes as the golden child. While there will clearly be players in front of him on the Blazers rotation, his responsibilities should be clearly defined, playing spot minutes when required and rehabilitating his reputation.

Veteran experience - the argument for Patterson

Again, the 14th roster spot will not be filled by someone expecting to play any real minutes. Patterson makes sense for all the reasons Chriss makes sense when discussing the need for backup bigs. But Patterson is also the anti-Chriss, he’s eight years older, can shoot the pelt out of the ball, and doesn’t really defend.

Aged 32, 6’9 Patterson has managed to survive in the NBA as a stretch big/37 percent three point shooter with the Houston Rockets, Sacramento Kings, Toronto Raptors, Oklahoma City Thunder and most recently the Los Angeles Clippers. His last stop might be the reason he agreed to sign in Portland, after playing under Chauncey Billups last season.

Unfortunately age might have caught up with Patterson, and it happens to all of us. The one thing he does bring to the table is experience and if he’s not expected to play more than junk-time minutes, I guess he’d be valuable as a locker room presence. You just wouldn’t want to see him thrust into any real playing time when the rest of the roster is depleted: see Anthony Tolliver.

Someone else?

Earlier this week, HoopsHype’s Michael Scotto reported that Portland was in the running for Patterson, James Ennis, Isaiah Hartenstein and Beasley. But this was prior to Patterson actually signing.

Consequently, I’m not sure the other names are still on the Blazers’ radar.

But, hey, things can change. We all thought one of Beasley and Faried would make the team. What if none of the above three names prove fit enough to make the roster? For argument’s sake, let’s return to Scotto’s list: Hartenstein and Ennis. We’re not counting Beasley anymore — he had his chance.

It’s actually odd that Hartenstein hasn’t found a new home yet, he’s young (23), and has the potential to perform on both sides of the ball. He may be holding out for more than a minimum contract but there are few teams still with exception-level money to spend.

Ennis, 31, is essentially a slightly smaller Patterson, offering long-range shooting and not much more. He did hit 43 percent of his three-point shots with the Orlando Magic last season and has managed to stay in the league without spending more than a year with a particular franchise since 2017-18. Keep getting those checks.

Conclusion

Honestly, if it means picking from these three, I’m really picking between two: Smith Jr. and Chriss, as they are two young guys picked relatively high in the draft who never found great situations. Unfortunately, Patterson has passed his prime physically, and his only redeeming feature is his experience, potentially offering Yoda-like advice to some of those younger Blazers.

Out of the two young guys, it’s Chriss, purely for the fact that Blazers big men don’t traditionally play 82 games. While another point guard would be nice, Lillard stubbornly refusing to come to the bench might mean it’s less of an issue.

So welcome young Chriss, I look forward to watching you play alongside Elleby, McLemore, Brown and Watford.