Portland Trail Blazers guard Allen Crabbe (23). Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
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The Trail Blazers season is approaching quickly. What are some of the biggest questions surrounding the team before training camp?
The Trail Blazers will look to build off of their surprising 2015-16 campaign by trying to live up to expectations in the coming season. Portland’s roster didn’t suffer nearly the same amount of turnover as it did in the previous summer, but there are still some interesting questions to be asked about the current group.
Neil Olshey (Trail Blazers GM) has transformed a team with virtually no expectations into a squad that sits near the top of the league in committed salary. Opposing teams visiting Portland will no longer be caught off guard by a mix of fresh faces, so the road will be much tougher for this version of the Trail Blazers. Damian Lillard has thrived in both scenarios, but it will be up to his other teammates to react accordingly to the heightened stakes.
Terry Stotts has never had a team this talented from top to bottom during his tenure with the Trail Blazers. The increased depth will certainly help in the heart of the season, but internal struggle might appear in regards to playing time. The battle for minutes begins in training camp, and a few positions appear to be more contentious than others.
These are just a few examples of questions that surround the team before the preseason gets underway. RCP will now take a look at a few major topics that will come up before the season unfolds.
Golden State Warriors (now with the Portland Trail Blazers)center Festus Ezeli (31). Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Can the Big Guys Get Healthy?
One of the biggest areas that the Trail Blazers intended to improve upon this past summer was their interior defense. After striking out on a few big name players, they landed Festus Ezeli from the Golden State Warriors. Along with Ezeli, Olshey managed to retain Meyers Leonard on a 4-year extension.
Ezeli’s addition came with obvious risk, as he has struggled with injuries since joining the NBA. Despite being on a team friendly contract, it was fairly disappointing to hear that the reserve center received an injection of bone marrow aspirate in late August. While he figures to be ready by the start of the season, it already appears that Rip City is curbing their expectations for their newest addition.
While not entirely the same, Leonard is rehabbing an injury of his own. A shoulder injury ended his season prematurely in 2015-16, but he seems to be on schedule to return before the start of the season.
Both players will fill important roles for the Trail Blazers moving forward, so getting them back to full strength is imperative. Nobody can protect the rim like Ezeli, and no other big man can spread the floor like Leonard. Getting them meaningful reps before the start of the season might be a reach – hoping they make it through team activities without a setback will be the real situation facing Portland.
Portland Trail Blazers forward Maurice Harkless (4). Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
Who Starts at Small Forward?
The Trail Blazers have received some heat for their spending spree over the summer. A large majority of that money was spent on adding/retaining players on the wing. Allen Crabbe and Maurice Harkless will return to the team with sizable raises (especially Crabbe). Evan Turner and his polarizing 70 million dollar contract will also debut in Portland this coming season.
All three players can play multiple positions, but the easiest path to the starting lineup comes at the small forward position. Turner is the likely favorite entering camp, considering that he received an early summer guarantee to get the first crack at the job. The biggest thing Turner lacks compared to the other two is his familiarity with the team and the coaching staff.
Each player comes with their own set of pro’s and con’s. Crabbe isn’t a distributor like Turner is, which is going to be a bigger deal after the Clippers suffocated the starting backcourt for long stretches in the playoffs. Turner is an inept shooter from long range, so he is going to do very little to keep the opposing defense out of the lane. Harkless has been an enigma for most of his NBA career, but he can prove that the final months of last season weren’t a fluke by performing well in training camp.
There is a real chance that this position won’t be decided before the season starts, which should make for some interesting storylines over the course of the next several weeks.
Luis Montero is the only returning player from last year’s team, but he has done very little to impress over the summer. He will be competing for a spot in the deepest unit on the roster, as the current guard rotation is even more talented than last year.
Montero’s biggest task will be to prove that he is a better investment than rookie Tim Quarterman. The former LSU guard is younger, has comparable size, and he might be a better ball-handler. Whoever shows the most hustle and commits the fewest amount of mistakes will likely win this battle.
Grant Jerrett and Greg Stiemsma make up the other half of the quartet competing for the final spot. As we mentioned in the first slide, the post rotation has some medical questions entering training camp. Both these bigs will have an opportunity to run with the second unit (possibly the first) in practice due to vacancies created by injury. Either one of these players could provide the Trail Blazers with an emergency option incase there is a setback.