August 28, 2018, 3:15 pm
Some sense of continuity has been a constant for the Portland Trail Blazers over the past three seasons, and at first glance, that seems to be the case as 2018-19 fast approaches. Terry Stotts returns the entire starting five and two key reserves from a group that went 49-33 a year ago, earning the three seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Irrespective of how the Blazers fared in the postseason, many teams across the league undoubtedly envy that type of year-to-year familiarity. Portland might not be a viable championship contender, but at least Damian Lillard and company know who they are, what they can do and how to do it, which is a luxury not afforded to several other teams in the West who will be fighting for a playoff berth come spring.
But look beyond their top seven players, and significant roster churn at the bottom of Stotts’ rotation becomes readily apparent. Last season, the Blazers’ 10-most used players accounted for 94.1 percent of the team’s total minutes played. While each of Portland’s six top minute-getters are returning, players ranked seventh, eighth and ninth in terms of court time will play elsewhere this season. Zach Collins, tenth in minutes played as a rookie, figures to be the biggest benefactor of those departures among the Blazers’ stable of young incumbents. Who else will reap the most fruitful reward from Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton and Ed Davis – sixth, seventh and eighth in total minutes played last season, respectively – moving on remains to be seen, and is a factor that could loom larger than any other when it comes to Portland building on the relative success it enjoyed in 2017-18.
Six quintets notched a net rating of +10 or higher for the Blazers last season. Of those lineups, four included two of Napier, Connaughton or Davis, and the remaining pair featured at least one of them. The presence of departed players in Portland’s best units hardly means it’s time to panic. Napier, Connaughton and Davis, effective as they were to varying degrees, certainly aren’t the types to decide the viability of a given lineup all by themselves. They’re parts of the machine rather than cogs.
Still, there’s no assuring the Blazers bench runs as smoothly as it did last season simply by plugging and playing replacements. Napier, Connaughton and Davis accounted for 22.7 percent of Portland’s game time last season, a ratio that probably doesn’t do their impact justice. There were multiple occasions in 2017-18 when those guys, together or individually, changed the course of a game before their more heralded teammates finished it off. Napier and Davis sometimes closed games, too.
We’ve already explored the possibility of Collins playing most of his minutes behind Jusuf Nurkic instead of next to him, and explained why Seth Curry, despite missing all of last season, is worth the risk of his potential reward – both as a backup to Lillard and C.J. McCollum, and playing beside them in three-guard lineups. Barring injury, they should lead the Blazers’ reserves in minutes by a significant margin. It’s the remaining two or three players making up Stotts’ rotation who are both unknown, and, tellingly, poised to play the biggest roles of their careers.
Wade Baldwin is the safest bet among those remaining on the roster to be a consistent contributor. Though not a pure point guard by any means, the former lottery pick is nonetheless the most seamless fit to pick up minutes vacated by Napier, not a pass-first floor general in his own right. But his ability to play on the ball and soak up minutes when Lillard or McCollum sit isn’t the trait that gives Baldwin an inside track on earning a spot in the rotation. He’s Portland’s best and most disruptive defender of opposing guards, by far, and has the requisite length to check smaller wings in a pinch. Just as importantly, Baldwin exhibited his keen ability to create tempo in Summer League, always pushing the ball up the floor with his own dribble or pitching it ahead to teammates, creating efficient looks early in the shot clock – key, especially when Lillard is resting, for a team that finished dead last in pace a year ago.
Deciding the final player or players likely to be in the rotation from the season’s outset is far more difficult. Meyers Leonard has the experience, and could earn minutes simply by virtue of being the Blazers’ best option at backup five if the team prefers to split Collins between power forward and center. The same size and positional advantage applies to Caleb Swanigan, though he showed little in Summer League to suggest he should be a regular in the NBA. Unlike Leonard, Swanigan doesn’t possess the shooting range necessary to space the floor, and seems without a home defensively in the modern NBA. If a fourth true big man is in the rotation, basically, it will almost definitely be Leonard. Absent some major skill development, Swanigan may never even become a replacement-level player, let alone one worth a late first-round pick.
Whether Leonard is earmarked for a spot in the rotation shouldn’t affect Jake Layman‘s chances to finally make his mark during the regular season. If he shoots from deep nearly as well as he did in Las Vegas, where he connected 54.2 percent of his 3-point attempts, it will be impossible for Stotts to keep him off the floor. The presence of Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless, both capable of checking up to four positions, could make life easier on Layman defensively, too. He’s not quite quick enough laterally to defend dangerous perimeter players, and thus best suited to matching up with opposing power forwards. Even if Layman proves a net negative on that side of the ball, though, his ability to knock down open triples is what will most decide the role he plays for Portland this season.
The only other player worth mentioning here is rookie second-rounder Gary Trent, Jr., who Neil Olshey said over the summer is more ready to contribute than first-round pick Anfernee Simons. That didn’t necessarily seem the case in Summer League, but it would still be remiss to believe Simons, playing high school basketball just last fall, is poised for anything more than a starring role in the G-League as a rookie. The case for Trent is more sensible. He’s a sturdy 6-foot-5, and moved his feet better than anticipated defensively in Summer League. If the regular season deems Layman’s shooting binge a summer blip, Trent should get an opportunity to emerge as the Blazers’ fifth guard.
Portland has more confidence in its player-development program than almost any team in basketball, and rightfully so. The list of fringe players who have rehabilitated their careers with the Blazers over the past few years is long, and now includes Napier and Davis. They’ve received meaningful production from second-round picks like Allen Crabbe and Connaughton, too. But the past doesn’t always inform the future, and those now asked to pick up the slack of Portland’s departed bench players have little to no NBA success to fall back on. Collins’ rookie season, promising as it was to an extent, didn’t portend imminent or even likely stardom, and Curry has no more than one season to his name as a true impact player. It wasn’t even a year ago, remember, that Baldwin was released by the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Blazers return their top six players from last year. For some select teams, those with an abundance of top-tier talent, perhaps that lack of turnover would be enough to render concerns about the bottom of the rotation moot. But not Portland. The whole of the Blazers must be greater than the sum of their parts for them to make noise in a loaded Western Conference, and that won’t come to pass unless Collins, Curry and more replicate the yeoman’s work provided by Napier, Connaughton and Davis last season.
Is that an especially tall task? Hardly, but it’s still one that could have an outsized effect on Portland’s prospects in 2018-19.