PORTLAND, Ore. — Media day has come and gone, the team already has three practices in the books and the first preseason game is five days away. It's time to check in on the Portland Trail Blazers with another edition of 3-on-3, a weekly KGW feature.
Every Thursday, three members of the KGW sports team will answer three questions about the Blazers. You can join the conversation on Facebook during a live chat with our panel every Thursday afternoon at 3.
This week's questions (below) focus on the first preseason game, the Blazers defense and the conclusion of the Carmelo Anthony saga.
Meet our panelists
- Nate Hanson is a digital producer who contributes to KGW.com’s coverage of the Blazers, Ducks, Beavers and high school sports.
- Jared Cowley is a digital media producer who writes about the Blazers for KGW.com. Before he came to KGW, Jared wrote about the Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors as a sports editor at two daily newspapers.
- Orlando Sanchez is the sports anchor and reporter for KGW News, Sports Sunday and Friday Night Flights. Orlando has covered multiple NBA Finals, NCAA Basketball Tournaments and World Series.
1. The Blazers first preseason game is five days away. You can’t glean too much from preseason competition, but what are you most interested in seeing when the Blazers take the Moda Center court Tuesday night against the Phoenix Suns (7 p.m., CSNNW, NBATV)?
Nate: I’m interested to see who goes out and takes control of the starting power forward battle, especially after what was said at media day. With Noah Vonleh out to start the season, it’s going to come down to Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis and Caleb Swanigan. Aminu probably has the best chance to win the starting position but it looks like Davis, and even Swanigan, could end up winning the starting job. During media day, Davis was blatant that his goal was to win the starting job in camp. And several Blazers, including Damian Lillard and Maurice Harkless, were complimentary of Swanigan saying he could step in right now and play. I think it’s the most interesting storyline of training camp and I can’t wait to see how those three play in the preseason.
Orlando: There are a couple of things I’m excited to see. The first, seeing the Blazers two first-round draft picks. Sure, Caleb Swanigan killed it in summer league, but we’ll get to see the talent level rise. How will he handle going up against tougher competition? Same goes for Zach Collins. He had a disappointing summer league and I want to see how he responds. The other thing to watch out for throughout the preseason — not just the first game against the Suns — is the different roster combinations. Damian Lillard even joked that Wednesday’s practice was the first time he’s played on the same team as CJ McCollum since last year’s playoffs. Coach Terry Stotts is going to mix it up.
Jared: The starting lineup for the first preseason game probably won't mean a thing in terms of which players start once the regular season begins. Head coach Terry Stotts will probably try out several different starting lineups during the preseason. Still, it will be interesting to see who gets the first call, especially at the two forward positions. Stotts said at media day that Aminu will play more small forward this season than last, which means the small forward position could come down to Aminu, Harkless or Evan Turner. All three will probably play 25-30 minutes per game this season, but which player fits best as a starter next to Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic? At power forward, on-court observation of Ed Davis and Caleb Swanigan will be instructive. Stotts said after Tuesday's practice that it looks like the old Ed Davis is back. If that's true, Davis will be a contributor for this team. But is he a good fit next to Nurkic in the starting lineup? What will Swanigan look like playing against NBA big men like Tyson Chandler, Marquese Chriss and Jared Dudley?
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2. At media day, Jusuf Nurkic said the Blazers’ defense last season was “trash” and that the Blazers need to play more like the Bad Boys, the rough-and-tumble Detroit Pistons championship teams of the late 1980s and early 90s. The Blazers ranked No. 21 in defense in the NBA last season, though they ranked in the Top 10 in defense after the All-Star break (coinciding with Nurkic’s arrival). What is Portland’s defensive potential this season? Is Nurkic’s “Bad Boys” goal realistic?
Orlando: Jusuf Nurkic couldn’t have put it any better. The defense was bad before he got here. The emphasis has clearly been on defense at training camp. Every player talks about defense. Just like last year, the Blazers will be a better defensive team with Nurkic on the floor. Without him is the question. The Blazers also lost Allen Crabbe this offseason, who added some length to the perimeter. There’s no doubt Swanigan and Nurkic are “Bad Boys” — heck, I could even see Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh in the trenches too. I’ll temper expectations though. I’ll split the difference between what they were (No. 21) to what they became (Top 10) in the defensive rankings.
Jared: It depends on Lillard and McCollum. Both players are coming off the worst defensive seasons of their careers. Portland has good, reliable defenders on its roster in Aminu, Nurkic and Vonleh. Turner, Harkless and Davis can be strong defenders when motivated and healthy. Even with good defenders around them, because of how often they are on the court, unless Lillard and McCollum improve, the Blazers' overall defensive ceiling will be mediocrity. If Portland wants to become a Top-10 defense, Lillard and McCollum must improve as individual defenders. There is precedent that it can be done. The last time Portland ranked in the Top 10 in defense was in 2015. That team had good defensive players in Wes Matthews, Robin Lopez, LaMarcus Aldridge and Nic Batum. But it was also Lillard's best season, statistically, on defense. His defensive rating was 102.7, far better than what he has averaged during his other four seasons (107.1). McCollum, albeit in a reserve role, also played the best defense of his career with a defensive rating of 97.7, a notable improvement over the average of his other three seasons (106.0). The answer is clear: Lillard and McCollum have to be better.
Nate: I think Portland can rank in the top half of the league defensively if Nurkic remains healthy but I don’t expect them to be one of the best in the league. Nurkic is a game-changer for the Blazers when he’s on the floor because he provides a physical presence at the rim. With the Blazers, Nurkic averaged about two blocks per game and altered many others. The combination of a healthy Nurkic and Aminu, who can defend stretch 4s, will be the strength of the Blazers defense. As far as the Bad Boys go, I think Nurkic can live up to that physical mantra but I don’t think the rest of the roster is suited for that. Head coach Terry Stotts talked about how the Blazers need to be more aggressive in forcing turnovers, so maybe look for the Blazers guards to take a few more gambles defending ball-handlers and anticipating passes.
3. The Knicks finally traded Carmelo Anthony, but not to the Blazers. Anthony spurned Portland, accepting a trade to Oklahoma City instead. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Knicks remained in contact with the Blazers until the end, but Anthony refused to accept a trade to the Northwest. What would you say to Blazers fans, distraught after watching yet another star player reject their city and team?
Jared: To Blazers fans distraught that neither Paul George nor Carmelo Anthony will be playing for Portland this year, there's not much to say that will make you feel better. Lillard and McCollum did their best to recruit both players (especially Anthony) and general manager Neil Olshey did his best to put sensible, appealing trade packages on the table. Perhaps it’s more painful because it felt like the Blazers had a real chance at acquiring both players at different times this summer, but ultimately came up short. There are some positives to take from this. Lillard and McCollum both showed they are willing to recruit other star players to Portland. And Olshey proved again that he is willing to pursue star players. Eventually those efforts may produce fruit. The Blazers still have two star players on their roster in Lillard and McCollum and a third potential star in Nurkic. Those three players are all fun to watch and should ensure the Blazers are always competitive. Don't give up hope. At media day, Olshey was optimistic. "Things are not over yet,’’ he said. “We have the biggest trade exception in the league; we are still aggressive.’’ Stay tuned.
Nate: I would tell Blazers fans you have to look at each player individually. This offseason, the Blazers were active in trying to acquire Paul George in addition to Anthony. In the case of George, it appears Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard didn’t think Portland offered the best deal for George. Blazers fans shouldn’t take offense to that. In the case of Anthony, Blazers fans who wanted Anthony in town should feel frustrated. The Blazers worked for months to convince him to join Rip City. But the Pacific Northwest, and Portland market, was obviously not appealing to him. But that’s the reality many Blazers fans understand and it’s probably never going to change. What I’d tell Blazers fans is to focus on the two, and potentially three stars you have here right now. Lillard and McCollum are signed long-term and Nurkic says he wants to stay as well. So once stars are here, they’re happy. Not all organizations have that.
Orlando: It was fun to follow all the movement this offseason. At times, it was more fun to watch than the actual season. The bummer for Rip City is that the offseason didn’t involve the Blazers — as much as some hoped it would. One solution: Neil Olshey talked about making Portland a destination, a place people seek out. Seeing a star like Damian Lillard play in Portland helps too. Not every situation is the same and it’s not just about geography. CJ McCollum mentioned that some players want to play with their friends, some want to win, and some want to make money. Blazers fans are used to this and I think it’s going to take a few more wins before players/free agents start to bite. That’s why the draft and trades are so important for this franchise.
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