4 takeways from Blazers' preseason

Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic said the Blazers' defense last season was "trash" and said it needs to get better. KGW's Orlando Sanchez, Nate Hanson and Jared Cowley talk about whether the Blazers' defense can crack the Top 10.

PORTLAND, Ore. — For the purposes of any reasonable analysis, the Blazers' preseason is effectively over.

Portland still has two preseason games left, but head coach Terry Stotts has said he hopes to give more rest to his regular rotation players. In addition, the Blazers don't want to reveal too much during Wednesday's game against the Suns on Wednesday, because Portland opens the regular season against Phoenix in one week.

Wins and losses don't matter during preseason, but that doesn't mean intelligent analysis can't be gleaned from the games. Kevin Pelton, an NBA analyst for ESPN and one of the foremost experts in advanced analytics, said there is predictive value in preseason performance on the team and individual level, though unsurprisingly, it's less accurate than other predictive measures, likely because of sample size, rotation decisions and roster composition.

With that in mind, here are four takeaways from the Blazers' preseason performance.

Portland's Big 3 is good

To nobody’s surprise, Portland’s three best players during the preseason have been Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. They are the only players averaging double figures in points for the Blazers.

Lillard is averaging about 21 points, three rebounds, four assists and a steal per game in 24 minutes. Nurkic is averaging about 14 points, six rebounds and more than a steal and block per game in 21 minutes. McCollum is averaging about 14 points, three rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block per game in about 28 minutes.

It’s preseason, but the per-36-minute averages for the Blazers’ Big 3 are fun to look at. The numbers for Lillard and Nurkic, in particular, are stunning. Per 36 minutes, Lillard is averaging 31 points, seven assists, five rebounds and two steals; Nurkic is averaging 24 points, 10 rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks; and McCollum is averaging 19 points, four rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block.

Improved defense

The Blazers have played impressive defense throughout the preseason schedule, allowing 101 points per game and holding teams to 41.4 percent shooting from the field.

The most promising development on defense has been the performances of Lillard and McCollum. Last season, Lillard’s defensive rating was 108.9 and McCollum’s was 107.9, according to NBA.com. Defensive rating measures the amount of points the opponent scores per 100 possessions when a player is on the court, so a lower statistic is better. For example, NBA Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green’s defensive rating was 99.3.

During four preseason games this year, McCollum’s defensive rating is 95.1 and Lillard’s is 100.3. This may look like nothing more than preseason fool’s gold, but the defensive rating for the two players during last year’s preseason wasn’t so hot. McCollum’s was 107.7 and Lillard’s was 105.3.

Something seems different on defense for the Blazers. Portland’s defensive rating this preseason is 93.5. Last season, it was 101.2 during the preseason and 107.8 during the regular season.

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Harkless vs. Turner

The small forward starting position will likely come down to Evan Turner or Maurice Harkless. The player whose skills set offers the best complement to the other players in the starting lineup will start, though both players will likely play up to 30 minutes per game.

Both players have been great during preseason. Turner has been the team’s most effective defender, with a 73.9 defensive rating. Harkless hasn’t been far behind, with a 90.2 rating, fourth-best on the team.

On offense, Harkless has averaged about nine points, three rebounds and two assists in 21 minutes per game. He’s been an efficient scorer, making 58 percent of his shots, and has made good on his season goal to improve as a free-throw shooter, making 71 percent from the line.

Turner has averaged about eight points, three rebounds and three assists in 24 minutes. He has also shot the ball well, making 44 percent of his field goals, 50 percent of his 3-point attempts and 75 percent of his free throws. Turner’s shot selection has been impressive, taking the majority of his shots in the paint and midrange area, where he is most effective, while limiting his 3-point attempts to about one per game.

Aminu vs. Swanigan

Because of his defense and ability to stretch the floor, Al-Farouq Aminu could be Stotts' choice to start at power forward. However, Aminu hasn’t played well in preseason, which leaves that position an open question a week before the Blazers’ first regular-season game.

Aminu is averaging about five points and six rebounds in 19 minutes. His defense has been solid, with a defensive rating of 100.7, but he’s shooting the ball poorly (31 percent) and isn’t making 3-pointers (20 percent).

Fan favorite Caleb Swanigan continues to impress. The rookie’s defense has been better than expected (87.3 defensive rating, third-best on the team) and he’s leading the team in rebounding with 7.5 per game. He's also averaging about nine points per game while shooting the ball well, making 48 percent of his field goals, 40 percent of his 3-point attempts and 70 percent of his free throws.

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Ed Davis probably won’t start at power forward, but he has played well during the preseason and will likely play most of the backup minutes at center behind Nurkic, though he could be pushed for minutes in that role by rookie Zach Collins, who has fared better than expected.

Davis is averaging three points and four rebounds in 15 minutes, while Collins has averaged about eight points and four rebounds in 17 minutes in the preseason. Both players have defended well, with Collins sporting a defensive rating of 91.6 and Davis at 96.2.

Jared Cowley is a digital producer at KGW. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

© 2017 KGW-TV


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