Who will start for the Blazers? Projecting Portland's rotation

The panel talks about the most interesting position battles as the Blazers prepare for the start of training camp.

PORTLAND, Ore. — With media day Monday and the Portland Trail Blazers' first practice on Tuesday, it's time for a deep dive into the projected rotation for the upcoming season.

A few qualifiers to begin.

Coach Terry Stotts likes to use eight- or nine-man rotations. This article will have projections for more than nine players, though, projecting the 12 or 13 players on the active roster who are likely to play some minutes, albeit some a very minimal amount.

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The 15-man roster isn’t 100 percent set. This is article is written with the assumption that Anthony Morrow will be the training camp player to make the roster and round out the roster.

In this article, players will occupy multiple positions. For instance, C.J. McCollum will likely play both shooting guard and point guard for stretches of time. So when you see that McCollum only playing 26 minutes as a shooting guard in these projections, don’t freak out. He will also play eight minutes as the point guard, totaling 34 minutes per game.

Point guard

  • Damian Lillard: 35 minutes
  • CJ McCollum: 8 minutes
  • Shabazz Napier: 5 minutes

This is the least controversial position on the roster. There is no debate as to who deserves minutes here. Lillard comes into his sixth season with career averages of 22.4 points, 6.2 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game. He is the unquestioned leader of this basketball team and deserves every minute on the court he can possibly play. There will be stretches when Lillard plays off of the ball with McCollum or Evan Turner on the court, but Lillard will technically still be the point guard on the floor.

When Lillard comes off the court, McCollum at point guard is always very exciting. McCollum has gotten better running the offense every season he has been in the league. Over the past two seasons, McCollum has averaged almost four assists per game. He is very dynamic with the ball in his hands and is one of the elite shot creaters in the league.

Napier appeared in 53 games for the Blazers last year and posted career highs in all shooting categories (field goal, 3-point field goal and effective shooting percentages). There is just something to playing in this Blazers backcourt that helps you see the ball go through the basket. Napier is a good insurance plan in case one of the other two has to miss any time, but won’t play a major role if both Lillard and McCollum are healthy.

Shooting guard

  • CJ McCollum: 26 minutes
  • Evan Turner: 22 minutes

McCollum is a star and needs to be on the floor for the Blazers. When he is on the court with Lillard, McCollum will be at the shooting guard position and spend a lot of time playing off the ball. He moves without the ball really well. He has developed a knack for setting up screens and finding a way to get open. Last year, McCollum almost joined the 50/40/90 club. He averaged 48 percent from the field, 42 percent from beyond the arc and 91 percent from the free throw line. If those numbers continue, he will garner All-Star talk. McCollum paired with Lillard makes up one of the most offensively dynamic backcourts in basketball

This projection of 22 minutes for Evan Turner may be controversial with Blazers fans. But Turner, who was the target of a lot of criticism last season in Portland, can be a valuable contributor for the Blazers. Last season, Turner was new in Stotts’ offense and didn't play well to start the season. He also missed 17 games with a wrist injury. Give Turner, a nine-year veteran, a full training camp with this team and he will fit this offense much better. No, Turner is never going to be a good 3-point shooter; last year he was dreadful, shooting 26 percent from beyond the arc, and he's only a 30 percent shooter for his career. But he's a solid midrange shooter who can create his own shot and create for others. Put Turner on the court with Nurkic underneath and a shooter or two around the arc and that midrange will open up for Turner. Turner is one of the more crafty ball handlers on the wing. He can slow the game down a bit and create his own shot, something that is needed on occasion when the momentum shifts in a game. Blazers fans should give Turner another year in Portland before giving up on him.

Small forward

  • Maurice Harkless – 28 minutes
  • Al-Farouq Aminu – 14 minutes
  • Evan Turner – 6 minutes

Harkless seems primed for a breakout season. The Blazers' projected starter at small forward, Harkless is entering his sixth season and is only 24 years old. Harkless had the third-highest VORP for any of the returning Blazers. VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) assesses the value of a player’s overall impact compared to a replacement player. A basic replacement-level player is a -2.0. Last season, Harkless was a positive 1.5, higher than every player on the Blazers roster other than Lillard and McCollum. Harkless was tied for No. 73 in the NBA in VORP, tied with Klay Thompson. Last season, Harkless improved as a 3-point shooter, making 35 percent of his attempts. If Harkless can build off of that, he can become a legitimate two-way threat for the Blazers.

Aminu regressed last season. He missed a total of 21 games due to injuries and was inefficient when he was on the court. On offense, he shot 39 percent from the field and 33 percent from beyond the arc, averaging 8.7 points and 7.4 rebounds per game in almost 30 minutes. Aminu is labeled as a defensive stopper, but advanced stats were divided on his impact last season. His defensive rating was a mediocre 106, though he ranked second in the league among small forwards in defensive real plus-minus at 3.13. Aminu played 95 percent of his minutes last season at power forward. He may need to play more minutes at small forward this season.

Turner at the small forward, on the floor with Lillard and McCollum, is an effective lineup. Last season, when those three were on the court together, they had a positive net rating of 1.5.  Having three ball handlers on the floor at a time is something that can create trouble for opposing defenses. Turner has average size for a small forward and will struggle defensively against some of the bigger and stronger small forwards in the league, but he will be at small forward for offensive purposes.

Power forward

  • Noah Vonleh: 22 minutes
  • Ed Davis: 16 minutes
  • Al-Farouq Aminu: 6 minutes
  • Caleb Swanigan: 4 minutes

Editor's note: This article was written before Vonleh injured his shoulder. He is expected to miss all of training camp and the first couple weeks of the regular season.

Vonleh is heading into the most important season of his basketball career. The 22-year-old power forward is in the final year of his rookie contract. No other player on the team benefited more from the presence of Jusuf Nurkic than Vonleh last season. Before the All-Star break, Vonleh averaged 3.2 points and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 40.7 percent from the field. After the All-Star break with Nurkic on the team, Vonleh averaged 6.7 points and 7.2 rebounds while shooting 57.5 percent from the field. If Vonleh can build on that, he could establish himself as the Blazers’ starting power forward of the future.

After missing 36 games last season because of a shoulder injury, Davis will be a welcome sight back on the court for the Blazers. Davis is one of a fan favorite in Portland because of his rebounding, grit and high-energy approach off the bench. As valuable as he could be to the Blazers this season, Davis' role on the team could also be replaced by either of the Blazers' two rookies. Davis is in the final year of his contract and if Caleb Swanigan or Zach Collins develop into what the front office believes they can be, Davis could be one of the first players to lose minutes.

A lot of the disappointment with Aminu's performance last season stemmed from his injury and lack of offensive rhythm, but a lot of it may have been him playing out of position at power forward. Aminu was more effective in his first season with the Blazers, when he played the majority of his minutes at small forward. This season, Aminu should go back to small forward. He will still probably have a small role at power forward in Stotts' small-ball lineups.

Swanigan, drafted with the 26th overall pick in the June draft, stole the hearts of Portland fans during summer league when he posted averages of 16.1 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.4 steals per game. While that was a great start to his NBA career, he still has a lot to prove. Some Blazers fans may want to see a larger role for Swanigan than is outlined here, but Portland is trying to win games this year and the guys in front of Swanigan give the team a better shot. Swanigan has a chance to develop and take minutes from the guys in front of him. It is a tough balance for coaches. Young guys need minutes to develop, but the more veteran guys give you a better chance of winning games. This is a storyline to watch this season with both Swanigan and Collins.

VIDEO: 3-on-3: Expectations for Jusuf Nurkic

 

Center

  • Jusuf Nurkic: 30 minutes
  • Meyers Leonard: 14 minutes
  • Zach Collins: 4 minutes

In 2012, the Blazers traded Gerald Wallace for a first-round draft pick that the team used to select Lillard. Last year, the Blazers sent Mason Plumlee and a second-round pick to Denver for Nurkic and a first-round pick. Those two trades define who the 2017-18 Blazers will be. Nurkic came into Portland last year and opened everyone’s eyes as to what this team can accomplish with a productive traditional center. The Blazers' 23-year-old center, who averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds per game last season in Portland, is one of the most intriguing big men in the league. During the offseason, Nurkic slimmed down and focused on his conditioning, which should help him take on a larger role in Portland. Last season, Nurkic averaged 29 minutes per game during his 20 games with Portland after never averaging more than 22 minutes per game during his career. He should be able to maintain or exceed those minutes this season.

This season is the time for Leonard to put it all together. If he cannot, he is likely to lose minutes to Swanigan or Collins. Don't forget that during the 2014-15 season, Leonard shot 51 percent from the field, 42 percent from beyond the arc and 94 percent from the free-throw line. Leonard has the potential to be one of the top shooting centers in the league. Leonard is Stotts' best option at center if he wants to run out a lineup full of shooters. Leonard's offseason work over the summer in Los Angeles has been well-publicized. Leonard deserves one more shot at fulfilling his potential in Portland.

The NBA season will be a month old before Collins turns 20. He will need time to develop. Collins will likely be a project who is at least a year or two away from contributing for the Blazers. He does have a lot of potential, though. Collins may struggle for playing time this season, and Swanigan might play more minutes despite being drafted lower. Don’t panic. Collins is a defensive center that can shoot from beyond the arc. He has the tools. It will just take some time for him to put it all together.

Breakdown of minutes

Lillard: 35

McCollum: 34

Nurkic: 30

Turner: 28

Harkless: 28

Vonleh: 22

Aminu: 20

Davis: 16

Leonard: 14

Napier: 5

Swanigan: 4

Collins: 4

Players out of the rotation

  • Pat Connaughton
  • Jake Layman
  • Anthony Morrow

It will be difficult for these player to get on the court, though of the three, Morrow has the best chance at a spot in the rotation. He provides what Stotts wants from a wing player off the bench: shooting. The veteran guard is an elite 3-point shooter, making 42 percent of his attempts over his career. Morrow is not a good defender, though, and offers little more than 3-point shooting. Connaughton and Layman have shown flashes for the Blazers but they are both a few steps behind the guys in the rotation. They each represent depth in the event of an injury or trade.

Oregon Sports News is a KGW News partner.

© 2017 KGW-TV


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