Projections On The Portland Trail Blazers Rotation

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There are 48 minutes in an NBA game, and five players on the court at a time. This leaves each team with 240 minutes to spread across the roster. With 15 players on the roster, and 13 on the active roster each game, it is hard for coaches to figure out how to come up with the winning equation with their rotation.

Less than a week away from training camp, I’m gonna take a deep dive into the Blazers projected rotation for the upcoming season.

A few qualifiers to begin:

  1. Coach Terry Stotts likes to use 8-9 man rotations. With that being said, I want to project more than 9 people to play. I will project the active 12 or 13 players to play some minutes, albeit some a very minimal amount of minutes.
  2. The 15 man roster isn’t 100% set. I am going into this write-up under the assumption that Anthony Morrow will be the training camp player to make the roster, and round out the roster.
  3. I will put players in multiple positions. For instance, I see C.J. McCollum playing both shooting guard and point guard for stretches of time. So when you see that I have McCollum only playing 26 minutes as a shooting guard, don’t freak out. I will also have him playing 8 minutes as the point guard, totaling 34 minutes per game.

Point Guard

Damian Lillard – 35 minutes

C.J. McCollum – 8 minutes

Shabazz Napier – 5 minutes

This is the least controversial position on the roster. There is absolutely no debate as to who deserves minutes here. Lillard comes into his 6th season with career averages of 22.4 points, 4 rebounds, and 6.2 assists 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 Tuner on the court, but Lillard will technically still be the point guard on the floor.

McCollum at point guard when Lillard comes off the court is always very exciting. McCollum has gotten better running the offense every season he has been in the league. Over the past 2 seasons, McCollum has averaged almost 4 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-pt field goal %, effective shooting %). 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

C.J. McCollum – 26 minutes

Evan Turner – 22 minutes

Like I said above, McCollum is a stud 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% from the field, 42% from beyond the arc, and 91% 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 back courts in basketball

This projection of 22 minutes for Evan Turner will likely be one of the more controversial ones that I write. Hold tight, let me try to convince you how good Turner can be for this team. Turner was the target of a lot of criticism in Portland last year. He was new in Stotts’ offense, he was lost on the depth chart behind Allen Crabbe to start the season, and he missed 17 games with a wrist injury. Give Turner, a 9-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 3 point shooter, last year he shot 26% from beyond the arc. He was dreadful. Turner will live from the mid-range. Put Turner on the court with Nurkic underneath, and a shooter or two around the arc, and that midrange will open right 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. Give Turner another year in Portland before you really give up on him.

Small Forward

Maurice Harkless – 28 minutes

Al-Farouq Aminu – 14 minutes

Evan Turner – 6 minutes

I am all in on Harkless this year! Harkless is entering his 6th season in the league and is only 24 years old. Harkless has the 3rd highest VORP for any of the returning Blazers. VORP is Value Over Replacement Player. Bascically it puts a number on a player’s overall value compared to a replacement player. A basic replacement-level player is a -2.0. Last year Harkless was a positive 1.5, only lower than Lillard and McCollum on the Blazers. This put Harkless tied at #73 in the entire league, tied with Klay Thompson. Harkless shot 35% from the 3-point line. If Harkless can build off of that, he can become a legitimate two-way star for the Blazers.

Last year Aminu was just not good. He missed a total of 21 games due to injuries and was less than efficient when he was on the court. Offensively he was bad. Like, career worst bad. He shot 39% from the field, 33% from beyond the arc. He averaged 8.7 points and 7.4 rebounds per game in almost 30 minutes. Aminu was brought into Portland as a defensive stopper and was average on defense last year. His defensive rating was 108, third best on the team. However, the experiment as the starting power forward didn’t work. I expect him to play some minutes at power forward this season, but only in small ball lineups.

Turner at the small forward, on the floor with Lillard and McCollum, is one of the lineups that I’m most excited about. Having 3 ball handlers on the floor at a time is something that will give opposing defenders nightmares. 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

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 benefitted more from the presence of Jusuf Nurkic than Vonleh did last season. Before the All-Star break last season Vonleh averaged 3.2 points and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 40.7% 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% from the field. That is a huge improvement. If Vonleh can build on that, he could be the Blazers’ starting power forward of the future.

After missing nearly half the season last season, Davis will be a welcome sight back on the court for the Blazers. Davis is one of the fan favorites in Portland because of his high energy approach off the bench. His rebounding and grit have kept the Blazers in quite a few games the past couple years. Davis will be a welcome spark plug back in the lineup. As much as I like Davis, he is one of the most likely players to lose his entire role this season. There are two young big guys nipping at his heels for playing time, and Davis is in the last year of his deal. If Swanigan or Collins develop into what the front office thinks they can be, Davis is one of the first guys to lose minutes.

Like I covered above, Aminu was very disappointing last year. A lot of the disappointment was stemming from his injury and lack of offensive rhythm, but a lot of it was him playing out of position as the power forward for this team. Time for him to go back to small forward this season, but I still think he will fill a role at power forward at times in small ball lineups. Against a team like the Warriors, I would much rather have Aminu guarding Kevin Durant than Vonleh guarding him.

I have covered the Blazers’ draft pretty extensively. I love everything that the Blazers did in the draft. Swanigan 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. I realize giving him 4 minutes in this rotation is kind of insane. I think that role will grow, but Portland is trying to win games this year and the guys in front of him give the team a better shot. Swanigan will develop and have a chance to 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 Swanigan and Zach Collins.

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 would use to select Lillard. Then 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 2017-2018 Blazers are going to be. Nurkic came into Portland last year and opened everyone’s eyes as to who this Portland team can be with a traditional center down low. Nurkic had fallen out of favor in Denver after being overtaken on the depth chart by Nikola Jokic. The 23 year old center has developed into one of the most intriguing centers in the league. During the offseason Nurkic has slimmed down and focused on his conditioning, leading the way to him playing a larger role for the Blazers. He had never averaged more than 22 minutes a game before coming to Portland. Last year in Portland he averaged 29 minutes. This year I look for that to take a bit of a step forward. Nurkic averaged 15.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in Portland. That is going to be tough to keep up over an 82 game season, but I think that he is just entering his prime.

The Portland fan base loves to hate Leonard. While some of it is warranted, a lot of it is completely insane fandom. This season is the time for Leonard to put it all together. If he cannot, he is likely to lose minutes to Swanigan and Collins. Don’t forget that in the 2014-15 season Leonard shot 51% from the field, 42% from beyond the arc and 94% from the free throw line. This is a guy that can be one of the top shooting centers in the league. Coach Stotts would love to have the floor spread with shooters at every position. Leonard is his best option at center if he wants to have shooters everywhere. It has been very publicized how hard Leonard has worked this summer in L.A. Give Leonard another chance this year before you write him off. I think Leonard could be in line for a career year in Portland.

The NBA season will be a month old before Collins turns 20. With that being said, give him some time. He wasn’t even fully transitioned to the college game when he declared for the NBA Draft. Collins will be a couple year project for the coaching staff but has a crazy amount of potential. I could see Collins struggle to get minutes this season, and Swanigan play more minutes than him despite being drafted lower. Don’t panic. Collins is a defensive center that can shoot from beyond the arc. He has all the tools. It will just take some time to put it all together.

Players to not make the rotation:

Pat Connaughton

Jake Layman

Anthony Morrow

With these three players, I struggled to find a way that they get on the court. The player out of those three that has the best chance to get on the court is Morrow. He offers exactly what Stotts wants from a bench wingman, shooting. Morrow is an elite three point shooter. Unfortunately he doesn’t do much of anything else positively on the court. The other two have shown flashes for the Blazers but they are both quite a few steps behind the guys in the rotation. They each represent depth in the event of an injury or trade in the guys in front of them, but I don’t expect a role for either guy to start the season.

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About Author

Garrett Thornton

Garrett has been a Senior Writer for Oregon Sports News for 4 years. In that time Garrett has primarily covered the Portland Trail Blazers. He has also started his series “Breaking Vegas with Garrett Thornton”, picking NFL games against the spread. Along with his coverage of the Blazers and NFL, Garrett covers Oregon Ducks football. 

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