The puzzle that is the 2017-2018 Trail Blazers roster will begin to be sorted out Tuesday in the preseason opener against Phoenix.
Coach Terry Stotts says he has three starters locked in for the October 18 season opener at the Suns – Damian Lillard at point guard, CJ McCollum at shooting guard and Jusuf Nurkic at center – but the starting forward spots and the rest of the rotation are up for grabs.
“I have a pretty good idea some of the lineups we will try, but I’m not sure what will be the final product,’’ McCollum said. “Coach isn’t set in stone; he’s going to let guys play for minutes, earn minutes, or lose minutes.’’
The small forward competition is between Maurice Harkless, Evan Turner and Al-Farouq Aminu while the power forward starting spot will be between Aminu, Ed Davis, Harkless, Caleb Swanigan, Meyers Leonard and Zach Collins. Noah Vonleh, who is nursing a shoulder injury, will also be in the equation when he returns in early November.
Both Lillard and McCollum said they are most interested in how the power forward position shakes out, and Stotts said the starting power forward is probably his biggest decision.
“We have a lot of very good players at that position – a lot of them have similar skillsets,’’ Stotts said. “So, seeing which ones complement each other. I like the versatility of those guys and the different combinations, so it’s going to be interesting over the preseason games to see how they play with each other.’’
Stotts said he intends to play everybody on Tuesday, except injured players Shabazz Napier (quad), Vonleh (shoulder) and CJ Wilcox (knee). He said nobody will play more than a half and one of his main concerns is limiting the playing time of Lillard and McCollum, especially without Napier being able to handle point guard duties.
The players say several factors go into what they think should be a starting unit and the second unit.
Harkless, who has started 83 of his 156 games in Portland the past two seasons, said continuity is important. In that regard, the best lineup would probably be Harkless at small forward and Aminu at power forward.
“Any time you have a group that has been together for some time, they can only get better,’’ Harkless said. “You guys watch, (he and Aminu) are able to do so many different things defensively. We can switch pretty much anything between us two. We both do a really good job communicating with each other so we can help other guys. We pretty much got each other’s back in any situation, and that’s important, especially defensively.’’
Stotts, who ended the 2015-2016 season and began last season with Harkless and Aminu as the starting forwards, said their track record will be noted.
“Playing Mo and Chief together has been good in the past. The last two years that has been a good combination,’’ Stotts said. “So we will take that into account.’’
Stotts has favored the Harkless/Aminu combination in the past because he likes their defensive versatility in being able to switch interchangeably.
However, last season, he eventually went to Vonleh as the starting power forward after Aminu had early season injuries to his calf and back.
“Chief got hurt and that kind of changed the dynamics of the season,’’ Stotts said.
Another factor to consider is Turner, who started to find his footing late in January once he was made the starting small forward. Turner took on the opposing team’s point guard defensively, and started getting into more of an offensive rhythm when he broke his hand at Dallas in February.
Turner says he thinks the collective intelligence of units is important when considering lineups, while also looking at whether a unit has an identifying strength.
“You have to have a sure-fire advantage in one area – whether that’s offense or defense,’’ Turner said. “You need to have something that makes that unit go, or something that makes it unique.’’
McCollum said two factors stand out to him when considering the starting lineup: balance and chemistry.
“And guys who are willing to accept roles,’’ McCollum said. “Once you get past that starge, you can pretty much elect whoever you want in those spots. A lot of times, it’s not the five best player. Part of maturing and being a man is understanding your role, understanding how you help the team.’’
Stotts said he figures to mix-and-match lineups throughout each game, trying to find the right combinations. Tuesday will be just the start, the first of six before the real season starts.
“There are a lot of different routes we can go,’’ Lillard said.
Tuesday's game: Phoenix at Portland, 7 p.m. (NBCNW).