Breakfast with the Blazers: An overview of what we do, don't know

Breakfast with the Blazers: An overview of what we do, don't know

What has been a productive and borderline impressive preseason for the Trail Blazers comes to a close tonight with an exhibition against Israeli professional club Maccabi Haifa.

Since much of the regulars will rest or play limited minutes, here is a look at what we know, what we think we know, and what we don’t know after this Trail Blazers’ preseason.

WHAT WE KNOW

Rookie Caleb Swanigan is going to play: The No. 26 overall pick looks and acts like he belongs and has brought an edge and toughness on both offense and defense. He is averaging 7.2 points and 7.2 rebounds in 16 minutes and has shown an ability to score inside and outside. Twice he has stood up for himself and held his ground – once against Toronto veteran Serge Ibaka, and Wednesday against Phoenix center Alex Len – both times drawing technicals. He was ejected for his altercation with Len.

“I think if we haven’t already, (we know that) Caleb is not backing down for anybody,’’ Coach Terry Stotts said after the Phoenix game. “And I think we will expect that.’’

Evan Turner is comfortable: There is a tendency to write that Turner is better this season, but it’s not like his skills have improved. He is just more comfortable with the playbook and his teammates and what is expected out of him than he was during his first season in Portland. As a result, Turner has been an incredibly effective weapon for the Blazers this preseason. He has been a beast on the block, posting up opposing guards and either scoring over them or drawing a double team and picking apart the defense with a pass.

He has also been excellent defensively, guarding every position during the preseason. Turner’s defensive rating (74.2) is No. 1 in the NBA during the preseason.

“I think he is just a lot more comfortable now,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “He knows his spots and how to be effective in certain situations. It takes time sometimes, for a guy coming into a new situation, especially a guy coming in who is used to having the ball so much then coming here and not having the ball as much. But I think he’s done a tremendous job adjusting and I think he is only going to get better.’’

Turner this preseason is averaging 8.8 points, 3.4 assists and 3.2 rebounds in 23 minutes while shooting 50 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range (3-of-6).

But the stats don’t show everything. Just by the way he is dribbling, the way he is attacking, the passes he is making, you can tell he is playing free rather than thinking and worrying whether he is doing the right thing.

“He’s just been assertive,’’ Damian Lillard said. “He has been more comfortable having the ball and being in attack mode … He has played really well.’’

Pat Connaughton has earned rotation spot: In August, there was a question whether the Blazers would pick up Connaughton’s $1.4 million option. Two months later, the guard has won a rotation spot with a diverse and effective preseason.

If you still think Connaughton is just a spot-up three-point shooter, you haven’t been watching closely. He has shown the ability to create off the dribble and make mid-range pull ups, he has been an athletic defender who regularly contests shots.

A nice snapshot of Connaughton this preseason was in Los Angeles, during a hotly contested game against the Clippers. He blocked a driving attempt by Lou Williams, then came down and drilled a deep, 27-foot three-pointer with a hand in his face.  

“I’ve always thought very highly of Pat, so I’m happy to see him actually get out there and do it in the flow of action,’’ Lillard said. “He’s always done what he is doing, it just looks better now, look more comfortable. He’s getting things done … making shots, attacking the basketball, getting his hands on the ball. It’s good to see Pat stretch himself, and I guess be a little more impactful on the floor.’’

The Blazers’ defense is much, much better: This might be the biggest development of the preseason, but everyone from writers to coaches to players have been wary of overhyping the Blazers’ defense because, well, it’s preseason.

Still, what the Blazers have shown has been impressive. Very impressive.

The last four opponents have shot below 41 percent, and overall in the preseason, opponents are shooting 40.6 percent. Overall, the Blazers have the 10th best defensive rating in the preseason, and the fourth best net rating in the NBA, behind Houston, Utah and Boston.

After last year’s disaster on the defensive end, the Blazers talked a lot about defense in training camp, and they have backed it up in the preseason.

“I think we have more focus and better communication,’’ Ed Davis said. “I feel if we are a top 15, top 10 defensive team we are going to be well off once the regular season starts, because we know are going to be a top 10 offensive team. On a bad day we are a top 10 team offensively. So as long as we lock in on the defensive end, that’s where we are going to win games.’’

Ed Davis will be backup center: Stotts said before Wednesday’s game in Phoenix that he is viewing Davis as a center, more or less ending any thoughts that Davis would be the opening-night starter at power forward.

Davis has been very effective this preseason and is the clear-cut backup to Jusuf Nurkic at center.

Davis famously set a goal to win the open power forward spot during Media Day, but he said that was more or less something to psyche himself up.

“When I said that, I wasn’t trying to make it a big deal … it was just something I said, so it’s not something I’m disappointed about, or feeling some sort of way, like hurt or anything,’’ Davis said. “It is what it is. The main thing is winning and coach is going to do what is best for the team. There’s going to be all different kinds of lineups on the floor. I just have to be ready each time my number is called.’’

The Big 3 are ready:  The biggest thing we know from preseason – the Big 3 of Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic are ready.

McCollum hasn’t shot the ball as well as he would have liked (35.4 percent from the field) but he has made 11-of-26 three-pointers (42.3 percent) and constantly looks like he is toying with the defense.

Nurkic has been dominant at times and Lillard looks as good as ever.

WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW

This section is the gray area between what our eyes are telling us and what Stotts won’t confirm or reveal.

Starting lineup: I think it has been clear that Stotts will open the season with Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Nurkic as his starting lineup, but he has yet to confirm it.

This group knows each other and it shows on the court. Offensively, this unit flows. There is great ball movement, nice spacing and an overall familiarity that is invaluable in today’s NBA.

Defensively, the pairing of Harkless and Aminu is well documented. The two can switch on pick-and-rolls and both are among the Blazers’ better defensive players. Harkless in particular has been very “handsy” -- getting his hands on a lot of deflections, steals and blocks.

Second unit: Part of the equation in deciding a starting lineup is plotting the second unit and how the substitution patterns play out. If Stotts indeed goes with the above starting lineup, that leaves his second unit with McCollum at point guard, Connaughton at shooting guard, Turner at small forward, Swanigan at power forward and Davis at center.

There are a couple of intriguing aspects to this second unit. Offensively, it allows Turner to have the ball in his hands more often, which is when he is most effective. If he is paired with Lillard and McCollum – both of whom command the ball – it takes away much of Turner’s playmaking strengths while forcing him to uncomfortable spots on the floor as a spacer.

And defensively, this is a tough and solid unit. Davis and Turner are plus defenders and Swanigan has shown he can rebound. Connaughton has great hops and is smart, and McCollum has sneaky defensive moments where he will block a shot or anticipate and disrupt passing lanes.

It also reminded me of what Turner said this preseason when I asked him what is important in deciding lineups. I was expecting him to say something like spacing, or balance, but he said he found the best teams had a second unit that had an identity. It could be offense, defense, toughness, run-and-gun … but an identity.

I think this unit could have a physical, rough-and-tough defensive identity while still remaining dangerous offensively with McCollum’s brilliance and Turner’s playmaking/post game.

Anthony Morrow will win 15th spot: If there is one thing left to decide in tonight’s game against Maccabi Haifa, it’s probably the final roster spot, although I think Anthony Morrow won it last week against Toronto, when he made four three pointers in eight minutes.

The competition is between Morrow, Archie Goodwin and Isaiah Briscoe.

Goodwin’s chances probably evaporated Wednesday in Phoenix when he didn’t hustle for a loose ball, which the Suns scooped up and took in for an uncontested layin. It wasn’t an egregious lack of effort by the former first-round pick, but it lacked the intensity and wherewithal you want to see from a guy trying to win an NBA roster spot.

Briscoe, a rookie point guard from Kentucky, has actually been good during mop up time throughout the preseason, but there’s no way the Blazers keep a fourth point guard.

That leaves Morrow, the sharp-shooting 32-year-old, who also appears to be a good locker room guy.

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

What happens when Noah Vonleh returns? Vonleh on Wednesday said he is on schedule with his rehabilitation of a right shoulder strain, and is three weeks away from returning.

Vonleh has started at power forward for parts of the past two seasons and is valued by Stotts for his rebounding and defense. What happens when Vonleh returns?

I’m guessing Vonleh plays right away, and it will likely be at the expense of some of Swanigan’s minutes.

How much does Zach Collins play? This might be at the top of my curiosities entering the season. I can’t get a feel of how the team views Collins right now.

Make no mistake, they are encouraged and pleased with the No. 10 overall pick, and think he is going to be a star down the road. But I don’t know how they view him in the immediate. I could see him sitting the bench and getting spot minutes, but I could also see him playing during meaningful games.

With Collins, I think fans are going to have to look deeper than his points and rebounds. He is exceptional at protecting the rim. Absolutely fearless. Perhaps, even, the best on the team at protecting the rim. He is also very good at moving his feet and being in the right spots defensively. These two factors could get him on the court.

That being said, he gets pushed around very easily, which is why Stotts said the team mostly views Collins right now as a power forward, because he has trouble holding his ground against bigger centers.

But I’m interested in seeing how Collins is used out of the gate.

Where does Shabazz Napier fit in? One of the few letdowns of the preseason has been the unavailability of point guard Shabazz Napier, who hurt his left hamstring on the second day of training camp. Neil Olshey gushed about Napier at Media Day, and there was some intrigue of what the point guard who scored 32 and 25 points as a late-season starter last year would bring.

It sounds like Napier has a chance at playing tonight against Haifa, as his status has been upgraded to questionable. It may take some time for him to get up to game-time speed, but I’m imagining Stotts using Connaughton and Napier interchangeably depending on opposing lineups.

In case you haven’t noticed, Stotts is in for a heckuva juggling job this season. He has an obvious nine-man rotation (Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic, Turner, Davis, Connaughton, Swanigan) and I’m guessing he will extend his rotation early in the season to 10 and maybe 11 to work in Vonleh and Napier. If Collins is in that equation, that makes 12. And what if Meyers Leonard keeps playing like he did Wednesday in Phoenix, when he had 17 points and 8 rebounds?

Lot of questions ahead, but they are mostly good questions. This has been an exceptional preseason for the Blazers, one that has offered a lot of encouraging signs, and one that keeps leading me back to one thought:

This team is going to be better than people think.

Today's Blazers links:

Blazers' radio voice Brian Wheeler is taking a leave of absence.

A preview of tonight's preseason finale.

On the road, Evan Turner taught room service a lesson.

 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Meyers Leonard takes step forward with breakout performance

Breakfast with the Blazers: Meyers Leonard takes step forward with breakout performance

PHOENIX – Meyers Leonard knows it was only one game, and he knows it was only preseason, so he wasn’t ready Wednesday to proclaim his arrival back into Trail Blazers’ relevance.

But after his encouraging 17-point, 8-rebound effort in the Blazers’ 113-104 win over at Phoenix, the embattled Blazers’ big man could confidently say he took another step in his development.

“I knew coming into the year it was going to take some time, that there would be ups and downs,’’ Leonard said. “It’s day-by-day … but tonight felt good.’’

Leonard hit his first five three-pointers and was an aggressive rebounder in compiling his most complete preseason performance to date. Through five preseason games, the 7-foot-1 center is averaging 8 points and 6 rebounds in 15.5 minutes, during which he has made 8-of-12 three pointers.

Leonard’s performance Wednesday tickled his teammates, who know what a lightening rod Leonard has become with the fan base, who feel as a sixth-year pro has not lived up to expectations as a former lottery pick and recipient of a $41 million contract. The players have long said that Leonard has shown the talent in practices, but for whatever reason hasn’t been able to transfer it to the games consistently.

“It’s exciting; you have to be happy for him,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “He’s doing what everybody knows he can do. For him, it’s just a confidence thing, and having a game like tonight, it just builds that confidence. We need that from him going into the season.’’

When the season opens for real on Oct. 18 at Phoenix, Leonard doesn’t figure to be in coach Terry Stotts’ rotation judging from his preseason playing time. Jusuf Nurkic will start at center and Ed Davis appears to have locked down the backup role. Also, rookie Caleb Swanigan appears to have played his way into the rotation, and rookie Zach Collins is improving with each week.

That leaves the question of  where that leaves Leonard?

“I don’t know. I don’t have a clear answer for you,’’ Leonard said. “I am really trying to take it day-by-day. I knew coming in that it would be an uphill battle, and I’m OK with that. I have to play well in order to gain that trust. And I think tonight was definitely a step in the right direction.’’

Leonard this summer moved to Los Angeles and worked out with renowned basketball trainer Drew Hanlen, who tweaked his shot, worked on his mobility and added to his offensive repertoire. Teammates say Leonard in training camp has looked as good as he has since he arrived in Portland as the No. 11 overall pick in the 2012 draft.

On Wednesday, people outside of the Blazers’ practice gym got to see the improvement.

“He’s played like that in camp this entire time,’’ Damian Lillard said. “In September, he was making shots and pushing Nurk on the defensive end. It seemed like he was making every shot in camp. But it’s really good to see him get out there in action and him not hesitating … that’s what you want to see from him.’’

His shot isn’t the only thing that has improved. He has been a much more aggressive and confident rebounder – he grabbed 11 rebounds in 11 minutes on Sunday against the Clippers – and he is fouling less and moving his feet more on defense.

“I was really glad to see him hit some shots,’’ coach Terry Stotts said after Wednesday’s game. “I’m always the first to say that your game isn’t determined by whether you make or miss shots, but he had a good rhythm. And he certainly had an impact on the game.’’

The next step, of course, is to do it again. Leonard said he will attack his Thursday workout with the same enthusiasm and same consistency, then look to take another step forward in the preseason finale on Friday against Israeli professional club Maccabi Haifa.

“It’s a long season, and I know I have made big strides,’’ Leonard said. “And I know I can impact the game on both sides of the ball. I’m going to keep doing my best to be ready when my number is called.’’

Today's Blazers' Links:

A look at what got Caleb Swanigan ejected against the Suns.

An inbounds play paid dividends again for the Blazers on Wednesday.

Casey Holdahl with the Trail Blazers writes how three's and defense led Wednesday's win.

Breakfast with the Blazers: Harkless impressing with defense, approach

Breakfast with the Blazers: Harkless impressing with defense, approach

PHOENIX – On a team that figures to only go as far as its defense allows, Maurice Harkless knows he is a key component to this season’s Trail Blazers.

In what is unfolding as a promising preseason for the Blazers, Harkless has been one of the constants in an improved defense, showing what he says is a maturity in his game.

In years past, Harkless says, much of his defensive attention and effectiveness was determined by how well he was playing that night offensively.

But after securing a long-term deal before last season, and watching first-hand how poor defense can derail a team’s season, Harkless this season has both a more secure and grounded perspective.

“I know that I have to one of our guys who are one of our leaders defensively,’’ Harkless said. “So just leading by example by getting out and getting deflections, steals … just do what I can do on that side of the ball to get other guys going. When you get steals, it gets everyone else excited to play defense.’’

His play in the first four preseason games has caught the attention of his teammates. When asked who has impressed him the most in this preseason, star Damian Lillard said Harkless and Pat Connaughton.

“I just think Moe is playing with good confidence,’’ Lillard said. “Makes or misses, his attitude hasn’t changed. He’s constantly looking for mismatches on the block, and he’s playing physical – contesting passes, contesting shots. He has got his hands on a lot of balls on the defensive end.’’

The key, Lillard noted, is that Harkless has been provided the disruptive defense whether he goes 6-for-6 like he did Sunday at the Clippers or 3-for-7 against Toronto.

“That just shows that he is doing it whether he is getting touches or not, or when he making shots or not,’’ Lillard said. “And that’s impressive … that’s the kind of effort we need.’’

Harkless, who is entering his sixth NBA season, says he didn’t always have that defensive discipline, noting that if his shot was off, often times his defense was, too.

“That’s just been part of my maturity, my growth – not letting (offense) effect the other end,’’ Harkless said. “Every night is not going to be (the 6-for-6) night. There are going to be nights when I don’t make a shot, so I just have to stay focused and be that anchor defensively every night.’’

The Blazers know they are going to be one of the NBA’s top offensive teams. The goal, coach Terry Stotts says, is to finish the season ranked in the Top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Through four preseason games – and yes, it’s only preseason, but still – the Blazers rank ninth in defense (93.5 points per 100 possessions) and fifth in offense (108.5).

Along the way, the Blazers have held Sacramento to 39 percent shooting from the field; the Clippers to 40.2 percent, the Raptors to 40 percent and Phoenix to 40.7 percent through three quarters before the end of the bench allowed the Suns to make 15-of-22 shots in the fourth.

So while Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic are poised to be the offensive stars, Harkless figures he can be that defensive constant, which in the end might be the most valuable component to this season.

So far, Lillard likes what he sees. He said so far, the improved defense has been the Blazers’ biggest preseason accomplishment.

“We’ve been consistent on the defensive end – getting deflections, our activity has been much better than it has in the past, this early,’’ Lillard said. “Guys have been focused on it. We don’t have to scream at each other … we’ve formed a habit of it. Now we just have to continue it through the regular season.’’

And for Harkless, that means playing defense whether he is making shots or not.

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts says lineup, rotation not decided

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts says lineup, rotation not decided

SACRAMENTO -- Terry Stotts said he has yet to decide on his opening night starting lineup or his playing rotation, even after he coached what appeared to be a dress rehearsal for the regular season on Monday night in Sacramento.

Stotts started both halves with Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic and played them all about 29 minutes. Through the first three quarters, he only played four reserves – Evan Turner, Ed Davis, Caleb Swanigan and Pat Connaughton.

Nobody inside the Blazers locker room said they have a clue how Stotts will approach the season opener, which is now just eight days away, but several intimated that it wouldn’t shock them if Monday’s game against the Kings is how the Blazers approach the Oct. 18 opener at Phoenix.

“I think obviously, everybody knows who the horses are,’’ Turner said. “And the rest of us have to stay prepared and stay ready for whatever the situation is. I think the biggest thing in the rotation situation is defensively … are we getting better defensively?’’

The only debate is how Stotts handles the forward position, and it seems the leading candidates from the start of camp have been Harkless and Aminu, who have developed a familiarity and defensive chemistry over the past two seasons. The other options are having Swanigan in place of Aminu, or perhaps Turner instead of Harkless.

But for a team whose offense is well defined with Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic, it seems the defensive cohesion between Harkless and Aminu – they are able to switch easily on pick-and-rolls – has long been attractive to Stotts.

“The continuity – we finished out the year like that for the most part and I think we are all comfortable with that group out there,’’ Harkless said. “I don’t know if that’s going to the be group we start with on opening night, but whether it is or isn’t, I think that group we have out there is good offensively or defensively.’’

Stotts usually likes to play nine or 10 players, and his biggest decision will likely come in early November, when Noah Vonleh returns from a shoulder strain. Vonleh has been a part-time starter over the past two seasons and figures to command playing time because of his rebounding and defensive play. Also, point guard Shabazz Napier – who has been unable to play in preseason because of a hamstring injury -- figures to be considered alongside Connaughton at guard, depending on matchups.

“We have a lot of lineups out there, but it will ultimately be coach’s decision,’’ Lillard said.

Stotts also typically likes to have one preseason game when he plays it similar to a regular season game, and it appeared Monday against the Kings was that night. The Blazers’ two remaining preseason games figure to be exercises in caution and the final auditions for the 15th roster spot.

Portland plays Wednesday at Phoenix, and Stotts has previously said he is leery to show much of his regular-season package against the Suns considering the Blazers open the season in Phoenix on the 18th. And Stotts has already said in the preseason finale – Friday at home against Israeli professional club Maccabi Haifa –he plans to rest many of his main players.

After what appeared to be a dry run during Monday’s 97-83 win at the Kings, Turner said there doesn’t appear to be much left to decide in this preseason.

“I guess who is going to be on the team,’’ Turner said, laughing. “But other than that, we have to figure out rotations so guys know their roles,  and I think we are getting closer and closer to it.’’

Here’s a look at Stotts’ substitution pattern/lineups and how they fared in the first three quarters Monday:

Starters: Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic. Time played together: 6:11, Kings 16-15.

1st sub: 5:49 -- Connaughton for McCollum. Lineup: Lillard, Connaughton, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic. Time played together: 2:40, Blazers 11-2.

2nd sub: 3:09 -- Davis for Nurkic; Swanigan for Aminu. Lineup: Lillard, Connaughton, Harkless, Swanigan, Davis. Time played together: 27 seconds, no scoring.

3rd sub: 2:42 – McCollum for Lillard; Turner for Harkless. Lineup: McCollum, Connaughton, Turner, Swanigan, Davis. Time played together: 7:22, Kings 12-11.

SECOND QUARTER (Blazers lead 29-24)

4th sub: 7:20 -- Lillard for McCollum; Harkless for Connaughton. Lineup: Lillard, Turner, Harkless, Swanigan, Davis.  Time played together: 18 seconds. Blazers 1-0.

5th sub:  7:02 -- Nurkic for Davis. Lineup: Lillard, Turner, Harkless, Swanigan, Nurkic. Time played together: 1:47. Kings 3-0.

6th sub: 5:15 -- Aminu for Swanigan. Lineup: Lillard, Turner, Harkless, Swanigan, Nurkic. Time played together: 1:46. Blazers 7-0.

7th sub: 3:29 -- McCollum for Turner. Lineup: Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic. Time played together: 3:29. Kings 10-9.

HALFTIME: Blazers lead 54-43

THIRD QUARTER

Lineup: Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic. Time played together: 12 minutes. Kings 22-17.

Today's Blazers Links:

On NBC Sports Northwest's Talkin' Ball, Dwight Jaynes says he thinks Pat Connaughton is in for breakout year.

ESPN's Zach Lowe weighs in on the Blazers

Matt Moore at CBS Sports previews the Blazers' season.

Casey Holdahl with the Trail Blazers says not much was decided in Sacramento.

Breakfast with the Blazers: Halfway through preseason, defense 'solid'

Breakfast with the Blazers: Halfway through preseason, defense 'solid'

SACRAMENTO – The Trail Blazers are halfway through their preseason schedule and are nine days away from the season opener at Phoenix.

Here is a primer to catch you up on the top developments and storylines:

An improved defense?

The Blazers will go only as far as their defense takes them this season, and like always, it was a preseason goal to improve.

After three games: So far, so good.

The Clippers – playing without starters Austin Rivers and Danilo Gallinari – shot 40.2 percent and Toronto, which played without DeMar DeRozan, shot 40 percent from the field. And in the first game against Phoenix, the Suns shot 40.7 percent through the first three quarters before recording a 41-point fourth quarter during which they made 15-of-22 shots against the end of the Blazers’ bench.

Now, it’s preseason and there were key offensive players resting and different lineups being used, so you have to take the statistics with a grain of salt. But there were a couple of developments that coach Terry Stotts liked.

Against Toronto, there were moments when Stotts deviated from his conservative approach by having the big “show”  (make an effort to impede the ball handler) on pick-and-roll, while also showing traps on All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry. It flustered Lowry into five turnovers, and the Raptors overall into 20.

Then on Sunday at the Clippers, Stotts called a first-quarter timeout with the Blazers trailing 15-3. If the Clippers weren’t lobbing for dunks, they were hitting wide-open threes as the Blazers scrambled to close out. He pointed out to the team that the bigs were playing too high, allowing DeAndre Jordan to run behind for lobs, and the weakside wasn’t tight enough to contest kickout passes to the three-point line.

After the timeout, the Clippers still got two more lob dunks by Willie Reed, but overall the wide open three’s became contested and the interior was better protected.

“The weakside defense got over a lot better,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “We made an adjustment and pretty much cut (the lobs and dunks) out for the rest of the game.’’

Stotts described the Blazers’ preseason defense as “solid.”

“The first game, our transition defense was poor, but we have gotten better at that,’’ Stotts said. “We’ve improved each game … on the whole it has been pretty solid.’’

ET at ease

Evan Turner looks much more comfortable and dangerous offensively this season, which was probably best on display Sunday against the Clippers when he had eight assists.

Turner spent much of last season playing in fits and starts, and it just looked like everything was a struggle as he tried to understand the offense and his new teammates. This season, he looks like he is just playing, and that freedom is revealing his vision and smarts.

Through the first three games, Stotts has been able to get Turner into lineups that expose the defense by forcing them to place a smaller guard on Turner. That allows Turner – at 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds – to post up and go to work, either shooting over the guard or forcing teams to double him, where he then finds an open teammate.

Against Phoenix, he bullied and scored on Eric Bledsoe inside, then against Toronto he shot over Kyle Lowry. On Sunday at the Clippers, whenever he backed down Lou Williams or guard Juwan Evans, Turner surveyed the court and found the right man. Twice he found Ed Davis for dunks, and he located Harkless on the perimeter for a three-pointer while also passing out to Jusuf Nurkic for open mid-range jumpers.

“Evan sees the floor tremendously well, always,’’ Harkless said. “And being able to get him in the post, especially against smaller guys, they have to double team and that opens up everything else. He’s constantly looking for people. His IQ is really high.’’

Turner shrugs off the notion that he is more comfortable, I think mostly because he doesn’t like the idea that he was uncomfortable last season.

“I think my comfort level comes from calling plays, seeing things,’’ Turner said. “It’s just natural reads, natural basketball. It’s the way I grew up playing the game.’’

If Turner can’t see a change in his comfort level, his teammates do. His shot selection, his patience in finding the open man, his aggressive ball-handling … it all adds up to a valuable asset.

“It’s really important, really important because it shows his comfort level,’’ Lillard said. “He was patient as guys cut on weakside … he made them pay for it. It’s another option for us when things aren’t going well.”

Lillard on alert

Nobody on the Blazers sets a tone like Lillard, and it has been clear this preseason that the team captain is not going to be tolerating another slow start this season.

Lillard has been aggressive on both sides of the ball, and was scorching on Sunday on his way to 35 points in 26 minutes.

“Honestly man, I didn’t know how bad it was until the end of the third quarter and I looked up and I was like, 35?’’ Harkless said. “That shows you how easy it comes for him.’’

 Tonight, the Blazers play in Sacramento on the back end of a back-to-back and Stotts said he plans to play Lillard and McCollum upwards of 30 minutes. McCollum said he is welcoming a format where he plays longer minutes with more set lineups.

“I think (Monday) we will treat it more like a regular season game,’’ McCollum said.

Today's Blazers links:

I wrote about Lillard wanting to set the proper tone in preseason.

Ian Karmel stopped by for some hijinks after the Clippers game.

I talked about Caleb Swanigan and answered questions in this podcast.

Casey Holdahl of the Blazers recaps Sunday's game.

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts 'in formative process' of rotation

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts 'in formative process' of rotation

LOS ANGELES – Terry Stotts said his starting lineup and playing rotation is still under consideration as the Trail Blazers enter their third preseason game Sunday, but the coach did offer two factors into his thinking:

One, he is not opposed to starting rookies; and two, visualizing what the second unit and the player rotation patterns is to him as important of a factor as identifying the starting five.

“There’s a lot that goes into it,’’ Stotts said before the Blazers played the Clippers.

Stotts has named three of his five starters: Damian Lillard at point guard, CJ McCollum at shooting guard and Jusuf Nurkic at center.

In the first two preseason games, Stotts has paired the starting forward positions with Evan Turner and Ed Davis and then Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu. Also, in the second half of the second preseason game, he started rookie Caleb Swanigan at power forward.

Stotts did not want to reveal his starting lineup for Sunday’s 12:30 p.m. game against the Clippers because he had yet to tell the team.

“There are a lot of different combinations and after two games, it has been productive, but I haven’t made a decision yet,’’ Stotts said. “I think it’s still in the formative process.’’

As Stotts mixes and matches his combinations, two early storylines have emerged: Swanigan, the rookie big man from Purdue, has played himself into consideration for a starting role; and the combination of Harkless and Aminu has once again proven to be an effective combination.

“I know everybody is curious about the forward position,’’ Stotts said. “But it’s not going to get resolved (immediately) … But I’m not opposed to starting rookies. I don’t know why I’ve gotten this reputation for not wanting to play young guys.’’

Stotts pointed to his history of starting Noah Vonleh the past two seasons and playing Lillard big minutes as a rookie.

The unit with Harkless and Aminu has excelled in the first two preseason games, going on a 9-2 run in the first game then starting the second preseason game with a 20-7 run. Stotts said he was recently given numbers that said the foursome of Lillard, McCollum, Harkless and Aminu over the last two seasons is a Top 10 unit in net rating.

“When you look at that foursome, you have to take that into consideration,’’ Stotts said.

If it all seems confusing and jumbled,  it is what preseason games are designed for: letting things play themselves out. But as Stotts reminds, it goes beyond identifying the best five players.

“I think people get caught up in the starting lineup,’’ Stotts said. “But it’s also about rotating players. There’s a lot that goes into it: starting familiarity, spacing, offense, defense, not only what happens with starting lineup but rotating players going in. I don’t think that gets enough consideration.’’

It will today when the Blazers reach the midway point of the preseason. 

Terry Stotts and his Trail Blazers' puzzle: Finding a fit in preseason

Terry Stotts and his Trail Blazers' puzzle: Finding a fit in preseason

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).

Breakfast with the Blazers: Return of Ed Davis already being felt, and heard

Breakfast with the Blazers: Return of Ed Davis already being felt, and heard

Sometimes, the value of a player can’t be measured by metrics or statistics.

On the Trail Blazers, perhaps nobody exemplifies that better than Ed Davis.

Davis, you see, is not only a ferocious rebounder, intimidating defender and savvy veteran, he is also the team’s champion trash talker.

“You guys have to listen to him,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “He talks all day long in practice. It’s just …’’

Harkless started laughing before finishing his sentence.

“… Annoying.’’

Davis’ presence in the team’s training camp – which comes after he missed the final two months of last season because of left shoulder surgery -- has been noticeable. Both visually and audibly.

“Ed,’’ Al-Farouq Aminu said, smiling, “hasn’t missed a step on talkin’.’’

Perhaps that is why several players have said this training camp has carried an exceptional feel. Some players have noted that while the practices have been long, physical and grueling, the spirit has been fun, light-hearted and enjoyable.

And Davis, with his deadpan wit and quick-on-his-feet verbal jabs, might be the biggest reason.

“Players and coaches alike just enjoy having him out there,’’ coach Terry Stotts said.

Added Damian Lillard: “You know, practice is definitely different with Ed Davis as opposed to without Ed Davis. For me, Ed is like a big picker-upper.’’

So what is it about Davis that adds so much to the Blazers?

For starters, Evan Turner says, Davis is an old soul.

“He always says he hung out with older people, and he plays cards, so he probably picks it up at the card table,’’ Turner said. “But he’s definitely dope.’’

For Lillard, it’s not only what Davis says, but how he says it.

“It’s not loud or super aggressive, it’s just real slick. He’s a slick talker,’’ Lillard said. “If he block your shot, he’s saying something. If he guards you and you make a shot anyway, he’s like, ‘You are supposed to make that … good shot though’ then he shakes your hand.’’

CJ McCollum says that sometimes, it can be as simple as a look from Davis.

But usually, it’s something quick and clever. Last week, Davis barbed Harkless during a scrimmage. Harkless received a $500,000 bonus last season for shooting 35 percent from three-point range, which was achieved in part by not attempting a three-pointer in the final four games. During the scrimmage last week, Harkless sized up a three-pointer while Davis rushed at him with a hand up.

Harkless missed the shot, and Davis scored the dagger.

“He started walking away and said ‘Man, you gotta play the percentage: 35 on the head, 35 on the head,’’’ Harkless said, chuckling. “Stuff like that. It’s funny. He constantly talks.’’

Davis said he establishes parameters for his trash talking.

“I keep every PG, everything friendly, man. No disrespect,’’ Davis said. “Just out there having fun, that’s it. But honestly, I do it for myself. It helps me get going during practice … sometimes these practices are so long and you need something to get you going.’’

Of course, the Blazers and Davis hope his impact goes beyond keeping things light and witty in practice. Two seasons ago, before his shoulder injury, he averaged 6.5 points and 7.4 rebounds and was one of the most productive big men reserves in the NBA. His 599 rebounds was a franchise record for rebounds by a reserve.

This season, he is competing for the starting power forward job while also being a likely candidate to be Jusuf Nurkic’s backup at center.

“Just being back out there and getting timing right … It’s just fun for one,’’ Davis said. “When you are on injured reserve, you take things for granted, just being able to be at practice, laughing and joking on the sideline. It’s just not the same. Just being out there with the fellas is a good feeling.’’

 The feeling is mutual.

“For me, it’s a lot of fun because he picked up the energy level of practice,’’ Lillard said.  “The competitive level is just higher when he is out there.’’

Today: Fan Fest at Moda Center, 1 p.m. (Broadcast live on CSN)

 

Maurice Harkless survives injury scare, returns to Blazers' practices

Maurice Harkless survives injury scare, returns to Blazers' practices

Maurice Harkless was smiling wide and often Thursday,  and for good reason.

The Trail Blazers’ small forward said he is no longer experiencing pain, which caused him to miss the Wednesday morning practice session for what the team termed as a strained left foot. He said he returned to the court for the team’s Wednesday evening session and practiced fully again on Thursday.

“I don’t even know how it happened or when it happened,’’ Harkless said. “My foot just started hurting, and I thought my tape was too tight, but I cut the tape off and it just got worse. So I sat down … but it was just a mild strain. Nothing serious. I felt great today.’’

Harkless, of course, is one of the Blazers’ key figures. He started 69 games last season and was the team’s leader in steals, blocks and field goal percentage.

Both Harkless and coach Terry Stotts feel like they dodged an early bullet.

“In training camp (injuries) are always a concern,’’ Stotts said. “Even though I thought everybody came back in good shape, it’s different with camp – you are using muscles, you are fatigued and that’s when injuries happen. So the fact that it wasn’t that serious is good.’’  

Practice update: Harkless out, Collins in for Blazers

maurice_harkless.jpg
USA Today

Practice update: Harkless out, Collins in for Blazers

Wednesday’s Trail Blazers pracatice brought some good news and bad news on the injury front.

Maurice Harkless, the team’s starting small forward last season, did not practice because of what the team is calling a strained left foot. Coach Terry Stotts said the foot bothered Harkless in the team’s opening practice on Tuesday, and when the problem lingered into Wednesday they decided to hold him out of action.

No timetable or designation has been assigned to the injury.

The news was better for rookie Zach Collins, who saw his first action in practice after sitting out Tuesday waiting to be cleared from the NBA concussion protocol. Collins was elbowed in the jaw last Friday by teammate Isaiah Briscoe and was deemed to have a concussion. He was cleared and participated fully on Wednesday.

“It was good to have him out there,’’ Stotts said. “Disappointing that he missed yesterday, but (today) he was active, picking things up. To be honest, I think everybody had a pretty good day.’’