Evan Turner understands the Trail Blazers’ strongest asset heading into the 2018-19 season might be their continuity.
The team brings back its top six minutes per game leaders from last season and 11 returners across the roster.
“That means everything in the NBA … chemistry, familiarity especially to start the season,” Turner said at media day on Monday, a day before he embarks on his third training camp with the team. “To be able to know how guys play and to have our culture understood and what guys do in roles and assignments is going to be huge. That’s going to be a plus for us.”
The Blazers re-tooled their bench this summer, letting Ed Davis, Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton go in free agency. Newly signed guard Seth Currry should have a spot in the rotation immediately but the other newcomers, free agent Nik Stauskas and rookies Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons are likely to start the season outside of the regular playing rotation.
That means the bulk of the minutes will go to a very familiar faces.
Portland returns its entire starting lineup of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic, a group that has ranked among the league’s top lineups for the past two seasons. Turner is back as the team’s sixth man and Zach Collins should slide in as the first big man off the bench.
There’s an established rotation, a clear minutes hierarchy and a deep understanding of system and roles. But the Blazers have been here before with roster continuity heading into camp, only to start seasons slowly and be forced salvage them with winning streaks in March and April.
That’s why at the team’s pre-training camp dinner at The Foundry in Lake Oswego coach Terry Stotts spoke to the team about the pitfalls that can confound a roster full of familiar faces. He explained that the team won’t have the luxury of a slow start this season, and that roster continuity doesn’t automatically equate to early season success.
With 10 returning players in 2016-17 the Blazers began the season 18-27. Last season, with 11 returning players the Blazers hovered around .500 while losing six straight home games in December.
Lillard on Monday dismissed the idea that a team returning nearly all of its top contributors could fall victim to the traps of complacency and end up in an early season swoon.
“I don’t see how we can be complacent about anything,” the Blazers captain said. "I think it’s a level of comfort with each other when we’ve been teammates for a few years now. We know each other pretty well. So there’s comfort, but I don’t think we’re in a position to be complacent.”
In his short time around the team in early September, Curry said he’s noticed the exact attitude Lillard alluded to.
“They’re not satisfied with just making the playoffs every year,” Curry explained of his first impressions of his new teammates. “They want to make the next jump. They have a chip on their shoulder. The West is tougher but we have a lot of expectations with the team in terms of getting better.”
With the Blazers’ roster and rotation will looking very similar to last season’s 49-win outfit, the route to getting better comes via subtle changes.
Stotts said he might completely abandon some offensive sets he installed six years ago when he first took the job with the Blazers while adding in a few new wrinkles during training camp.
The Blazers will also likely experiment with more lineups where both Lillard and McCollum are on the bench, giving Turner a chance to run the second unit surrounded by four shooters. There are no wholesale changes coming on defense either, but Stotts said he’s considered pressuring the ball more with certain lineups on the floor.
When training camp opens up Tuesday morning there is no massive challenge of integrating a new major piece or learning a completely new playbook. Instead its a group leaning on their continuity hoping that familiarity can be a major weapon.
As Lillard put it: “I think our biggest obstacle is staying focused on what’s in front of us.”