There is one lingering question facing the Trail Blazers as the regular season nears: Is Pau Gasol going to be ready by opening night?
If healthy, the 39-year-old center is going to play. But he hasn’t been fully cleared yet and his availability for the regular season is still an unknown, leaving the backup center spot the last real question mark as the Blazers edge toward opening night.
After two real preseason games, the rest of the playing rotation is starting to come into focus.
The big decisions for this team were probably made well before the exhibition games, mostly in July as Neil Olshey and the front office reconfigured the roster.
The starting group is almost certainly set with Zach Collins and Rodney Hood manning the forward spots alongside guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and center Hassan Whiteside.
Anfernee Simons and Kent Bazemore have been locks for major playing time since June and Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver also figure to be a regular part of the opening night rotation, as Terry Stotts has said he’ll likely start the year going 10-deep into his bench.
With uncertainty over the final big man spot lingering, Stotts has tested out a few different groupings to see what combinations work should Gasol still be sidelined when the games start to count. On Saturday, Stotts started Anthony Tolliver at power forward, giving the starting lineup another shooter while sacrificing some of the rim protection Collins provides.
“I wanted to see Anthony out there with Dame and CJ and Hassan as a spacing four-man,” Stotts said after the Blazers lost to the Phoenix Suns. “He’s a good team-defender. He talks out there. I thought I wanted to see him what that group because of his ability to space the floor with those other guys.”
Stotts has also made a point to test out the Collins-Skal Labissiere pairing, a duo that could anchor the bench frontline if Gasol isn’t healthy. Labissiere didn’t play in summer league because of a shoulder injury, but he’s been cleared for full contact since the end of July and has been working out daily at the Blazers practice facility since he arrived in Portland on August 31.
Gasol, who had surgery on his left foot in March, has gone through a light on-court shooting routine before each of the past two games, but that’s as much basketball work as the future Hall of Famer has done in the public eye. His health has pushed Labissiere from bench insurance to possible rotation regular.
“I think the big man (rotation) is going to be fluid until Pau comes back,” Stotts said Saturday night. “Skal … playing Anthony, playing Mario at (power forward). I think it’s going to depend on how the game is going and matchups. But Skal’s had a really good camp and I think he’s earned at least a chance to earn some more minutes.”
For his part, Labissiere admits he’s still learning the system, and just trying to do the little things to earn the coaching staff’s trust.
“I’ve just tried to find ways to help the team out,” Labissiere said. “It doesn’t have to be scoring. Just setting good screens for Dame and CJ. Just talking and communicating. I feel like that’s what’s going to get me on the court to be honest.”
The Labissiere/Gasol question is the last playing time issue to be addressed. Most of the rest of the rotation is clear and got even sharper during the loss to the Suns: McCollum is going to get more minutes running the second unit as a de facto backup point guard alongside Simons. The Blazers are going to go small at times with Hezonja playing power forward and initiating the offense.
With a likely dress rehearsal coming Tuesday at Utah, the picture will get even clearer next week even if the biggest question remains unanswered.