DEDICATE TIME TO LITTLE-USED PROSPECTS
Portland's roster bears little resemblance to the one it had at the start of last season: Its average age is 23.9 (down from 26.3), its payroll is a league-low $50.3 million (down from $72.9 million) and its chances of a playoff appearance are highly unlikely (down from almost definite). Damian Lillard remains a centerpiece, while previous backups C.J. McCollum, Meyers Leonard and Allen Crabbe will have to assume bigger roles.
Among the new acquisitions are a pair of young forwards who combined for less than 1,000 minutes in 2014--15 and should now get all the time they need to establish themselves—or not. Power forward Noah Vonleh is only 20, one year removed from being the No. 9 pick out of Indiana. He was obviously a project, but the Hornets bailed on that process after a single season of gentle usage. The 6'10", 240-pound Vonleh has the touch and coordination to build a promising game. The rawness of his skill set is offset by tantalizing flashes of shooting and mobility.
At 22, 6'9" small forward Maurice Harkless is entering his fourth NBA season. While he shot the ball well for the Magic in 2013--14 (46.4% from the floor, 38.3% from three), he saw his minutes slashed by 65% last year. Harkless was the victim of a crowd of young wings in Orlando, undone because he isn't yet much of an offensive player. That could change with time, but only if Harkless has the practical experience necessary to grow his game. By giving Vonleh and Harkless significant minutes, coach Terry Stotts can find out if they're part of the Trail Blazers' future.
A rival scout sizes up Portland
This is a full-scale rebuild. Four starters are gone, and they signed or traded for backups to replace them.... Damian Lillard is the man now. You can't go under on pick-and-rolls with him; he can shoot it from anywhere behind a pick. For a guy who is an All-Star, he gets knocked to the floor a lot and doesn't get calls. He's an O.K. defender. He's a little lazy at times. He reaches and gambles for steals. He is going to have to be patient with a young group.... I thought Noah Vonleh had a pretty good summer. During his workouts before the draft [two years ago] he was trying to convince everyone he could play small forward. He has to get over that. He's a less athletic version of Blake Griffin.... I thought they did well in the Nicolas Batum deal. They got Vonleh and a starting wing player [from Charlotte] in Gerald Henderson. Henderson is great off screens, he's a good midrange shooter, a good energy guy and a good guy. He can be better with a change of scenery.... Mason Plumlee is a rim-runner, a shot blocker and a pretty good offensive rebounder. I don't know how much more he can be, though.... If C.J. McCollum plays like he did in the playoffs, he can take a bigger share of the minutes.... Al-Farouq Aminu teases you. He is a good corner three-point shooter, and a good defender who can defend both the three and a face-up four. But if he's my starting three, that's kind of weak.... Meyers Leonard fouls, he's an inconsistent rebounder, and he takes crazy shots. He didn't show anything until he started making threes last year. His three-point shot is ugly, but it's been going in—it's Manute Bol--like.
COACH TERRY STOTTS
(4th season with Trail Blazers)
2014--15 RECORD 51--31
(1st in Northwest)
PG DAMIAN LILLARD
21.0 PPG; 6.2 APG; 43.4 FG%; 34.3 3FG%
SG GERALD HENDERSON*
12.1 PPG; 3.4 RPG; 43.7 FG%; 33.1 3FG%
SF AL-FAROUQ AMINU*
5.6 PPG; 4.6 RPG; 41.2 FG%; 27.4 3FG%
PF MEYERS LEONARD
5.9 PPG; 4.5 RPG; 51.0 FG%; 42.0 3FG%
C MASON PLUMLEE*
8.7 PPG; 6.2 RPG; 0.8 BPG; 57.3 FG%
SG C.J. MCCOLLUM
6.8 PPG; 1.5 RPG; 43.6 FG%; 39.6 3FG%
PF ED DAVIS*
8.3 PPG; 7.6 RPG; 1.2 APG; 60.1 FG%
SF MAURICE HARKLESS*
3.5 PPG; 2.4 RPG; 0.7 SPG; 39.9 FG%
Percentage of points scored by players returning to Portland that came from point guard Damian Lillard, who poured in 1,720 points. The five other Blazers coming back scored just 1,580.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED