1) Can this team play good defense for a season?
There is no doubt that Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum can break down NBA defenses. But can they prevent other backcourts from doing the same? They brought in solid defensive acquisition in Al-Farouq Aminu, giving them a defender they’ve never really had. They have stated a goal to be a top-ten defense but realistically, a league-average points allowed per 100 possessions would raise eyebrows with a group so young.
Toward the end of last season, Lillard supplanted Houston’s James Harden as the player in the league most derided for his defense. McCollum, almost identical in size with a longer wingspan, has plenty of doubts surrounding him at the shooting guard spot. Can their youth translate to an improved version of their defense, or will they disappoint defensively as young teams often do?
2) What happens with Gerald Henderson?
Henderson is an NBA quality defender and a veteran in the league. After six seasons in Charlotte, Henderson came to Portland along with Noah Vonleh in exchange for Nicolas Batum. But Henderson is 27, entering the prime of his career and has only one year left on his contract.
Does the long-time starter crack Portland’s starting line-up and move CJ McCollum, the far superior offensive player, to the bench? Or, will Henderson and his $6 million salary be enticing enough for a contending/playoff team needing wing help to give up an asset for him? The latter seems to make the most sense for the Blazers. The only question is, what is his price? And who is going to deal for him?
3) Do Blazers get an extension done with Meyers Leonard?
We will get an answer for this one fairly quickly. The deadline to get one done is Nov. 2. Leonard is entering the season as the team’s starting power forward.
Waiting on an extension will allow the Blazers to hold Leonard at a lower cap number when he enters restricted free-agency next season than it would have cost to extend him now. The Spurs did the same thing with his cousin Kawhi (not actually his cousin) last fall. Fellow Class of 2012 player Andre Drummond recently put off negotiations until the summer. Portland’s Moe Harkless is also eligible for an extension, but that seems unlikely.
4) Which young player will pop?
Throughout his tenure in Portland, Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey has frequently used the word “pop” to describe the growth of young players. So who among the young players that Portland has acquired will prove that they can be NBA-quality contributors for a winning team. Or they won’t. But this year is about finding out who will stick.
The Blazers acquired young wings who were used sparingly in their previous stops in Moe Harkless and Noah Vonleh. Guys like Allen Crabbe are entering the final year of his deal. Crabbe will likely be joined by Harkless and Leonard in restricted free-agency, if both don’t get extensions done. The Blazers will have oodles of cap space next summer (like most of the NBA) and all three players have a chance to set a market for themselves in bigger roles.
5) Will head coach Terry Stotts be in Portland this time next year?
Nobody wants to talk about job security, but Stotts is entering the final year of his contract with the Blazers. The Blazers made steady improvement on both ends in each of the last two seasons until injuries torpedoed their core. This is the NBA. Good coaches lose their jobs all the time.
Grantland.com’s Zach Lowe recently wrote that Stotts and Olshey “haven’t always seen eye-to-eye,” and there are public examples of this. Last season when asked about midseason trades on the Blazers radio show “Courtside,” Olshey brought up CJ McCollum’s scoring and high shooting percentage in games he played at least 15 minutes. Some read that as publicly pining for McCollum to get more minutes. At the time, his minutes were inconsistent. Sometimes 5, sometimes 10, sometimes 20. They eventually traded for Arron Afflalo to boost their bench.
If the Blazers surprise some people and are in the early playoff conversation, that probably bodes well for Stotts. Players have publicly backed him on several opportunities to do so. After the season though, the only thing that matters is, do Olshey and Paul Allen think they can do any better by bringing in someone else to run the show?