Blazers Training Camp Preview: 4 Storylines to Watch
What I'm keeping my eye on as training camp kicks off in Santa Barbara.
We made it.
Today is the last day of the offseason. Beginning tomorrow, and continuing for at least the next six months (and maybe longer), the Portland Trail Blazers will be fully operational. No more scraping for offseason updates—the real thing is finally here.
Things in Portland are very different from what they were this time a year ago, for reasons we don't need to go into yet again. Damian Lillard is healthy, they made a couple of big offseason additions and the front-office staff is completely revamped. All across the league tomorrow, you're going to hear optimism about the coming season. Every player is in the best shape of their lives. Every GM and coach feels great about the group they have. You know the drill.
The Blazers' media day kicks off tomorrow morning at 9 (it will be live-streamed on the team's website and social-media channels). Later that afternoon, they'll fly to Santa Barbara, where they'll begin practicing on Tuesday. I'll be down there, too, producing content every day for paid subscribers. I can't stress enough that as the season kicks into gear and I have significantly more access to players, coaches and staffers, I'm going to put much more of what I do behind the paywall. I'm still figuring out the exact split there, but I can tell you for sure that over the next week, you'll want to become a paid subscriber.
In thinking about what to ask at media day and what to look for over the next couple of weeks, I came up with four questions that will clearly be of the most interest before the season starts.
Who wins the starting small forward job?
Four of the Blazers' five starting spots are locked in – Lillard and Anfernee Simons at the two guard positions, and Jerami Grant and Jusuf Nurkic in the frontcourt. The small forward spot is open, with Nassir Little and Josh Hart the two likely candidates to fill it.
Head coach Chauncey Billups didn't really tip his hand in an appearance last week on the All the Smoke podcast with Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes (the subject comes up about six minutes in). Both Billups and general manager Joe Cronin have said consistently throughout the summer that roles and minutes will be an open competition in camp with no bias towards experience.
Anything can happen over the next three weeks, but if we're handicapping it today, I'd give the inside track on winning the starting spot to Little. He has the size advantage over Hart, which is important when he'll be playing next to Lillard and Simons. And Hart is just about the only reliable ballhandler and shot creator on the roster outside of those two guards, so one would think that role-wise he'd be most useful running the second unit. We'll see who has the better training camp.
Do they fill the second two-way spot?
As it stands, the Blazers have 15 of the possible 17 total roster spots filled, with 14 players under guaranteed contracts and guard Brandon Williams on a two-way deal. I would call it "highly unlikely" the 15th proper roster spot is filled going into the season. A few weeks ago, the Blazers waived and stretched Didi Louzada to sneak under the luxury tax. It's definitely possible they add another player in a two-for-one trade or on the free-agent market eventually. But if they do, don't expect it to happen until closer to the trade deadline, or if there's a major injury they need to address.
The second two-way contract spot, however, is much more likely to be filled, because that money doesn't count against the cap and it essentially gives them a free emergency body. There are five camp invitees currently on the roster without guaranteed contracts: guards Jared Rhoden and Isaiah Miller, forwards Wes Iwundu and Devontae Cacok, and center Olivier Sarr. Iwundu isn't eligible for a two-way contract because he has more than four years of NBA experience, but the other four are in play for that spot. Based simply on the size issue and positional need, I'd give the seven-foot Sarr the best odds. But it will depend on who impresses in camp.
How will the backup center minutes be handled?
Not many people, including in the organization, would argue against size outside of Nurkic being the biggest hole on the roster currently. Once the top options at backup center (Mo Bamba, Isaiah Hartenstein, etc.) came off the board in free agency, the front office decided to go after talent over positional need, which led to the signing of Gary Payton II with the midlevel exception. Cronin has openly admitted in interviews this summer that the roster isn't fully balanced and rim protection is a weakness. They did re-sign Drew Eubanks, a favorite of Billups who played well in the second half of last season once the tank was fully on; it is expected that Eubanks and Summer League championship game MVP Trendon Watford will primarily fill the minutes behind Nurkic. We may even see some Justise Winslow center minutes in certain matchups.
Eubanks and Watford may be able to do an adequate job in the short term. But with Nurkic's injury history, they don't have enough at that spot to get through the entire season. If Sarr does indeed win the second two-way spot, that's another body to throw out there, but you don't want to count on someone that unproven as a team trying to make the playoffs.
The pushback to the size concerns from Cronin over the summer has been that the likes of Hart, Payton and Watford all "play bigger" than their actual size. And it may be true that they can guard bigger players in some matchups, but with more teams going back to the two-big structure (namely Minnesota and Cleveland), they'll run into trouble if they don't at least have the personnel to match up when they have to.
What is Shaedon Sharpe?
We thought we'd get our first real look at the Blazers' No. 7 overall pick at Summer League, but he suffered a small labral tear in his left shoulder five minutes into his debut and was shut down for the rest of the tournament. The injury was minor enough that he avoided surgery, and he's expected to be cleared to participate in training camp.
That means, barring another injury this week, Sharpe will be on the floor for next Monday's preseason opener against the Clippers in Seattle. And over the next two weeks, he'll probably get to play a lot. You know how preseason goes—most coaches don't play their main guys anywhere close to their full minutes, and often use these exhibition games to try out lineups they may not use once the games count. There will be nights where Lillard and Simons only play the first half, or not at all, and that means plenty of minutes for Sharpe and the Blazers' other rookie, Jabari Walker.
Walker was the surprise success story of Summer League, but Sharpe is still a total enigma. Billups said in his All the Smoke interview that he thinks Sharpe "has a chance to be special," and Lillard recently called him an "all-world talent." That's what people have been saying about him for several years, but nobody's really seen him play since high school. I've said since they drafted Sharpe that I expect his rookie season to go like Simons' did, with more focus on behind-the-scenes development than actual playing time. But Simons' rookie year was under Terry Stotts, who notoriously didn't like playing rookies or young players. Billups' stance is that anyone who earns minutes will get them. If Sharpe is really that good, maybe they'll have no choice but to play him.
A handful of teams have already begun their training camps and had their first media availability. I loved this answer from Thunder GM Sam Presti to a question about Shai Gilgeous-Alexander potentially wanting a trade, which started being pushed by New York-adjacent media outlets as soon as the Knicks didn't land Donovan Mitchell in a trade:
Sam Presti thinks SGA is rumored to be next star to get dealt because Donovan Mitchell has been.
"The only reason we're talking about it is because another player on another team got traded. The machine — the aggregation machine — is empty now. So we need a little more content."
— Mike Vorkunov (@MikeVorkunov)
Sep 22, 2022
I can tell you from experience that Presti is right—a lot of the major media companies don't care about any NBA story unless it involves a star player potentially asking for a trade from his current team. Once there's even a whiff of a rumor, they go all-in on hypothetical trade packages and often lean on their reporters (who often have relationships with those players to maintain) to write on it even when there isn't a story there at all.
One of the reasons I love doing what I'm doing with this site and newsletter is that I don't have to write about that stuff if it's not real. Every time Damian Lillard does an interview, he's asked at least one question about his loyalty to Portland and desire to stay here for his whole career. He gives a version of the same answer every time, and that quote is the one that gets picked up by all the news sites, even though he didn't say anything new. This inevitably leads to people on social media making fun of him for the "need" to constantly remind us of his loyalty.
Well, the truth is that he keeps talking about it because he keeps getting asked about it. You would think that signing the extension he signed in July and the press conference that followed it would put all of that to rest, but people keep asking him about it hoping he'll give a different answer, and getting annoyed when he doesn't. I can't tell whether interviewers keep asking him about his desire to stay out of lack of creativity or because they want him to say something different than what he always says. Either way, it's played-out.
Lillard is scheduled to talk to reporters tomorrow at media day. We'll see if he gets asked a version of that question again. It certainly won't be from me. He's said what he's said about it. He'll let all of us know if anything changes.
Like everyone else, I've been following the reporting and reaction around the Ime Udoka situation in Boston. I'm not really interested in talking about the particulars of his actions or suspension. But the story has been handled pretty badly across the board, as far as things being reported before someone has the whole story and being presented in a way to make the reporter's source look good regardless of the sensitivity of the situation. Kevin Draper of the New York Times has a good Twitter thread highlighting some of the issues with the reporting around the story. The best piece I've read on it so far has been from Seerat Sohi at The Ringer. My only take on the matter that I feel like sharing publicly is that it would have been cool to see Damon Stoudamire get the nod as interim head coach.
On Saturday, CJ McCollum signed a two-year extension with the Pelicans that keeps him under contract through the 2025-26 season. He seems to have found a great fit in New Orleans after the trade from Portland last season and this feels like a fair deal for both sides with the rising cap.
Apropos of nothing, here's an article from the New York Times about the art-collecting world that I thought was interesting.