The 15th Man

I've gotten requests for opinions on various topics the last couple of weeks.  The slow season must be getting to people!  The one asked most frequently (proving that it IS the slow season) is some variation of "Who is going to fill the 15th roster spot and how much of an impact do you think he'll have?"  Usually people will attach the name of their favorite candidate (Steven Hill with a few Luke Jacksons thrown in, and the last couple days a Shaun Livingston or two).  So here you go.

How important is the 15th roster spot?  EXTREMELY important...to the guy who gets it.  Seriously, I would never bag on a guy who fulfills his dream of wearing an NBA uniform and cashing a reasonably-sized check.  That's a life-changing experience and something to be proud of.  Plus it's a matter of Portland pride for Blazer fans to love every player who comes their way and doesn't blow it.  We have a soft spot in our hearts for the more obscure guys from Blazer history.  It'll be no different with whoever suits up this year.  All-Star or practice player, that's a Blazer.  Any of us would give our right arm to put on that uniform for a day, let alone a season.  Much respect to the guys who earn that right.

That said, and with all due respect for the work these guys are putting in, the odds are long against any of our non-signed players making any difference at all this season, or any season for that matter.  Take Steven Hill.  He's a nice guy, he works hard, he blocked a few shots in Summer League.  It wouldn't break my heart to see him rewarded with a spot on the team.  But let's take a long, hard look at the depth chart at center for the Blazers...not just on paper, but in real-life game terms:

Greg Oden

Joel Przybilla

Lamarcus Aldridge

Channing Frye

Raef LaFrentz

Steven Hill

To be fair, let's do the same for Luke Jackson at small forward:

Martell Webster

Travis Outlaw

Brandon Roy or Rudy Fernandez

The other one of those last two

Luke Jackson

Nicolas Batum

It's hard to project an impact for a player who, providing anything is at stake in the game, is going to be the fifth or sixth choice at their position.  A lot of things have to go wrong in order for them to see the floor.  Put another way, you don't want to get too excited about any player whose insertion into a non-blowout game will elicit a mandatory "Oh crap, we have to play..." before their name.

Shaun Livingston is a slightly different case, having played at a reasonable level before his injury and having borne great expectations before his injury.  You could see some team taking a lottery-like flyer on him just in case.  Nevertheless name me the last young player, a solid lottery pick, whose team was incredibly high on him but later threw him on the junk heap because of injury who actually came back to fulfill those high expectations with another team.  I'm hard pressed to think of any.  Maybe Livingston will buck that trend.  I wouldn't necessarily pin hopes on it though.  The Clippers had huge stars in their eyes over the guy once upon a time.  The fact that he's not a Clipper anymore says something.  The fact that he's having to struggle just to find a spot on anybody's team says more.

Basically the smart move is to be happy for whoever gets that spot or to be equally happy if the Blazers carry fourteen guys to preserve some trade flexibility.  Either way it goes, it's unlikely to have a huge impact.  I never say never...strange things happen sometimes.  But you'll go crazy trying to predict them, let alone bank on them. 

The long and short of it is:  the top of the Blazer roster so outweighs the lower bench as to make the 12-15 spots less significant than they've been in years.  That's not a bad thing.  It means we're becoming a good team again.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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