Achieving real roster depth is the Holy Grail of the NBA. It can take multiple years to assemble a quality rotation that goes nine or 10 deep, and a single injury can bring down the entire structure at any given moment. Without depth, it's extremely tough to get through the dog days of the regular season and withstand the match-up challenges that wait along the postseason path to a title.
This theme of depth certainly struck a chord during Portland's tough-to-swallow fourth quarter against Dallas on Saturday, and it's an ongoing issue for teams around the league.
When surveying the implications of poor depth, you can generally put teams into two categories:
- Those that are dealing with injuries or other lack-of-production problems because their roster is too thin
- Those that could be facing serious issues if a player or two slips in output or misses time on the floor
Multiple teams have had their seasons devastated outright because of bad depth: see the Lakers and Bucks, just as a start. There were two teams, though, that were written about this week on SB Nation that serve as examples of the two categories.
The Phoenix Suns, dealing with the aftermath of an injury to an impact player, are a team that fits squarely into the first point. Recently, guard Eric Bledsoe was sidelined after a procedure to remove "a piece" of his meniscus. The injury takes 4-to-6 weeks to heal.
Without his running mate, Goran Dragic is now handling the load in the backcourt for Phoenix. In turn, the team is struggling to replace a large portion of both offensive and defensive production brought by Bledsoe.
Bryan Gibberman of Bright Side of the Sun wrote about Dragic's new role without Bledsoe. Gibberman quoted Dragic as saying his body is "not the same" after embracing his new role.
"I feel tired a little bit, but I try to do whatever it takes to recover my body."
Dragic is certainly carrying much more responsibility without Bledsoe. He identified Leandro Barbosa as a player that could help curb some of the issues. However, "LB" is dealing with some shoulder problems while signing just his second 10-day contract Saturday.
It is still to be determined whether Dragic's 37 minutes per game in January and 25.5 usage rate since Bledsoe has been out -- both representing high-water marks this season -- will cause continuing fatigue issues. But the results are obvious on the floor: The Suns are 3-6 since Bledsoe's injury, with no real "next man up" or even "next men up" available to try and fill that hole.
On the other end of the depth spectrum is Washington, a team that has yet to face a devastating injury thus far this season (if we don't count the preseason injury to Emeka Okafor, who was quickly replaced by Marcin Gortat). Rookie Otto Porter Jr. did miss some time to start the year, but he hasn't played much when healthy, and Bradley Beal was able to return quickly from a leg injury. Otherwise, no one has missed significant time.
Washington, who has struggled this year despite high preseason expectations, climbed back to .500 until a loss to Detroit on Saturday. Mike Prada of both SB Nation and Bullets Forever wrote about a commitment Randy Wittman made just a few games ago: going with a tight eight-man rotation in an effort to keep the team around or above the .500 mark.
The jury is still out whether this limited rotation will be beneficial. However, Prada had some strong opening words as to the outcome this approach could provide.
"NBA seasons are marathons, not sprints," Prada said. "Eighty-two games is a long time for someone to get injured or for the body to wear down. You want to get to the playoffs, of course, but you also want to be at your peak once you get there, both physically and emotionally."
Prada continues the piece by talking about the wear and tear that can come out of relying on a small percentage of your roster. Additionally, he notes that denying playing time to those outside the eight-man rotation could hurt the team if one of them does have to step in.
And though not explicitly stated, you get the feeling it's not so much "if" when they need to step in, but rather "when."
While there are a few exceptions to the above categories (teams like Indiana and San Antonio don't seem to fit into either one), Portland can realistically be put into the second. Without any long-term injuries to speak of so far (at least to contributors), plus fairly consistent production from the key guys, depth hasn't been a destructive issue thus far.
But if last night's fourth quarter was any indication, some reinforced bench play certainly couldn't hurt the team.
The topic of depth is one that has been fully covered on Blazer's Edge. How they improve it -- or even if the front office has a quality opportunity to do so -- is to be determined. Yet given that Spurs nearly edged the Blazers without two starters on Friday followed by Portland's rough outing in the fourth quarter on Saturday, the point remains true: Without quality depth, getting through these middle months of the season and potentially making a playoff run are going to be quite difficult.
As Dave aptly put it in his recap of the Spurs game, "Those reserves do exist and you cannot trust Portland's bench players against them on a nightly basis, especially in the critical games one hopes Portland ends up playing. Every time he substitutes it's like Coach Stotts is tossing a live grenade on the floor and you don't know whether it's going to explode on the opponent or end up friendly fire."
Portland has gone through this season with an enormous amount of success, but this very well could be a situation where they're playing with fire.
If the struggle in Phoenix or Saturday's fourth quarter are any indication, that issue could be the biggest the Blazers face all year.