Portland Trail Blazers: Will Barton, Bench Players, Best Fans in the League, and Life Lessons

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Blazer's Edge Mailbag discusses Will Barton in the Trail Blazers rotation, Portland's bench compared to San Antonio, the nature of fandom, and lessons learned from Blazers-Spurs.

Time for another post-season Mailbag!

Hi Dave,

After Will Barton's huge contribution off the bench in Game 4, I got to thinking; Why isn't he a regular part of our bench rotation? I know the reasons we've all grown used to hearing; he gets lost on defense, he sometimes forces things and makes a lot of mistakes, he is inconsistent, etc. Thing is, you could say those same things about Mo Williams, and to a lesser extent, Damian Lillard, and no one is talking about them as candidates for a DNP-CD on any given night. It seems to me that Barton's strength, the ability to score and rebound from the wing, also happens to be our bench's biggest weakness. Are we to believe that he is so bad on defense that it outweighs the potential value of an additional 8-12 points off the bench every night? Our team's biggest weaknesses are overall defense and a lack of scoring off the bench. In terms of opportunity costs, not playing Barton doesn't really improve the first problem, because we have no defensive stoppers on the bench to play instead. It does seem like he could help with the second problem, and I just wonder why you think the coaching staff hasn't reached that same conclusion.

Thanks,

Dave

Barton had a great night on Monday.  The Blazers wouldn't have won Game 4 without him.  Down 3-0, they needed a Barton-esque guy, somebody who would just come in and do his thing regardless of circumstance.  Barton prospers in some of those solo sets the Spurs routinely allow Portland.  Playoff games--occasionally series--can be won by unexpected players stepping up.  In Game 4 that player was Will.  Full marks for him.

Your assertions about Barton not being particularly worse than his teammates is well-taken, if leaning a bit too far.  Mo Williams has more court sense and a better idea of game flow than Will-B does, even if Mo isn't the poster child for consistency and defense.  But let's go ahead and cede most of those arguments to you for purposes of this discussion.

Even with all that, we still have a problem or two.

The main benefit you're citing for putting Barton in the rotation is 8-12 points per game off the bench.  Going by this season's numbers, Will would need to play 19 minutes per game to reach the lower end of that scale, 28 minutes to hit the top.  That's a huge commitment by Portland standards.

19 mpg would leave Barton second to Williams among bench players.  That's not out of the realm of possibility. 28 mpg would get Barton closer to Robin Lopez minutes...a huge reach.  That amount of time would put his faults on display in a way that extra points wouldn't compensate for.  It'd also screw with the rest of the team as they tried to adopt his unique style into the offense.  Plus those minutes would have to come from someone else.  Williams would be the likely target.  Over the course of 82 games, I suspect most folks--including the coaching staff--would be more comfortable with Mo on the floor than with Will.

We also have to take a look at Barton's offensive numbers.  He barely takes three-pointers and hits only 30% from that range.  The Blazers depend on those threes to keep the floor spread.  As soon as Blazer wings start missing open triples the offense goes south.

Williams, by comparison, shoots 37% beyond the arc.  Even though his overall field goal percentage is identical to Barton's and his point-per-minute production is lower, the range on his game makes him more valuable in the halfcourt than Barton is at this point.

Efficiency is a huge issue as well.  Barton trails only LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard in shots attempted per minute of play...3rd on the team overall.  Yet he's 13th out of 15 in true shooting percentage, trailing Williams, Victor Claver, Joel Freeland, and virtually tied with Meyers Leonard.  Having most of your shots coming from one of your least-efficient point-producers is not a plan for sustained success.

Note carefully:  The question didn't ask why Barton can't become part of Portland's rotation in the future.  Circumstances can change as he ages and figures out his place in the game.  But you asked why he hasn't been a more regular part of Portland's bench rotation up until now.  The simple answer is that on an average night even his biggest strength doesn't match up to Portland's system or the guys he's competing against for playing time.  Even when it was close Barton couldn't make up the difference in enough other areas to warrant a spot in the rotation yet.

I sure hope he drops 17 on San Antonio again though.

Hey Dave

I've enjoyed your commentary about the team, but what should be done about the fans? Ben's mentioned it a few times, and I've witnessed it at the games, many of our fans lack the intensity and enthusiasm to win high stake games. A couple missed shots or a strategic time-out by the opposing team, and all momentum is lost. I used to think Blazer fans were the best - then I attended a Timber's game and witnessed what a true fan base looks like. Will we ever see a Timber's Army at the Moda Center?

Josh

Yes, you could see something similar upon occasion.  But the Blazers have to clear a far higher hurdle to create that type of atmosphere than the Timbers do.  It's always easier to develop high-strung energy for a niche/exclusive product than it is for one that's already entered the popular consciousness.

Right now I'm sitting in front of several shelves of board games. Imagine asking the question, "Have you played Smallworld or Agricola?"  If the person answers affirmatively you high-five because you've found camaraderie in an area in which relatively few are initiated.  It's a rare and wonderful event, instant bonding.  Energy rises.  Excitement ensues.  But if the person says, "No"  you get to feel like you're special and they're not.  You get the rub of superiority, exclusivity.  The next time you get together with your fellow board-game aficionados you'll secretly glory in how special you are, how the whole rest of the world is missing out, and how lucky you are to have each other and this hobby.

Now imagine going up to someone and saying, "I really love Yahtzee!"  Their response would be, "So?"  Even if they love it there's no energy, no traction in that conversation.  Playing Yahtzee certainly doesn't distinguish you or make you feel special.

In the same way it's easier for your average Timber's Army member to get energetic geek cred than your average Blazers fan.  Self-identifying as T.A. either gets you instant entry with fellow members or makes you feel exclusive (superior?) among those who don't follow.  Either way you can use that energy.  It translates into a greater sense of exclusive group identity when you gather the same way coming together for the Republican or Democratic conventions will generate more noise and cheering than coming together in a large crowd of just folks.

Around Portland, Blazers fans pretty much equate to "just folks".  Start a conversation with, "I'm a Blazers fan" and the response will either be, "Oh.  Me too!" or some story about how dad used to like them back in the glory days or the same shrug you got for mentioning Yahtzee.  The purchase for that exclusive group identity that automatically propels T.A. into raucous mayhem just isn't available for Blazers folks.  Therefore on average Timbers fans will look and sound more passionate than Blazers fans.

But that's just on an average night.  When the Blazers get rolling and find success they generate an energy that a dozen Providence Parks and a half-dozen MLS teams together couldn't match.  We've already seen some of it just from Portland getting to the second round.  All of a sudden everybody is alive.  The city is buzzing.  From the famous to the common, Portland folks are all over Twitter living and dying with each game.  People are flooding outlets like ours with comments and observations.  And again...that's just for the second round.

If the Timbers won the MLS championship it'd make the news for sure and non-initiates would applaud politely as the Timbers Army went nuts.  The minute the Blazers made the NBA Finals, let alone won them, there would be no non-initiates in this town.  Everybody would identify as part of the story.  The Blazers winning the title wouldn't make the news, it would BE the news.  It would lead, follow, and do everything in between.

The Blazer Battleship moves slower, doesn't corner, and doesn't get up close to your face like the Timbers Tugboat does, but with a head of steam and all guns blazing there's no comparison between the two.  The floor is far higher for Timbers fans than Blazer fans, which means on most nights you'll see more enthusiasm from them.  The ceiling for Blazers fans runs higher than for the Timbers, though.  When things go well, watch out.

As far as in-game cheering, the same principle applies.  It's easier for the Timbers folks to cheer no matter what the on-field stimulus because they're not just cheering the on-field stuff, but the fact that they're the Timbers Army and that's what they do.  It's a Timbers thing, also a self-referential thing.  Blazer fans, lacking that intimate identity, will tend to respond more to the product on the floor...or not respond, as the case may be.  But you still see homemade chants starting in the Moda Center even under adverse circumstances.  Plus Blazer fans tend to amp up given the slightest excuse, even a thin 4-6 point run when down 20.  They're not that bad.

In any case, I wouldn't call Timbers fans "real" fans and Blazers fans not, nor vice-versa.  They're rooting for different things in different environments.  That'll modify how their fandom gets evidenced and perceived.

Dave,

So my question as I look at this series with the Spurs and see a huge difference between bench production is, what are we not doing that the Spurs are doing to get bench production? I look at their bench and besides Ginobili nothing stands out to me. Then you look at Patty Mills he couldn't get off the bench for the Blazers and now for the Spurs he is a solid contributor. We have good enough players on the bench, but somehow we don't see the production.

Jason from Yakima

The obvious answer is that the Blazers don't have good enough players on the bench, at least not compared to the Spurs.  But even if you don't want to take that route, you can point to a couple other factors.

First, San Antonio's bench is experienced and their starters are well-versed in playing their system while incorporating the reserves.  Portland's bench players are mostly young and the starters are still finding themselves.  They don't have the same ability to take advantage of bench play that their Spurs counterparts do.

Second, the Spurs might not be stocked with world-beaters but those guys can sure shoot!  That might seem facile, but having one, reliable skill permeate through the back-ups beats trying to integrate a hodgepodge of abilities.  Thomas Robinson operates off of, "When in doubt, freak out."  With Will Barton it's, "When in doubt, take over the ball and try to score regardless of what else is going on."  With every San Antonio reserve the motto is, "When in doubt, space yourself to the three-point arc and wait for somebody to find you."  That makes their game more effective and fluid.  It also makes their bench players interchangeable with each other, allowing them to play effectively in a wider variety of circumstances.

Dave,

At this point, I don't expect the Blazers to win the series against the Spurs, but I do want them to learn what it takes to win the series.  With the way they have been playing so far against the Spurs, do you think they are learning those things as much as they can?

-Hiro

I would expect the series so far has taught the Blazers the following things:

1.  The post-season is long and intense.  You don't get to stop and smell the roses, nor celebrate your victories.  Until you lift that trophy, all winning gets you is more work.

2.  You cannot afford to let your focus waver or to approach any game just hoping to get by.  Only when you're dead sure you can win do you have a chance.  And even then, it's just a chance.  The other team is probably dead sure too.

3.  Attention to detail matters.  You can lose a game before stepping on the court if the other team has a superior game plan and executes well.

4.  You can't change your habits in a day so you better develop high-level consistency during the 82-game season if you want results in April and May.

5.  Nobody's going to give you anything.  You have to fight for every inch in every moment.  Being good isn't good enough.  You have to be good then prove it by whatever means necessary.

6.  Even then, nothing's guaranteed.  If you have a team down 3-0 you better pay attention and finish them off.  If you're the one down 3-0 you can always fight back.  It might even work.

7.  The distance between a team that's adopted these principles and a team that hasn't is great, even if both are talented.

We could probably name more.  Here's the point, though.  Knowing these things intellectually doesn't do any good.  Learning them doesn't make you one bit better.  These lessons open up the doorway so you can see the path to getting better.  You still have to walk that path and put in all the work before getting better actually happens.  Learning brings incentive, not results.

Assuming they do end up losing this series, the Blazers have to choose whether they're going to use the experience to spur them along the path or whether they're going to shrug their shoulders and say, "Good season.  We'll try again next year.  Maybe we'll get a better matchup."  If their response tends towards the latter they're not going to grow from this experience no matter what they've learned.  They'll also never find the right "next year" matchup to get them to true greatness.  Somebody out there will always do it better.  They need to adopt the former attitude, considering this a beginning and not an end, and vow that next year's opponent will not find the same Blazers team waiting for them.

Sometimes adversity lights your fire.  Sometimes adversity quenches it.  We'll see which happens in Portland.  The Blazers need to develop an organizational culture in which the fire burns hotter, win or lose.  They need to back it up by acquiring players with plenty of tinder to burn and ditching any who are easily quenched.

We can't know in advance how well they'll do with that, but the results should speak for themselves.

Keep those Mailbag questions coming to the address below!  Check out Chris Lucia's Game 5 Preview and stay tuned for more coverage throughout the day.

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard

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