Portland Trail Blazers: Improving Depth and Bench Play

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Blazersedge.com Mailbag explores the extend to which the Portland Trail Blazers might go in order to improve their bench.

Getting better is the theme of today's Mailbag...

Dave,

A while back I did a little statistical research with regards to the Blazers bench. I took a look at the Blazer game losses and compared that to the amount of points the bench players scored. I found that the bulk of the games lost was when they scored between 15 and 30 points. Even when the bench scored above 30 points they lost three games. I'm sure this is obvious to you and others, but when people say they need more scoring production out of the bench, this showed that it is more than that. It's also taking care of the ball, rebounding, limiting 2nd chance points, creating more 2nd chance points offensively, and playing good defense. To me it tells me they don't necessarily need a scoring point guard off the bench, but someone who can take care of the ball. Obviously a better perimeter defensive presence, but also a front court player who can attack the boards on both ends. A scorer/shooter would be great, however, what good is that when the bench guys turn the ball over and get out positioned and rebounded?

My concern is that Olshey won't get a big guy. If last year is any indication, he would rather develop Freeland and Leonard rather than bring in another big. As for a guard, Steve Blake appears to have the best assist/TO ratio, but he is 35. Considering the Blazer budget, what are your thoughts?

JE in Gresham

It all fits together, doesn't it? It's hard to break down Portland's bench woes into, "They need a scorer" or "They need a rebounder" when they need almost everything. Most of all, they need to not be so young. They need enough serviceable players to alleviate their dependence on non-dimensional veterans who lack scoring or rebounding or defense. They don't need every player to be a jack-of-all-trades veteran. They just need enough different dimensions off their bench that they can pick and choose, compensating for matchups, not making opponent adjustments so easy.

Experience will provide part of this. Thomas Robinson, Meyers, Leonard, Will Barton, Joel Freeland, C.J. McCollum...these guys have growing to do. Cap exceptions will provide opportunities to add pieces. We've been talking about those things all summer.

Then the onus falls on the coaching staff to put it all together. This proved as much of a challenge as the talent deficit last year. What good does having three good defenders on the floor do if the other two miss their assignments and rotations? What good a fantastic rebounder if you can't keep the other team from putting the ball through the net? What good is athleticism if you can't secure that rebound? You can point to individually skilled players among Portland's reserves but you can't point to any who are able to maximize those skills. Sometimes they can't make any use of them at all. They're young and they don't get it. Or when they do get it, the rest of the team is falling apart around them.

No doubt the Blazers need a couple of extra players coming off the pines. But you should look at this roster like a Lego set. Getting an extra bag of reds and another two sacks of blues won't do any good if you don't know how to build in the first place. At some point that's just more Legos spread around the floor...a bigger problem, not a lesser.

The Blazers just might need a super-scorer to command defensive attention, allowing Thomas Robinson freedom to snag rebounds while the opponent is distracted. That scorer could also alleviate the pressure to get every rebound and make every stop. He might allow Coach Stotts to reduce dependency on some of those players who are making the turnovers you rue.

The same could be said of almost any skill, consistently and smartly applied. Whomever the Blazers pick up, whatever skills those players possess, they should be judged on how they're going to help the rest of their teammates flourish, not just on their abilities or stats alone.

Hey Dave-

This year's playoff ride was a lot of fun, but like other Blazer fans, I'd love to make a serious run at a ring! This year, depth was definitely one of our biggest weaknesses, but I'm just not sure that strengthening our bench is enough to get us over the hump. Is there any way we can seriously compete for a ring without shaking up our starting lineup a bit?

Grant

I don't see it, but that doesn't mean it can't be done.

I suspect the Blazers will need to look hard at the benefits of moving a starter for an asset (read: pick or young player on a small contract) and cap space. One of the reasons you'd consider a trade like we discussed yesterday with Philadelphia sending Thaddeus Young for equivalent-salary bench players is that greater depth allows more latitude with moves.

Let's pretend for a minute like Joel Embiid hadn't been injured. If you could move C.J. McCollum, Meyers Leonard, and Dorrell Wright for young (no extra salary on Portland's ledger), retaining Thomas Robinson along with Young, wouldn't you then be able to think about moving LaMarcus Aldridge for the #1 pick? Now you're looking at a roster featuring Embiid and Robin Lopez, Young and Robinson, the usual suspects at small forward, shooting guard (minus McCollum), and point guard, plus $10.5 million in cap space to supplement those wings. That roster is younger than the current one and will take more time to develop, but it's also deeper and probably has as much upward potential in the end...just blossoming a little later. Without Aldridge's ginormous cap hold plugging up the summer of 2015 the Blazers could also pick and choose players to re-sign, generating even more cap space if they chose not to spend the extra $10 million now.

Obviously this kind of move entails risk and requires sacrifice. Whether those are merited depends largely on the answer to your initial question. If you think the Blazers can get to elite status with incremental moves (given the cap situation in the near future this probably means adding only MLE-level players) and player development there's no way you'd consider moving a starter, let alone Aldridge. But if that path ahead looks fuzzy, you can't help considering another route that might lead farther forward even if that route required backtracking in the short term.

Hi Dave,

Based on all the upcoming/expected activity for Western Conference teams (Love to GSW, 3rd star going to Houston, rising Phoenix) if the Blazers go into next season without any roster changes one could assume the Blazers would be worse off then when the 2013-14 season ended. Not sure if we can expect Lopez, LMA, Wes, and Batum to be any better than the previous year and Lillard might be a little better but that's not enough to be better than the teams above the Blazers.

Is there any chance the Blazers could trade either Batum or Matthews (along with Robinson, Leonard, or McCollum for a late lottery pick? This would get the Blazers into the draft and make some cap room to bring in another Free Agent of substance. Losing Batum would hurt but there seems to be some options out there in the small forward market. Trevor Ariza, Luol Deng, and Evan Turner all come to mind.

Do to the lack of SG Matthews would be harder to replace but maybe Affalo could be a match.

If the Blazers stand pat they're going to get past by all the teams out West.

Joe

That would be the fear...not just that the Blazers would get passed but that their wonderful accomplishments of 2013-14 weren't really enough to distinguish them from a semi-large back of conference middle-dwellers, any of which might come out ahead in a given year. The West is like an open-water swim race right now. You want to be one of the 2-3 guys in front, racing streamlined and unencumbered. You don't want to be in the large middle pack where everybody's bumping, clawing, and kicking up chop that you have to swim through.

You have to ask whether Portland's achievements are repeatable/sustainable and then whether they can be built upon. Those answers are murky.

That said, the picture doesn't get any clearer by underselling your players. If you're going to trade a starter for a draft pick you have to get a pick of substance and clear cap space. None of Portland's starters outside of Aldridge and Damian Lillard would draw a high selection. The player they'd get back in return would create more question marks, not fewer. Depending on circumstances, the salary exchange might not create that much more cap space than the Blazers already have with their exceptions. As we said above, this type of move will probably be considered, but the team will have to squeeze through a fairly narrow corridor to make it make sense.

Over the next couple days we'll talk about draft questions and more ideas for free agency. My inbox is bursting with both. You can always send your questions to the address below, marked "Mailbag" in the subject line.

Want more fun and answers to Blazers questions around the world? Check out my weekly appearance on the Phil Naessens show, which has been blowing up worldwide and among American Armed Forces with Blazer love.

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard

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