Mailbag week continues with the ultra-rare single question Mailbag!
What do you see as the biggest difference between this year's Blazers team and last years?
That's a really good question. The turnover in personnel makes this a whole new team on paper, but will the practical results be that different?
The most commonly cited change is depth, particularly off the bench. The bench won't be as dead-end ugly as it was last year (Luke Babbitt and Nolan Smith FTL!) but I think people half forget that Robin Lopez isn't going to be a reserve. He's replacing J.J. Hickson in the starting lineup. He'll provide more shot-blocking but it remains to be seen what the offense and rebounding will look like. Will Lopez be a revolutionary improvement over Hickson, incremental, or a wash with different specialties?
Last year was a good season for both guys. Hickson registered a better PER and more offensive and defensive win shares than did Lopez. He had better efficiency percentages, dominated in rebounding, and the two were comparable in most every area save blocked shots, where Lopez is clearly better. Lopez is more suited to the center position because of his height and will bring a different style of play, but I'm not sure you can argue he brings more depth to the roster, at least in the short run.
The actual bench acquisitions this summer were C.J. McCollum, Thomas Robinson, Dorell Wright, Earl Watson, Allen Crabbe, and maybe Terrel Harris. Of those, only Wright is both proven and approaching his peak. Watson is past his prime years and the others haven't even sniffed them (nor will they soon). The Blazers are forecasting that eventually this group will be better than Babbitt, Smith, Jared Jeffries, Sasha Pavlovic, and Eric Maynor. They're probably right about that, but it's still a forecast at this point. They may have gotten more talented on paper, but on the court they mostly got younger. Growing pains alone will make relying on these replacements a dicey proposition this year. They'll probably be entertaining and show hope for the future. Consistency and production may be another story.
Consider also: among the top eight Blazers by minutes played last year, Hickson was the only player replaced. The other seven are still with the team. The total combined minutes of every non-Hickson player replaced on the roster (including Ronnie Price, a mid-season release), was 2978. That's fewer minutes than Damian Lillard played on his own and barely more than LaMarcus Aldridge or Nicolas Batum registered. Yes, the Blazers cut the lesser players from the roster but those guys didn't play that much in the first place.
Another way to put it: the combined 2012-13 minutes of every player the Blazers replaced this summer totaled 5301. The combined minutes of the players still with the team from last year? 14556. The Blazers switched out plenty of players but in terms of actual minutes played the returning players outweigh the departed by a ratio of almost 3:1. Functionally the Blazers are more the same than different.
Obviously the argument is that the newcomers will push some of last year's returning bench players farther down the depth chart, thus resulting in a stronger bench. But the fact remains that most of the minutes the new guys garner will not replace the minutes of departed players, rather the players the Blazers liked enough to retain from last year's squad...including and especially the starters who accounted for the bulk of those minutes. In other words, if you forecast significant minutes from the new replacements, you're not filling holes that Babbitt and Smith left, you're replacing last year's starter minutes with this year's bench players. Comparing McCollum, Robinson, and company to Pavlovic and Jeffries leaves one impression of the direction of the season. Comparing them to the production of Aldridge and Matthews leaves quite another.
Circling back around to the question, I'm not sure how significant the change will be between this year's Blazers squad and last year's. These moves weren't made for immediate impact, but for future return. You should see different sets with Lopez in the lineup, especially on defense. Rebounding will be an issue and it'll be interesting to see how the Blazers compensate for that. But when all is said and done, player development is still the name of the game off the bench and riding the starters a priority. While the young guys are growing you hope they hold serve often enough to allow the veterans to earn some wins. If Lopez and McCollum gel quickly and produce consistently that win total will rise. If one or the other falls short it'll fall along with them. More than that will probably have to wait for more experience and/or more help.
The biggest change is that it'll be more fun, and maybe more productive, watching guys like McCollum and Robinson develop than it was watching Babbitt and Smith. At least you can speculate a high ceiling if things go right. That wasn't possible last year.