The race for regular-season supremacy in the Western Conference is one that features not only seven-plus extremely competitive basketball teams, but also two competing ideologies with regard to team-building.
In one corner you have the notion, championed by the vaunted San Antonio Spurs, that depth and balance are the keys to long-term success in the NBA. The Spurs are headlined by three Hall of Fame players - possibly four if Kawhi Leonard's career continues on its current trajectory - but nevertheless, they win by letting everyone share the responsibility. Leonard is a 23-year-old capable of playing just about infinity minutes; he averages 32 a game. Tim Duncan is one of the best big men of all time; he plays 30. The roster is legitimately 10 deep with guys who are capable of playing significant minutes and playing them well.
In the other corner are the Blazers. Since they began their steady climb up the West's ranks a year ago, the common knock against them has been that they've got five great starters, but no one beyond their first five guys is all that reliable, and it's tough to make it through 82 whole games plus a deep playoff run when you can count your go-to players on one hand. It's pretty tough to dispute that right now, the Spurs' model is winning, as exemplified by the fact that Portland hit a wall in the second round of the West playoffs back in May.
Depth and balance aren't just Spurs things. Gregg Popovich may have popularized the idea of winning with a bolstered rotation, but he's not the only one putting it to good use. In fact, no one has won a title without it in recent memory. The Spurs are the Spurs. The Heat didn't win a thing until they learned to rely on Big Three backups like Shane Battier and Ray Allen a little bit. The 2011 Mavericks, though they're remembered for Dirk Nowitzki's heroics, were actually quite deep - they had only three players averaging 30 minutes per game and none above 35.
You could make a compelling case that the Blazers, if they want to take the next step and become a Spurs-level championship contender right away, need to start by building themselves a real rotation. Last year, they were a long ways off - Terry Stotts in 2013-14 played all five starters for 30-plus minutes a game, Mo Williams for 25 and no one else even for 15. That's pretty amazing. Cory Joseph was the Spurs' 10th man last season; he played about as much time as Dorell Wright, the Blazers' seventh.
This year, Stotts has had to build a bench from scratch. Williams is gone and Wright might as well be - he's played 47 total minutes the entire season. That means the Blazers have absolutely no one with a meaningful bench role now who also had one last season. Few teams in the NBA can say that (not that they'd want to).
Predictably, building a bench has been a gradual process in Portland. You can't just throw five or six guys into the fire, completely cold, and expect them to thrive right away. But, fortunately, Stotts has gotten a pretty good look these first 18 games at three guys who figure to be real players for him the rest of the way.
Let's examine each of them, shall we?
I'll admit that I've never been a huge fan of Blake's game. Throughout his career, I've seen the same problems pop up again and again - the turnovers are a bit too high, the scoring is a bit too reliant on the mid-range jumper, the defense is a bit too slow (especially in today's Western Conference - look at the guys he's guarding). But I've got to say - after witnessing one month of Blake's return to Portland, I'm actually pretty impressed.
Blake didn't turn into a world-beating scorer or passer overnight, but he has proven himself a perfectly competent third guard for a team that sorely needed one. While he doesn't offer the explosive playmaking ability that Damian Lillard does, what Blake does bring to the table is a solid understanding of how to execute with his Blazer teammates. Check out this clip:
A perfectly executed play. Blake hides out in the right corner after a dribble handoff to Allen Crabbe, and then when nothing materializes on the opposite wing for Batum, Blake cuts back to the top of the key and reinitiates the offense. He's then able to execute an effective pick and roll to create an easy bucket for LaMarcus Aldridge. Nice pass, nice finish.
You'll notice that Blake has an innate understanding of when to assert his authority in Portland's offense, and his chemistry with Aldridge and the rest of the team's primary weapons looks fantastic. For a backup pointman, that's quite something.
I wasn't sure what to expect from Kaman going into this season. He's only 32, but he's been on the gradual decline for a while and basically hasn't played a full season in a decade. How much were the Blazers expecting to get out of him?
So far, actually, they've gotten a lot. Kaman has been one of the most productive bench guys in the whole NBA, giving the Blazers 10.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game despite playing very limited minutes. He's a low-post force - the Blazers can just drop the ball off to Kaman in the paint and tell him to go to work. Like so:
This is typical Kaman - the type of play the Blazers can expect from the big fella four or five times a night. Especially when he's matched up against a player who can't match his physical strength, like Boston's beanpole Tyler Zeller in this example, Kaman is excellent at using his broad shoulders and strong arms to muscle guys out of position, back them down and score. Even when the opposing big man holds his own (which Zeller does fairly well here), Kaman is still able to use his length to shoot over opposing seven-footers and score with ease.
Kaman is a perfect fit for the Blazers' needs - in short, he's a prototypical post scorer. They've got Robin Lopez, who's more of a defense-first role player, and Aldridge, who's a versatile inside-out player, but Kaman's the guy they can use to dominate the paint in plenty of matchups. He's a huge boon to their second unit.
Um, who? Crabbe was a second-round pick in 2013 and played just 100 total minutes the entirety of last season. There were even ardent Blazer fans who had never heard of him until three weeks ago, when a minor injury to Nic Batum compelled Stotts to look far, far down his bench and give Crabbe a whirl. The experiment went fairly well, all things considered.
To be clear, Crabbe is absolutely a one-trick pony at this point. He's not a playmaker, he's not a rebounder and his defense has been mediocre at best. Really, all he does at this point is shoot. But shoot, he does well. Crabbe is 12-for-31 from deep this season, good for 38.7 percent, and he's hit a few key shots to bolster Portland's offense in big moments.
Because he logged a lot of minutes with the starting five in mid-November, he wasn't called upon to be a primary option - it was obvious that his job was to take a backseat to Aldridge and Lillard et al. But during that time, Crabbe did an excellent job seizing upon opportunities that those guys opened up for him. Take a look at this play:
Pretty beautiful. As Damian Lillard gets the ball on the left side of the floor, Crabbe darts to the right corner to clear out space. This allows Lillard to drive to the basket - and since he's such a terrifying threat to score at the rim, his drive compels Crabbe's man, Brooklyn's Bojan Bogdanovic, to cheat off of him and help on Lillard. The result is predictable. Crabbe is wide open for a corner 3, his bread and butter.
In all three of the above cases, it's pretty clear what you've got - the Blazers' new bench heroes are not guys who come in with overinflated egos and try to do too much. Rather, they're modest role players who understand their roles and do a great job of filling in the cracks between Portland's real stars.
After a 2013-14 season that was way too reliant on the team's five lead guys, modest role players are exactly what Terry Stotts needs this year to keep the ship afloat for another season.
The Blazers won't become the Spurs overnight. No one can. But building a rotation is a gradual process, and to see Stotts develop three solid contributors in five weeks is an encouraging sign. Now the only question is - who steps up next?