Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Ray Allen, Jamal Crawford, Reggie Jackson, Luis Scola.
What do they have in common?
For starters, each has served as either a sixth man or a large-minute bench player at some point during this 2014 postseason. Of the five listed (and the numerous that certainly could have been added), four were critical pieces to get their team to their respective conference championship. One of them -- Jackson -- even became a starter because of his good play.
But the story has a few other less-noted chapters.
Each of these guys has a different style of game -- the obvious dissimilarity. Ginobili is the experienced ball-handler/scorer. Crawford's game is glorified isolation. Jackson can torch you in transition. Scola and Diaw can do unusual things in a more outside-in way. Allen has been destroying teams from distance for nearly two decades.
Regardless of how they do it or what type of player they really are, though, the group listed above was hired to put the ball in the basket. Portland's next sixth man better have that skill too.
There's been a lot of talk around Blazer's Edge about what exactly Portland needs to be targeting this offseason. The reality seems to be that, outside of a lopsided too-good-to-be-true deal, Portland is in the market for a top bench player.
One big push (and perhaps the most logical step) is to think that, regardless of what position the sixth man is, they need to play some quality defense. The reality is that Portland's second unit doesn't have a player that can realistically slow down one of the guys previously listed. As the roster currently sits, the sixth man will also be playing alongside offensive-heavy players from both the starting unit and surrounding bench players. If they don't augment that offense, the Blazers won't be able to counter the best teams in the league and their super-subs.
In the regular season you could argue that having a strong scoring bench isn't important. While Portland was dead last in bench scoring last season, Indiana -- an Eastern Conference Finals team -- was 28th in that category. Even Miami was in the bottom third, and underachieving groups like the Lakers and Nuggets were in the Top Five (San Antonio was first, for what it's worth).
If Blazer fans have learned anything in the last few years (and got clubbed over the head by it last month), it's that regular season basketball doesn't have nearly the bearing on playoff ball as it seems like it would in March or early April.
A few years back, Portland thought Dallas was the right draw for them in the first round. The result? The Mavs, with a terrific contribution from sixth man Jason Terry, bolted past the Blazers en route to an NBA Championship. And this year's safe matchup? Seemingly it was the Spurs, a team that Portland had fared so well against in years past. We all know how well that went, especially once the Blazer starters needed a chance to catch their breath. The Blazers need more firepower if they want to get over the hump instead of climbing halfway up and slipping down.
Since 2000, that "hump" was just getting past the first round of the playoffs. Heck, for most of that time the goal was just getting IN to the postseason. But today the next step is becoming one of the final four or even final two teams standing, Portland needs to look at the types of teams that are making title pushes.
The reality is, while it may not be hyper important in February or March, bench scoring is a critical component to playing in late May and into June.
Just look at the names listed above: Allen, Ginobili, Scola, etc. They certainly aren't the guys that are going to get you through the dog days of February. What they are, though, are the players that can turn a five-point lead when the starters go out into a 15-point lead. They're also the guys that can torch you for 12 points in 90 seconds, either to get you back into a game or give you a second-half cushion. When you consider the slowing pace of playoff basketball and the defensive quality starting to creep ever higher, it's all that much more valuable.
Portland needs that jolt.
Mo Williams provided the Blazers some juice this season. While Aldridge was often doing everything humanly possible to keep Portland afloat against Houston, Williams was attempting to do his best impression off the bench. What was even more obvious, though, was when Williams wasn't on the court in the latter half of the Spurs series the Trail Blazers got pulverized.
Portland isn't the only one in this category either: Oklahoma City couldn't find an ounce of bench production against San Antonio, electing to play Derek Fisher the most minutes of any Thunder bench player in its Game Six loss. Houston's inconsistent bench was one of the major downfalls in their Round One loss to the Trail Blazers. And the lack of quality bench play right now in Miami is one of the biggest reasons they can't hang with San Antonio.
This need for a bench scorer isn't necessarily reserved for a guard either; the immediate mental jump from "scorer" is often to "backcourt," but some conference semifinalists wouldn't have made it that far if it weren't for the bigs mentioned above. At this point, Portland should remain open to whatever bench option may exist, backcourt or otherwise.
As the roster currently stands, now with two All-NBA talents and a strong core starting unit, the Blazers look primed to make yet another push into the postseason. The next step is looking at what will get Portland across the next hurdle.
Whatever position they play and by whatever means they arrive, Portland needs to make sure that their next sixth man specializes in being an offensive spark.
That's the type of player that gets teams over the top in the postseason.
-- Sam Tongue