The Blazers open training camp for the 2014-15 season early next week, host the Fan Fest on Sunday, October 5 and kick off the preseason schedule two days later in Utah against the Jazz. Somewhere in the month between the opening of camp and the first game of the season October 29 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland coach Terry Stotts will have to figure out who -- if anybody -- his early season sixth man will be.
Last year, guard Mo Williams led the way for the Blazers reserves, playing 24.8 minutes per game. No other bench player averaged more than forward Dorell Wright's 14.5 minutes per game, illustrating how important Williams was to Stotts' rotation.
Point guard Steve Blake, 34, and center Chris Kaman, 32, were brought in this summer by Blazers GM Neil Olshey to provide veteran minutes off the bench. Second-year guard CJ McCollum has been in town most of the summer working out at the team's facilities in order to earn more minutes this fall, wing Will Barton broke into the playing rotation late last spring and forward Thomas Robinson is entering his highly anticipated third season after being taken fifth overall in the 2012 NBA Draft. Don't forget that Wright is looking to bounce back from a tough season, while big man Joel Freeland played over half of 2013-14 as Portland's backup center. Furthermore, Wright, Freeland and Barton will all be playing for their next contracts.
There's plenty of motivation for every player in Stotts' bench unit to scrap for minutes this fall, and the playing time should be there for the taking.
In nine of the last 10 regular season games for Portland in 2013-14 -- forward LaMarcus Aldridge was unavailable for the season finale against the Los Angeles Clippers, thrusting Wright into the starting lineup and making for an unconventional rotation that night -- Stotts made his first substitution near the six-minute mark in the first quarter. In each of those nine games, Robinson was the first player off the bench, spelling Lopez. One of those times Williams checked in with Robinson while Matthews came out.
In the six playoff games against the Houston Rockets, Robinson was the first reserve to check in on four ocassions, coming in at the same time as Williams three of those times. Wright and Freeland were each the first substitutions for one game in the first-round playoff series.
The Blazers' playing rotation the latter portion of the regular season and in the first round of the 2014 playoffs consisted of Robinson as the first player off the bench typically, coming in for Lopez abut halfway through the first quarter. Within a minute or two, Williams often came in for Matthews and played heavier minutes while Robinson was used in shorter bursts for less overall time. Wright, McCollum, Freeland and Barton all got spot minutes in between.
Is it possible that Portland starts the season without a true sixth man -- that no single player will fill the 24.8 minutes a night vacated by Williams? Perhaps Stotts' best option early on would be to platoon bench players, spreading out the reserve minutes more evenly, similar to how coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs operates.
The Blazers don't have the bench depth of the Spurs, but they do have a number of unproven or limited players they're going to be relying on to give the starters a breather, with no player standing out head-and-shoulders above the rest like Williams did last year in Portland.
Entering his twelfth season after not playing more than 55 games in any of the last three, Blake probably cannot be relied upon for big minutes at this point in his career. Similarly, Kaman has struggled to stay on the court consistently in five of his last seven seasons and can probably only play center -- a position that starter Robin Lopez held down for almost 32 minutes a night last year. With Freeland vying for time at either frontcourt spot, it'd be difficult to expect more than 16 minutes for Kaman per game unless injuries become a problem for Portland's frontline.
Coming off a July thumb injury that's held him out for much of the summer, Robinson probably won't be ready for big minutes early on. Even if he were, he backs up Aldridge, a three-time All-Star. The minutes available at power forward for Robinson are sparse, and Stotts is less likely to sub him in for Lopez and slide Aldridge over to center now that he has Kaman around, a serviceable 7-footer who allows Aldridge to play power forward almost exclusively.
Wright will likely never be a true sixth man for the Blazers because small forward Nicolas Batum, the man in front of him on the depth chart, plays heavy minutes. Wright can pick up some playing time as a stretch-four, but those opportunities are situational at best.
McCollum and Barton are young players trying to break into the rotation, but the minutes may not be there to do so. With Blake entering the backcourt, the third-guard duties Williams fulfilled last year will be split among multiple players unless someone manages to stand out early on.
A hypothetical breakdown of Stotts' minute distribution next year might look like this:
Point guard: Damian Lillard, 30 mpg; Steve Blake 18 mpg
Shooting guard: Wesley Matthews, 34 mpg; Damian Lillard 6 mpg; CJ McCollum, 8 mpg
Small forward: Nicolas Batum, 36 mpg; Wright 12 mpg
Power forward: LaMarcus Aldridge, 36 mpg; Thomas Robinson, 12 mpg
Center: Robin Lopez, 32 mpg; Chris Kaman, 16 mpg
Total mpg by player:
This scenario assumes a 10-man rotation with the starters playing the same amount of minutes they averaged last season. Barton and Freeland both collect DNP-CDs here, while no bench player plays more than 18 minutes. If you want to shave a minute or two off each starter's playing time, it can be distributed among a number of bench players. Either way, though, it's clear there's no obvious sixth man on this Blazers roster heading into training camp.
Barring injuries, do you see Stotts having a super-sub this year like he did with Williams last season, or do you think he'll have to more evenly distribute his bench minutes? We won't know until preseason's over, but right now it appears Portland could start the year still searching for someone to lead the charge from the reserve ranks.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter