It was no surprise Tuesday night when the Blazers played down to their opponent, the visiting East #1 seed Toronto Raptors.
Well, technically, when you have the most wins in the league, the only option you have besides ‘continued domination’ is ‘playing down’ to your opponent, since everyone else is below you. Go ahead, give a high five to yourself right now, Rip City. Alright, that’s enough.
The Blazers ripped through last week, beating 3 more sub-.500 teams (yes, OKC is still below .500 – for now). They are certainly doing what they are supposed to do, sporting an 18-2 record against such teams to date. Yet with the exception of the two recent games against the worst teams in the league (you know who you are), the Blazers have consistently ‘played down’ to lesser opponents so far this season. This has resulted in long minutes for starters, freak injuries, and sporadic minutes for bench players jockeying to become contributors, but again, mostly wins.
The season’s length and intensity is undeniable. It is likely to be a subject raised in the next collective bargaining agreement. It is definitely never far from the mind of Popovich, who is looking more like Donald Sutherland in the Hunger Games by the day. The calendar is a fickle and cruel taskmaster that can render accomplishments to date null and void in the bat of an eye – ask the 2012 Bulls. Or, um, Blazer fans. They're easier to find here.
This is why the discussion often does not stop simply at winning, but how wins are managed. So, let's kick it around some: how much of a problem is it that the Blazers have been playing down to their opponents?
Here are some bigger picture concerns that come along with this style of play:
Blazers starters play a lot of minutes per game. They have two players in the top thirteen in MPG (Aldridge 9th at 36.3, Lillard 13th at 35.7), three in the top 35 (Matthews, 33.6), and four in the top 40 (Batum, 33.3). Houston is the only other team that can say the same.
The thing is, these aren’t ordinary NBA minutes. They are in the Terry Stotts’ Flow offense, where points and wings cover a lot of ground. Dame and Wes are 2 of the top 6 players in Distance Covered so far. The NBA has 22 players who average between 4.2-4.4 mph while on the court – the Blazers are the only team having 3 of them (Nic 4.4, Lillard 4.3, Wes 4.2).
One thing’s for sure – the starters sure aren’t some lazy hipsters languidly rolling around their bed / coffee shops with beds. They are IN SHAPE. And anyone who’s ever done any cardio (or heard about someone doing cardio) knows how quickly you can lose endurance, so having their minutes somewhat consistent could be seen as part of conditioning.
Still it is a little concerning that in playing a total of 13 games so far against the Nets, Celtics, 76ers, Hornets, Wolves, Pacers, Knicks, Bucks, and Pistons, Stotts was only able to get LaMarcus, Dame, and Wes under their average MPG twice each.
Even in the biggest of blowouts, it’s customary for starters to play into the mid to high 20s in minutes, to stay sharp as well as in shape. But did Wesley Matthews have to play 32 minutes in a game that saw Melo sit the second half while Quincy Acy and Cole Aldrich tied for the Kincks’ scoring high after the break? Did we really need 32 minutes of Dame to secure a 21-point win against Philly?
Clearly one big reason to want to lower minutes is to minimize exposure to injury, which can come from general wear and tear, or in single terrifying moments.
I don’t want to come across as an overprotective ‘helicopter parent’, but most of the Blazers’ significant injuries this season have come late in the game. Perhaps some players could stand to use their ‘bedtime’ adjusted. CJ had his finger fractured in the fourth quarter against NO. Dame sprained his fingers with 23 seconds left against Indiana. Both of Nic’s scary moments were also late – a knee contusion with 1 minute left against Denver, then hurting the knee and shooting wrist when flagrantly fouled with 3 minutes to go against the Bucks. We can further assume that (although unverified) LaMarcus caught his upper respiratory infection in a fourth quarter situation. RoLo, of course, broke his hand in the third quarter because he’s a different kind of cat.
Sure, injuries are fairly random and do happen at any time. But when lesser teams are given hope in a close game, they are more likely to be hungry, aggressive and accordingly engage in the sort of desperate physical play that has resulted in some dings on our end. Wouldn’t you rather see the starters joking on the sideline at the end of games rather than getting frantically clawed at? Either choice is entertaining, in its own way. But I think I’m starting to understand why my buddy Charlie loves blowouts so much.
And you know who else loves blowouts? The bench.
Blazer nerds definitely view the continuing development of the bench as a pressing concern, especially since it’s currently difficult to obtain talent from outside the organization. Clearly, the bench has been improved this year, but having a playoff-ready bench is a goal that would improve chances for a deep run.
Maybe things are clicking along just fine in this regard. Everyone knows how to spell Allen Crabbe’s name now (or at least you should. It’s worth the effort). And if the last few games didn’t already give you a hint, stats confirm Joel Freeland is playing great - he's 4th in the NBA in Defensive Rating. Wow, really? Lower the minimum requirements to players who have played in at least 15 games, and the top names remain unchanged -except that CJ and T-Rob would check in at 2nd and 3rd.
In the NBA.
What? Could be small sample size craziness, could be the quality of the opponents they square off against, but still a bit surprising. Of course there may be cases where T-Rob loses his man so completely that maybe the ensuing points scored don’t count against him. Maybe reps and comfort with schemes is more important than numbers here, which can only be accomplished with time on the floor.
Looking at two developing players who have struggled to find game time – Will Barton got 4.5 minutes of time against the Sixers, and Meyers Leonard got 3.5 against the Knicks. If they can’t get off the bench in games against the bottom feeders, when will they have a chance at significant competition?
To be fair, they each got 14 minutes in their other game against the East’s doormats: Keeping 15 players on a roster happy with playing time may well be pie-in-the-sky socialism that is an impeachable offense in some circles. Dame and Wes had a similar timeshare – Dame’s 32 minutes against Philly were offset by 29 against NY, while Wes played 29 against Philly and 32 against NY.
Bench players thrust into starting roles have performed admirably. Is it nit-picking to worry about bench minute allocation at this point?
Possible Benefits to ‘Playing Down’
The fact is, ‘playing down to your opponent’ is a common occurrence over a long season. The best teams do it. The positives include becoming battle-tested while the stakes are lower, sort of ‘practice for big moments’, where trust and confidence is built and solidified. It gives you the opportunity to try out different plays to see what feels right.
It could be said that the Blazers are still a young team trying to establish who they are. This is possibly why most opponents have been able to hang tough throughout games. So learning how to manage these games is arguably part of the process.
So should we play down the ‘playing down’, or is swearing it off a fulfillable New Year’s resolution?