clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

With Wesley Matthews gone, Arron Afflalo leaves 'sixth man' role behind

The Blazers have had one of the worst benches in the NBA for a few years now. Arron Afflalo was supposed to change that. Now... not so much.

Arron Afflalo has had an immediate impact.
Arron Afflalo has had an immediate impact.
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Arron Afflalo was supposed to be the savior of the Trail Blazers' bench. And if you ask me, that was supposed to matter. A lot.

Look at it this way. With every team that advances to the NBA Finals and achieves championship glory, it's the superstar players that receive the lion's share of the credit. It's the stars who receive MVP trophies, the stars who go on Letterman a week later and talk about their accomplishments and the stars who are immortalized for years to come in video montages preceding every future Finals game.

Having said all of that: No team has ever won a title with star power alone.

Behind every great team is a sneaky-good supporting cast of guys who step up in key moments. The 2013 Heat were obviously known best for the dominance of LeBron James, but they never would have won the Finals without Ray Allen hitting an unforgettable game-tying 3 to force overtime in Game 6 (or Shane Battier coming out of nowhere with six 3-pointers in the deciding Game 7). The Spurs never would have avenged their loss in 2014 without bench play - obviously Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan got the headlines, but Boris Diaw and Patty Mills were quietly fantastic off the bench to help San Antonio win.

And so on, and so forth. Every champion has had bench heroes come through for them at some point along the way. Where would those 2011 Mavericks have been without Jason Terry? The 2008 Celtics without James Posey? The Spurs without Robert Horry, the Lakers without Derek Fisher, the Bulls without Steve Kerr? These guys matter. They don't often make headlines, but they make a real difference.

Which is why it's been troubling over the last few years to look at the Blazers' roster - they've never had the kind of supporting cast necessary to compete with the NBA's elites. The more you dig into the data, the scarier it gets. Here's where the Blazers' bench has stacked up in recent seasons:

NBA's worst-scoring benches, 2012-13:
Bench Points/Game
26. Chicago Bulls
27. Memphis Grizzlies 27.7
28. Los Angeles Lakers
29. Indiana Pacers
30. Portland Trail Blazers

Bench Points/Game
26. Houston Rockets
27. Indiana Pacers
28. Toronto Raptors
29. Washington Wizards
30. Portland Trail Blazers 24.7

Bench Points/Game
26. Utah Jazz
27. Orlando Magic 27.5
28. Miami Heat
29. Portland Trail Blazers
30. Cleveland Cavaliers

This is alarming. The Blazers haven't just had the worst bench in the league the last three years - they've had the worst by far. They're the only team in the league's bottom five in all three seasons, with only Indiana cracking the list even twice. They've ranked 30th, 30th and 29th. The only team worse than them since 2012 is one that doesn't need a bench because it has LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in the starting five.

It's not hard to do the forensic work and trace back to how this problem originated - the Blazers are a top-heavy team by design. It's a function of their salary cap sheet. They've been top-heavy since 2012 because that when they sat down to hammer out an extension contract with Nicolas Batum - when they signed Batum that summer for four years and $46 million, they were effectively kissing their cap flexibility goodbye.

That 2012-13 Blazers team was spending $11 million on Batum and $13 million on LaMarcus Aldridge, plus was saddled with a ghastly $16 million cap hold on the retired Brandon Roy. Add all that up, and the problem was obvious. For crying out loud, the Blazers spent the same money on those three guys that Oklahoma City did on Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. Not that paying for star talent is a bad thing, but it's a give and take. You invest all that cash in three guys, and there's not gonna be enough left for a deep bench.

Now, if you take a second look at those bench scoring charts above, you'll notice something - there are plenty of very, very good teams that manage to get by with a bottom-five bench. The Cavs are currently one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference. All five of last year's teams were strong playoff squads. Memphis and Indiana in 2013 were both in their respective conference finals.

What you don't see on those lists, however, are Finals teams. Obviously this is a small sample and there a zillion factors that play into this stuff, but here's a theory that doesn't seem all that unreasonable: Teams without deep benches will always struggle to go all the way, because once you get deep in the playoffs, everyone has a strong starting five and a smart coach. You can't beat teams brute-force by throwing your best guys out there and out-talenting everyone. There's a definite ceiling for any team that tries to win that way. You're going to run into an elite tactician who's able to make the right adjustments and take away your plans A, B, and more. To reach the top of the mountain, you might need to dig deep and find a plan F. Don't have one? Well, there's a reason that the Grizzlies and Pacers lost to Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra.

Does this theory make sense? You can certainly poke holes in it, but I think it holds at least a little bit of merit. And I think Neil Olshey thought so too, which was why he picked up the phone two weeks ago and made the bold decision to trade a first-round pick for Afflalo.

Is Afflalo the second coming of Robert Horry? Maybe; maybe not. But it's hard to deny that even in a brief window of time - just the two weeks in between his arrival in Portland and the Wesley Matthews Achilles injury that necessitated Afflalo's move into the starting five - he showed us glimpses of the entirely new element he brought to the Blazers off the bench. He had a handful of productive games in a reserve role, including a 10-point game against the Spurs on Feb. 25 and a big breakout two days later against OKC, where he scored 18 and got to the line eight times.

Those numbers won't blow you away, but they're better than we've seen from a Blazer bench guy in quite a while. And what's beautiful is this - the Blazers haven't had to work hard to get Afflalo those points. They haven't had to modify their offense or change the way they play in the slightest. They haven't had to call a single play for Afflalo yet - hell, it's not even clear whether Afflalo's touched a playbook. It doesn't matter, though, because everything Afflalo is getting is coming naturally in the flow of the game. Afflalo's a gifted player with a versatile skill set, able to capitalize on whatever chances come his way.

For example...

The easiest way for Afflalo to sneak into the offense is by making plays before the opposing D is even set. Because he's a great two-way player and a solid athlete who gets down the floor in transition well, plays like this one come naturally to him. Watch as he deflects a pass from the Spurs' Manu Ginobili to create an opportunity in transition for Nic Batum. Afflalo emerges as a running mate for Batum in transition - so as Batum is chased down by Cory Joseph, he's able to lob a nice pass into the paint for Afflalo to finish at the rim. Ah, the beauty of the 2-on-1 fast break. And just think - if you put a smaller player like Steve Blake on the floor in Afflalo's place, that 2-on-1 turns into a 1-on-1. Missed opportunity.

Another thing that Afflalo gives the Blazers is his shooting. Like here:

In the right lineup, Afflalo can be an outside threat for the Blazers without much effort. This 3-point shot comes to him incredibly easily because the primary action on this play is a pick and roll between Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. Obviously, when you've got two guys in front of you who are that lethal offensively, stopping them is going to be your main focus. What happens here is that OKC moves as if to trap Lillard, with Westbrook coming at him from the left of LMA's screen and Ibaka cutting around the right side. That leaves Andre Roberson to cheat off of his man - Afflalo - to give a little help guarding LMA on any potential roll to the basket. Eventually Ibaka recovers and picks up LMA, allowing Roberson to go back to Afflalo, but by then it's too late. Afflalo's wide open, and he drills the 3. And as long as he's on the same team with two of the best offensive players in the NBA, plays like this are likely to keep happening.

Afflalo is a lot more than just a perimeter shooter, though. If that were his only offensive skill, he wouldn't be a $7 million player. But what sets Afflalo apart from a lot of other NBA shooting guards is his ability to use his size and strength in certain matchups, taking opposing guards into the post. Here he is against the Thunder's Dion Waiters:

This play happens totally by accident - the ball ends up in Afflalo's hands as the result of a broken play, with Lillard losing control on a drive to the basket and Afflalo scrambling to get himself relatively open-ish in the corner, isolated against Waiters. Afflalo can shoot the ball right away here if he wants. He might make it. But instead he decides to exploit a mismatch - he's 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, and Waiters is 6-foot-4 (listed, anyway) and 210 (body fat percentage undisclosed). Rather than simply shoot, Afflalo decides he's got the advantage if he takes Waiters into the post. He takes a few dribbles, backs him down and he's able to squeeze off an effective shot from 6 feet away instead of 22.

Even if Afflalo doesn't become a fixture in the Blazers' offense, and he continues to meander into the game in little ways with his transition buckets and scores off of broken plays, he still has the potential to change the game significantly for Portland moving forward. But how will his role change now? With Matthews out of the mix and Afflalo forced into a starting role too soon, do the Blazers lose that "bench scorer" spark that they so desperately needed? How does that change things?

A sixth man is a criminally underrated thing. It's another guy that can be a difference-maker in a big game. Come playoff time, matchups become more important and the advantages you once had can be neutralized. When you play the same team seven times in a row, opposing coaches figure out what's working for you and adjust. Aldridge might go off for 46 and 43 points in the first two games of a series (as he did against Houston last year), but eventually, good teams find ways to take away what works. Hence the Spurs' five-game whooping of the Blazers last May.

In "Sixth Man Afflalo," the Blazers had another weapon. It might not seem like much, but having six double-digit scoring threats in the rotation instead of five makes your team a lot more difficult to plan for. It's one more option for the Popoviches and Carlisles of the world to deal with. That addition might - I don't want to get carried away here, I'm just saying might - have been the one thing needed to turn the 2014-15 Blazers from a good team into a great one.

Does this mean the Blazers were the next Heat or Spurs - a championship team waiting to happen - and this Matthews injury has ruined everything? I don't know. That might be a bit hyperbolic. But with Afflalo in the mix, they were certainly one step closer. This news takes them back to square one. But hey - given the talent still on this team, there are worse places to be.