When you're working with an obvious, slam-dunk playoff team - and the Trail Blazers, who were out to a 17-4 start to their season by the second week in December, certainly qualify - you've kind of earned the right to play the regular season at your own pace. You're not a Phoenix, a Brooklyn or a Boston, fighting tooth and nail to win every single game that you can, just to squeak into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed. Your ticket's already punched. So, if you so desire, you can use the regular season as somewhat of a science lab. Do some experimenting.
To an extent, Terry Stotts and the Blazers have done that. Stotts' group got out to that rip-roaring 17-4 start largely on the strength of seven guys - their five incumbent starters and veteran bench guys Chris Kaman and Steve Blake. As the pressure has subsided since then, the coach has gradually opened up to the possibilities of giving other guys extended run. He's spent a couple weeks developing Allen Crabbe here, a couple on Joel Freeland there. And so on, and so forth. While the Blazers have never been known for their depth, and they began the season with a tight rotation, they've since modified their approach. We're now at the point where 13 different Blazers have played 500 minutes or more this season. (Freeland ranks 13th on the team at 529.)
That's all well and good. Eighty-two games of experimenting can be interesting. You try out different players, different combinations and get a feel for who works well in what matchup. You learn a lot about your team. But in a couple of weeks, the time for experimenting will be over. The playoffs are right around the corner, and that brings us to the all-important question - how does Stotts fill out his postseason rotation in 2015? Who plays, who sits and for how long?
We all got a glimpse of the coach's strategy last year, but a whole new bench means a whole new ballgame.
Here's a quick look at what Stotts did with the playoff rotation last spring. Just like in the regular season, it was the starting five playing the lion's share of the minutes, but he did find four guys he could rely on in April and May:
|Regular Season MPG||Postseason MPG|
These are just four of the nine total guys who played for the Blazers in the 2014 playoffs, but the other five were mostly afterthoughts - C.J. McCollum, Victor Claver, Earl Watson, Freeland and Meyers Leonard all played under 5.0 minutes per game and sat through a lot of DNPs. For the most part, Stotts had a nine-man rotation that he could trust.
This year? I dunno. It'll be a lot tougher for Stotts to whittle his postseason group down to nine, should he choose to go that route. Again, 13 Blazers have played 500 minutes or more this season. Five of those 13 will start, and one (Wesley Matthews) will be unavailable due to injury, but that still leaves seven guys competing for four bench spots.
Let's take a moment to examine each of the seven, discuss his role and analyze how (if at all) he can help in the 2015 postseason.
Regular season MPG: 19.3
Postseason status: Major contributor
No one knew quite what to expect from the big caveman heading into this season, but he's turned out to be the most productive bench player on the Blazers all year. His level of production isn't exactly consistent - he gave the Blazers 10.9 points per game off the bench in November, then 5.6 in February, then back up to 8.0 this month - but he's stayed relatively healthy throughout the year and he's been a go-to guy in the post.
Expect Kaman to be a key option for the Blazers in the postseason. When the going gets tough and opposing defenses clamp down, it's hard to get the shots you want. Sometimes forcing the ball inside to the big man in the middle is your best option. Kaman will need to produce.
Regular season MPG: 19.0
Postseason status: Major contributor
The other major offseason acquisition last summer, Blake has also been a fairly solid contributor for Stotts off the bench. He's given the Blazers no major surprises, good or bad. What you see is what you get from him - toughness, durability and a decent outside shot.
Blake is a natural fit in a playoff rotation because of his versatility at the two guard spots. If Stotts wants to tighten up and go with just three guards for a game or two, he has the ideal third guard in Blake. He's a guy who can run the offense alongside a conventional two-guard like Arron Afflalo, or he can step off the ball, let Damian Lillard run the offense and simply troll the perimeter for outside shooting opportunities. He's effective in either role, which will make him a must-have bench option come playoff time.
Regular season MPG: 14.2
Postseason status: Matchup-dependent option
Once you get past the two obvious veteran leaders on the Blazer bench, the decisions get a little bit more difficult. Somewhat amazingly, Leonard was third on the team this season in reserve minutes per game - but how will that translate to the postseason? Leonard is the first guy on this list who's not guaranteed a job every night.
I do, however, think he's a good fit in the playoff rotation for certain matchups. Fortunately for Leonard, both of the Blazers' potential first-round opponents are teams that might have trouble guarding a stretch four. Leonard has attempted 4.8 3-pointers per 36 minutes this season, and he's made a ridiculous 43.3 percent of them - that's going to demand close attention from opposing defenses in the playoffs. Imagine Blake Griffin having to guard Leonard in a Blazers-Clippers matchup - it would mean pulling the star power forward away from the rim and reducing the Clips' capability of getting defensive rebounds. Or with Meyers against Tim Duncan, you'd be dragging an older, slower big man all over the floor and taxing the Spurs' defense. Meyers isn't a sure thing to get his 14 minutes a night in the playoffs, but in the right matchup, he can absolutely thrive.
Regular season MPG: 14.0
Postseason status: "Instant offense" guy
A second-year player who's still only 23, McCollum is another guy whose role hasn't exactly been stable with the Blazers this season. McCollum fractured his right index finger in Novenber and was slow to recover; since then, his role has been all out of whack. He's had nights where he played 20 minutes and nights when Stotts benched him. He had a stretch in January of games with 2, 0, 0, 1 and 2 points; he had a run in March of 15, 13 and 23.
There's no doubt that McCollum is having the best stretch of his pro career now, with 7.7 points per game and 40.0 percent 3-point shooting since the All-Star break. He's not guaranteed steady minutes in the postseason, but if he does get them, can't you imagine him emerging as an explosive offensive force off the bench? You're playing the Spurs, you're struggling to get into your offense, you're down 10 or 12, then suddenly McCollum springs to life and gets you a 3, a steal followed by a driving layup, then another 3. You're back in the game. McCollum, more than anyone else on the bench in my opinion, is a guy with massive upside. He can swing a playoff game in a big way if he gets hot.
Regular season MPG: 12.6
Postseason status: On the fringes
Freeland has had his moments this season. When healthy, he's been a reliable big who can protect the rim, set a few screens, get a few rebounds and so on. He's been good for depth - a solid fourth or fifth big man who can fill in whenever necessary.
Of course, in the playoffs, you don't always need four or five big men - you need to tighten up the rotation and play the best guys. I've got a hunch that using Freeland won't be Stotts' plan A this spring. He only got 2.7 minutes per game last postseason, and that was before Kaman arrived and Leonard started to break out.
As I see it, there are basically two situations in which Freeland can sneak into the rotation in a significant way. One, someone gets hurt and Freeland needs to step up, and two, you're facing the Clippers in the first round and you need an extra six fouls to throw at DeAndre Jordan. Other than that, he'll probably ride the bench for the most part.
Regular season MPG: 12.4
Postseason status: On the fringes
Another guy who's been good for depth this season but perhaps provides more depth than Stotts will need in late April. Crabbe emerged as a decent bench scoring option early this season in McCollum's absence, putting up a few decent 8- and 9-point scoring nights without anyone ever calling a play for him, but he's been far quieter in 2015. The momentum isn't exactly building for a big Crabbe postseason.
Crabbe basically has one plus skill to offer, and that's his 3-point shooting. But hitting the long ball is a fairly redundant skill on this Portland bench, and if Stotts needs shooting, there are plenty of other guys on the depth chart he can ask. Such as...
Regular season MPG: 12.3
Postseason status: Potential X-factor
...this guy. The obvious caveat with Wright is the injury - the Blazers' wingman fractured the fourth metacarpal in his left hand in Portland's loss to the Clippers on Wednesday night, and rumor has it that he could miss a few weeks. [ed. Wright's injury status has been updated this morning. He'll miss 4-6 weeks.] But just for a moment, indulge me anyway - imagine the X-factor that could emerge if Wright returns in early May to play Game 6 of a playoff series, then comes off the bench and starts raining 3s?
It's a long shot, but I wouldn't count Wright out for the playoffs just yet. He's a veteran shooter who's got some playoff experience under his belt already, most notably with last year's Blazers and the 2010 Miami Heat, and he just might show up and give the Blazers an offensive jolt at an opportune time.
Among these seven guys, Stotts has to find at least four that he can trust in the postseason, and he's running out of time to find them. My gut says that ultimately, Kaman, Blake, Leonard and McCollum will be the four. But if you've got your own thoughts, feel free to share them below. This debate will be an interesting one to watch between now and the start of the postseason in two weeks.