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The Trail Blazers’ Bench Woes Are Nothing New

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The Trail Blazers’ second unit is performing under expectations so far this year, but is it really that much worse than its 2015-16 iteration?

Portland Trail Blazers v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Trail Blazers are off to a 7-5 start behind the superb play of Damian Lillard. “Otherworldly” is probably a better way to describe what Lillard has accomplished thus far, but he hasn’t been alone. With Dame bolstered by his backcourt-mate CJ McCollum, the two-headed monster has been enough to secure the Blazers a solid position out of the starting gate despite noted issues surrounding them - getting beaten on the boards almost nightly, allowing teams to score at will.

Factors that were supposed to be a strength of this team - continuity and depth - have yet to materialize. The Blazers bench is a problem right now, but it’s not exactly a new problem for Portland.

When you look at Portland’s hard-charging run to close out the 2015-16 season - when Maurice Harkless was inserted into the starting lineup for the final 11 games of the season - they won eight contests, only slightly better than the way Portland has started this year. Lillard wasn’t playing at an MVP level, McCollum was holding steady, and Harkless was only slightly outperforming his current level, yet the team as a whole was operating like a well-oiled machine.

...At least that’s how it was viewed.

Portland’s bench unit gave up 39.1 points per game during that 11-game stretch, which is only slightly under the 42.4 points they’ve given up through the first 11 games this season. While you can’t make a direct correlation between the two as they featured different players and roles, it helps to take a step back and realize that Portland’s bench wasn’t that spectacular to begin with.

That 39.1 points was good enough for No. 14 in the NBA in points allowed, and this year it would’ve put them at No. 16. There are pretty tight margins in the middle of the pack, but the difference between first and last is a whopping 22 points so far this year. When everything settled in 2015-16 it was only 12 points, so there’s certainly some early season noise in there.

The raw point totals help frame where the team sits comparatively, but what really matters here is net rating. Essentially, we need to ask, “Is the bench holding, improving, or conceding the lead?” Net rating gives us the ability or the general sense of what the reserves’ time on the court means for the overall impact on the scoreboard.

For context, the Blazer’s bench ORtg (98.3) is No. 20 in the league while their DRtg (107.6) is No. 27. As you might expect, their NetRtg of -9.3 isn’t stellar (No. 25) and reflects what an issue the bench has been. While neither number makes you feel good as a fan, there are positives to be gleaned from some of the deeper stats and and signs that point to the Blazers being the victims of some serious outliers to the statistical norm.

When you start to take a deeper look into Portland’s bench from last year to this year, the waters muddy even further. Last season, they were the third-worst defensive 3-point percentage team in the league, allowing opponents to knock down over 37 percent. This year? They have the third-best 3-point percentage allowed, at 30.4 percent, on roughly the same amount of shots from the field.

So while the Blazers’ defense has improved along the 3-point line, they’re getting beaten inside more than nearly any other team. This is where some of that statistical noise comes into play. For a baseline, every shot that’s not at the rim or a 3-point attempt has roughly a 40 percent chance of going in league-wide. So when you see that opponents are hitting well over 50 percent of their paint shots not at the rim, that would be some regression back to average.

The counter to this, of course, is that this is a shot the Blazers are willing to concede - but they aren’t “willing” to concede any shot in theory, and in practice they aren’t. According to player tracking data, the Blazers contest the fourth-most shots in the league. If that’s the case, then one would expect those same contested shots that are falling at an abnormally high rate to drop back down a level more comparative to the league average.

The overall field goal percentage defense of the reserves is almost the same as last season, 45 percent to 44 percent. This means the Blazers are covering up everywhere else relatively well - or at least at an acceptable level. The problem is, the areas they do struggle in, they struggle mightily, and they compound those defensive problems by fouling the fourth-most in the league (10.3 FPG). It’s one thing to have defensive struggles that you can cover up for by being stronger in other areas. However, it’s an entirely different thing to struggle in so many places and send opponents to the free throw line for nearly 12 attempts per game.

As bad as things may seem, particularly inside, this isn’t a huge change from how the Blazers performed off the bench defensively last year. They just weren’t that good, but they did enough things well on that end that they could sustain themselves with an effective and efficient offense. So if the defense is performing at least close to what the Blazers demonstrated they were capable of last year, perhaps the offense is where more attention needs to be paid.

This is where things start to clear up a bit more as far as potential issues. This year’s backups are getting up less shots and making significantly less of them overall. Last year the Blazers’ bench took 28.4 shots per game, making 46.8 percent of them. This year they’ve dropped to 25.2 attempts per game while cashing in on 41.9 percent. While Lillard has had a revival in the paint this year, the bench has struggled inside. Last season’s bench mob was fifth-best in the league at 62.5 percent inside of 5 feet. This year’s version has dropped to eleventh-worst at 55 percent while also getting the second-least amount of shots in that range.

The interior game for Portland’s bench has been so anemic that they rank second-to-last in field goal attempts inside 9 feet. To make matters worse, they have the third-worst field goal percentage.

2016-17 NBA benches (ranges <5 feet and 5-9 feet):

While last year’s bench wasn’t the most prominent in the league on either offense or defense, it was efficient when it needed to be. Last year’s team made 2.7 more shots inside per contest at a shade under 60 percent. Which might also help explain why this year’s bench is getting to the line 2.6 times less per game. While it may not seem like much on the surface, there’s 5-6 points a night that the Blazers bench was accustomed to getting efficiently, and those points just aren’t there now.

Much of this has centered around the backups as a group, but there’s clearly a difference between last year’s reserves and this group. And that’s not just in personnel - the addition of Evan Turner and the subtraction of Gerald Henderson, for example - but in how the distribution of touches has changed.

While Turner will bear the brunt of much fan criticism, some of it deservingly so, there’s really no one on the bench who’s performing as expected. Some of this may be due to how and who is running the show with the second group. McCollum’s one of the few players across the board who saw his touches, time on the ball, and overall dribbles decrease from last year. When you’re taking the ball out of the hands of the man who essentially ran the second unit last year, you can probably expect there to be a few bumps along the way.

However, this of course doesn’t account for Turner’s nearly 20 percent turnover percentage (!) nor does it highlight Ed Davis going from a +60 percent shooter to a sub 40 percent shooter. It doesn’t show where Allen Crabbe has had six games where he’s made three or fewer field goals. The ball distribution, who controls the offense and who initiates it could be a symptom or it could be the disease. It’s still a bit early to tell, but one thing’s for sure: There are certainly plenty of areas for Portland’s bench to make a marked improvement.


Blazer’s Edge Night 2017

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