With a 100-94 win over the Memphis Grizzlies Sunday, the Portland Trail Blazers capped off a 2-1 road trip and moved to 4-3 on the young season. Well-deserved focus has been placed on Damian Lillard and his MVP-like start to the season, but outside of CJ McCollum (and to a lesser degree, Mason Plumlee) the Blazers are struggling to see consistent offensive production from their supporting cast – specifically the bench unit.
For contrast, the 2013-14 Portland team featured a reserve unit consisting of Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, Joel Freeland, CJ McCollum, Thomas Robinson, Will Barton, and Meyers Leonard and averaged 24.7 points per game and finished dead last in the NBA in scoring. This year, Portland’s backups are putting up 27.3 points per game through the first seven games of the season, good for No. 26 in the league. If we remove rookie Jake Layman’s garbage-time outburst against the Golden State Warriors, the numbers drop to 25.2 points per game and No. 28 in the NBA.
This is concerning - coming into the season, Portland was expected to be one of the deepest teams in the league. Obviously, most teams would kill to have a duo like Lillard and McCollum in the backcourt, but after those two, the offensive power in the starting lineup falls off significantly. Plumlee, Al-Faouq Aminu, and Maurice Harkless are all versatile players capable of playing both sides of the ball, but none of them can be counted on for consistent production every night at this point. When compared to that 2013-14 team that featured a starting lineup of Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Robin Lopez, the urgency for better production off of the bench becomes clear.
This is a bit surprising. All summer, the talk about Portland’s roster was its depth, with the ability to go 10 or even 11 deep, depending on the match up. There has been talk of the necessity of a consolidation trade, since the team has too many bench players deserving of minutes, but not a consistent third scorer in the starting lineup, which has been true so far. But take a look at Portland’s bench production through six games this season:
Factoring in Portland’s win against Memphis (not searchable at basketball-reference.com at the time of this writing) where the bench put up 11 points in 77 minutes of action, the production looks even worse:
Crabbe: 9.4 ppg
Turner: 6.9 ppg
Vonleh: 4.6 ppg
Leonard: 3.0 ppg
Davis: 2.3 ppg
Basically, this team is not very good when Lillard is on the bench. McCollum will of course do his thing, and pretty much won the Memphis game on his own with a 16-point 4th quarter, but Portland is desperate for a second scorer when Lillard sits. The obvious change in the second unit is the addition of Evan Turner.
It’s still a bit too early to see how he will ultimately end up fitting with the second unit, but even as he adjusts to his new team, Turner has never really been a big-time scorer, and hanging your hopes on a career 43 percent shooter may not be advisable. Turner has done some nice things with the ball in his hands, finding open shooters and starting to cut down on careless passes, but he’s never going to be the type to consistently get 14 or 15 points per game off the bench.
Crabbe is doing a better job of putting the ball on the floor this season, but so far has seen his 3-point shooting fall to below just over 31 percent, after shooting a robust 39 percent last year. Leonard is shooting in the low thirties from beyond the arc and from the floor overall. Noah Vonleh has surprised so far this season, especially considering all indicators were that he was odd man out before the year started. Despite his encouraging play, and demonstration of the shooting ability he was touted as having when he arrived in Portland, it’s clear that coach Terry Stotts doesn’t trust Vonleh to play big minutes at this point in the season.
So while Lillard and McCollum may be able to carry the team, especially if they continue to average over 50 combined points per game, if either one of them goes down for any period of time the Blazers will be hard-pressed to generate offense. Raise your hand if you held your breath when Lillard landed on his hand or tweaked his ankle against Memphis on Sunday night (I know I did).
It’s possible that, at this early point in the season, scouting reports have caught up to Portland’s bench. Leonard doesn’t get nearly the open looks from behind the 3-point line that he saw two seasons ago, for example. He can still get a good shot if the ball whips around the perimeter and ends up in his hands, but in a basic pick-and-pop, teams know to defend against the long ball and that he requires an extra tick to get his shot off.
It will be up to him, and other relied-upon bench scorers like Crabbe, to adjust and still find ways to be productive. Of course, it’s possible that Aminu and/or Harkless find their groove and this becomes less of an issue, but if Harkless continues his up-and-down play or Aminu struggles with his jumper, things don’t bode well for Portland. Lillard may need to continue averaging 30 points per game - which is quite possible - or the Blazers are going to feel the pain from their lack of bench production over the long haul.