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How Well has the Trail Blazers' Bench Performed This Year?

The Portland Trail Blazers have a solid bench for the first time in half a decade. So why do the stats suggest that they're only average?

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Gerald Henderson. Moe Harkless. Allen Crabbe. "Phys. Ed" Davis. Meyers Leonard. For the first time in a half-decade the Portland Trail Blazers and their fans don't need to panic when the starters leave the court and the bench players enter the game.

The emergence of Portland's overhauled bench mob has paid dividends recently - the reserves have been a key factor in the team's six-game winning streak. Crabbe has thrived as a third guard, Davis has proven himself to be one of the best rebounding reserves in the league, and Henderson and Harkless have both recovered from slow starts.

It is thus perhaps surprising to learn that, statistically, the Blazers reserves do not necessarily stand out compared to other teams. This table shows the per game averages for the bench, and the Blazers' rank among the 30 NBA teams (green = top 25 percent, red = bottom 25 percent):

The Blazer backups are totally average at 3-point shooting, drawing fouls, blocking shots, and scoring points. Despite Damian Lillard's assertion that the bench sometimes generates a lead, they have a negative plus/minus split, which suggests that reserve players have been outscored on the whole.

Not surprisingly, the bench leads the league in rebounding. This is likely due in large part to Davis' 7.2 rebounds per game. The Blazers are also second to last in assists, which is also expected. Stotts has assigned nearly all ball-handling and playmaking duties to his starting guards, so there are few chances for backup players to act as primary distributors.

But given the low playmaking expectations it is concerning that the Blazers are No. 24 in turnovers at 6.1 per game. Meyers Leonard is the primary turnover culprit; he leads all reserves with 1.4 per game. This is especially problematic given that he averages only 1.6 assists per game and rarely handles the ball closer than 15 feet to the basket.

The Blazer reserves also shoot well from the field, finishing third in field goal percentage. Davis leads this category at 60.7 percent, while Crabbe is second at 47.8. Together they account for 6.4 field goals per game, nearly half of Portland's average.

The advanced numbers are slightly more kind, but still do not make the Blazers bench look above average:

With the advanced stats, the Blazers still have a great rebounding bench, and a very poor passing bench. The disparity between the TS%  and eFG% represents a low free throw rate (TS% considers free throws, eFG% does not).

Perhaps the best news is that the team's reserves have a top six offensive rating. That, however, is offset by a slightly below average defense, which yields a net rating -0.8, No. 14 in the league. The Blazers are almost exactly average according to those numbers.

So what's going on here? Why do the stats suggest that the Blazers' bench is, overall, about average, but the eye test has told us that the bench has excelled?

First, it's possible that those observing the team have been disproportionately impressed by average play because they had grown used to watching a historically bad bench. Last season, for example, Stotts leaned heavily on aging veterans Steve Blake and Chris Kaman as the team aspired to make a deep playoff run. That was, somehow, a massive improvement over 2013 when Ronnie Price, Victor Claver, rookie Meyers Leonard, and Sasha Pavlovic all averaged more than 13 minutes per game.

Given that recent history it has been a relief to see Davis replace Joel Freeland at backup power forward and 2016 Allen Crabbe replace 2015 Allen Crabbe. Add in the recent excellent play of Henderson and Harkless, and it's easy to get excited about this year's bench compared to the last couple seasons.

The talent gap between the starters and bench players has also closed this season. For the last three seasons, the starters were clearly superior to their reserve counterparts. This season, outside of McCollum and Lillard, the gap between the players has become negligible. Davis, for example, outplays Noah Vonleh on an almost nightly basis and Crabbe is often the third best player on the team. The lack of clear demarcation in talent between the starters and reserves may be skewing perceptions of how good the bench actually is.

That being said, the numbers do not necessarily support the idea that the talent gap between the Blazers' starters and reserves is closer than for other teams around the league. This table shows the difference in advanced statistics between the two units, and how the Blazers rank compared to other teams (Note: for all stats, including defensive rating, positive numbers indicate that that the bench unit is statistically outperforming the starting unit):

These numbers suggest that the starters and bench are about even with the rest of the league for differences in production. The exception being the aforementioned high rebounding and low assist rate for the bench. Having a league average bench is still a step forward for the Blazers, but it should be acknowledged that the gap between the starters and bench is not exceptionally narrow.

The decline in the effectiveness of the starters has also dramatically lowered expectations for the team. Given preseason expectations, the bench unit has been allowed more leeway to make mistakes than over the previous two years, and accordingly have been judged more leniently. Simply put, when a team is on pace to win 50+ games the bench players will be crucified if their mistakes result in losses. But when you're expected to win 30 games, at most, the bench is allowed a longer leash as player development takes precedent over victories.

Leonard, for example, was allowed to make repeated obvious mistakes and stayed in the rotation until very recently. Harkless, after months of ineffective play, was given a second chance and has thrived. Stotts continued to play Henderson, despite several weeks of atrocious play, as the backup guard recovered from off-season hip surgery. Those players would have cost the team victories last season so it's unlikely they would have seen the court as often as they did this season. Thus, the lowered expectations have allowed several players to work through rough spots that may have relegated them permanently to the pine last season. As such, stats may not be reflecting the apex that Harkless and Henderson seemed to have reached in the last month.

It's also important to note that defense is not considered in many of the stats listed. Massive improvements on defense have been one of the key reasons for the Blazers' surge up the standings over the course of the last month. In the last ten games the team has had the third best defensive rating in the league (99.0), and the bench has had the fifth best defensive rating (100.2). The bench's net rating in those games is 8.3, good for fourth overall. It seems likely that the bench has given the team a defensive boost in recent weeks that is not captured by the stats listed above. The reserves' offensive numbers could also be depressed by the constant presence of either Lillard or McCollum. Stotts has made it a goal to keep one of his starting guards on the floor at all times, which means that reserve players rarely initiate the offense or control the ball. That may be reducing their statistical presence.

In the end, the unexpectedly average statistics of the Portland bench may not matter. The team has been winning at an incredible rate (best record in the league over the last month!) while playing a nine or 10-man rotation. The low preseason expectations appear to have helped the bench by giving several players time to work their way into their roles and they are now thriving. At this point, it's clear that, much like Stotts' previous teams, the Blazers reserves have created a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.



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