As your Portland Trail Blazers have spent the better part of the last six weeks lighting the NBA world on fire, going on an epic 14-2 run over the 16 games between Jan. 23 and March 1, there's been a sudden outpouring of national media attention pointed northwestward that no one anticipated going into 2016. Do a quick scan of the usual suspects who cover the NBA, and it's not difficult to find long, glowing odes to the Blazers' unexpected success. You can find examples here and here and here and here.
When most outsiders come in and pick away at the Blazers' 2015-16 story, they tend to focus on the ascent of the team's two core stars, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. As those two have realized their superpowers, the narrative goes, the Blazers have picked up the pace this winter and morphed from an also-ran into a legit West playoff team. The Blazers were expected to fall back into the draft lottery after losing four starters last summer, and for two months, they did exactly that; now, thanks to their star guards, they're back.
Make no mistake - part of the above narrative is absolutely true. Lillard and McCollum have indeed been fantastic the last six weeks, and they've both played huge roles in leading the Blazers back to postseason relevance. Here's the thing, though. Weren't those guys really good already, before mid-January? Lillard was a two-time All-Star entering this season; McCollum was a playoff stud last April and dropped 37 points on opening night this year. It's not as though either of them just flipped a switch over MLK weekend and knew how to play high-level basketball.
Those two guys have been rock-solid all along. They're great players now, but they were also great back in January when the team was barely treading water at 15-24. No - if you really want to know what's launched the Blazers to success, I'd argue that you have to dig deeper than simply stargazing at the guys scoring 20-plus every night. The most underrated storyline behind the Blazers' turnaround can be summarized in a single word: depth.
The Blazers' bench has been a subject of fascination every year under Terry Stotts. As a rule, Stotts tends to begin the year with a fairly tight rotation, then experiment gradually by shifting fringe guys into the mix one at a time; it usually isn't until February at the earliest that we really start to see who matters and who doesn't. This season is no exception, as we've only recently begun to see Stotts solidify his rotation, giving heavy minutes to guys who he was only casually tinkering with earlier in the season.
We knew all along that Meyers Leonard would be a key part of the Blazers' rotation; it's been clear for months that Allen Crabbe is as well. But this week, I want to zoom in on three guys in particular who have really stepped up in the last month, establishing themselves as major players. It's the contributions of relative newcomers like them, I'd argue, that are just as responsible for the Blazers' playoff surge as the star players at the top of the totem pole. The three names I have in mind: Gerald Henderson, Ed Davis and Maurice Harkless.
Gerald Henderson: The uber-third guard
Quick - pop quiz. Lillard and McCollum were the Blazers' two leading scorers in February, of course. Who was third?
It's a tricky question because the Blazers' pecking order tends to change a lot from month to month - in November, their No. 3 guy was Al-Farouq Aminu, and in December and January it was Crabbe. But Gerald Henderson, who spent the first half of the season either injured or near the end of the bench, just barely holding onto a rotation spot, emerged in February as the team's third option. In 11 February appearances, Henderson averaged 12.7 points per game on 9.2 shot attempts. He shot 52.5 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from 3 - respectable for a guy viewed as trade salary filler nine months ago.
Henderson has carved out a role for himself as quite possibly the best pure wing scorer on the Trail Blazers. I say "pure" because neither Lillard nor McCollum qualifies - both of those guys spend a great deal of time effectively playing point guard, bringing the ball up the floor and initiating pick-and-rolls. Terry Stotts always has one of his two lead guards or the other running the offense. But with Lillard playing 36 minutes a night and McCollum playing 35 himself, that leaves 25 minutes each game where one of the two is off the floor, and that's exactly when Henderson makes himself useful as an off-ball threat.
This play is a great example of how Henderson uses his craftiness as a scorer to help the Trail Blazers offensively. He's guarded on this possession by Paul George, one of the best wing defenders in the game, but he does a nice job using a quick pin-down screen from Ed Davis to shirk George and get himself a split-second of separation. He takes the pass from Lillard and could knock down a quick jumper right there, from just beyond the right elbow, but he's too patient for that. Henderson sees a good look but gets greedy, angling for a better one. He uses a screen from Meyers Leonard, takes advantage of a brief miscommunication about switching between George and Lavoy Allen, and he winds up with a clean, high-percentage look from the baseline.
Henderson has been getting more and more comfortable finding opportunities like this as the season has gone on. The numbers reflect that - Henderson has gone from shooting 35.1 percent from the field in November to 40 percent in December, 42.7 in January and the aforementioned sizzling 52.5 last month. He's also seen his minutes and shot attempts increase every month of the season.
None of this is coincidental. It's happening because the Blazers are carving out a role for him and he's making the most of it. At the start of the season, the Blazers had little use for Henderson because they were using Crabbe at the two-guard spot whenever McCollum sat; now that the Blazers are going small more often, they're increasingly shifting Crabbe to the three and opening up a spot in the rotation for Hendo. It's working. He's a good cutter, a smart shot selector and is perfectly decent at the other end of the floor as well. He's earned a spot in Stotts' rotation.
Ed Davis: The big man in the middle
It's safe to say we've known all along that in a vacuum, Ed Davis is a good player. He has a certain skill set and he executes it well - anything you need done within 5 feet of the rim, he's your guy. He can score around the basket, get rebounds, guard opposing post players and so on. For the Blazers this season, the hard part has been finding lineups in which Davis can fit.
I said from the very beginning that he and Plumlee didn't look like a compatible pairing - because both of them are so limited in terms of scoring range, the only way to use them together offensively would be to crowd the paint and thus deny driving lanes for the Blazers' perimeter scorers. At least early in the season, Stotts appeared to agree with this, as he frequently used just one of Davis or Plumlee at a time, putting a big man with a rangier jump shot (usually Meyers Leonard) next to him.
This seemed smart at the time. Use one big for his paint presence and another for spacing; it was a natural balance. But here's the problem - that strategy only took into account the offensive side of the ball. On defense, Davis and Leonard are actually really similar players. Neither is very mobile, and both are more comfortable around the basket guarding centers. Plumlee, on the other hand, has the quickness to get out and guard mid-range shooters. So, too, do the small-ball power forwards that Stotts has used for stretches, such as Moe Harkless (more on him later) and Al-Farouq Aminu.
Defensively, Stotts has found a way to build effective lineups around Davis' presence. All he does is play around the rim - but if he does it well, it frees everyone else up to rove the rest of the floor.
Watch what happens here as the Bulls run a pick-and-roll between E'Twaun Moore and Pau Gasol. Lillard goes over the screen, leaving Gasol's man, Plumlee, to switch onto the smaller, quicker Moore. Plumlee could simply drop back into the paint, preventing against a Moore drive to the basket for a high-percentage look, but he's more proactive than that. He also wants to prevent Moore from getting a clean mid-range look. So rather than hanging back, he charges out beyond the paint to guard Moore in space.
He does a bad job of it. He commits too hard and Moore ends up blazing by him to get to the rim. But note two things - one, it's still praiseworthy that he makes the effort rather than give up a wide-open jumper, and two, he can afford to do it! It's OK that he takes a gamble and loses here because he's got Davis waiting at the rim to back him up. The Blazers have three lines of defense for Moore to hack through here - there's Lillard initially, Plumlee on the switch and then Davis at the rim. The possession ends with Moore's layup being emphatically rejected and referee J.T. Orr calling a jump ball.
With a few months to settle into his role, Davis has turned into a really solid rim protector for the Blazers, which is a job he's never 100 percent embraced at any of his previous NBA stops before Portland. The Blazers allowed just 98.6 points per 100 possessions in February when Davis took the floor, a Spursian figure. Moreover, Davis has allowed opponents to shoot just 47.4 percent at the rim against him, a respectable mark that's just 0.1 percent behind supposed DPOY candidate DeAndre Jordan.
Oh, and one more stat: Plumlee is actually Davis' best teammate on the Trail Blazers this season, not his worst. According to basketball-reference lineup data, the Blazers have used the two bigs together for 85 minutes this season, and they've outscored opponents by 25.2 points per 100. A small sample size, obviously, but it's something to watch moving forward. Defensively, the Blazers appear to have figured something out.
Maurice Harkless: The athletic small-ball four
With Davis as the leading big man on the second unit, the Blazers have been more creative lately about going smaller with the other guys around him, using quicker players who can patrol more space while Davis guards around the rim. Harkless fits perfectly in that role. Using small forwards at the power forward spot is tricky - ideally, you want to have someone with the quickness to exploit mismatches against slower opposing fours, but he's also got to have the strength to muscle inside when he needs to.
Harkless is 6-foot-9 with the wingspan of a 7-footer, and he's only 215 pounds but muscular. He punches above his weight class in a lot of matchups, but he's comfortable doing so. Watch him here, taking on Utah's front line of Trevor Booker and Derrick Favors:
After the missed fadeaway from McCollum, Harkless does a nice job of out-jumping the 6-foot-8 Booker for the offensive rebound, but what happens next is even more impressive. Most guys after corralling that rebound would either take a step-back jumper or simply pull the ball out and reset the offense, but Harkless is too aggressive to settle for either of those options. Instead he muscles his way into the paint against the mammoth Favors, going right through Fave's contact to get the basket and the foul.
Not a lot of "small forwards" in the NBA would have the guts to make a play like that, but Harkless is no ordinary small forward. He's an attack dog, seizing upon every opportunity to force his way to the basket. He's an ideal bench player under a coach like Stotts, whose rotation tends to change a fair amount from month to month, because he's malleable. Harkless has the speed to play the three and chase around quicker small forwards like, say, Andrew Wiggins; he also has the strength and fearlessness to go into the post against a guy like Favors. Not a lot of bench guys are willing and able to do both.
After Lillard, McCollum and Henderson, Harkless was the Blazers' fourth leading scorer in February, contributing 9.3 points per game, and his 2 offensive rebounds per contest were second only to Davis. Not bad for a guy who was practically out of the rotation in January.
We knew when the Blazers put this team together that it would take a little time for Stotts to get a feel for the talent he had. It wouldn't be an overnight process for the coach to figure out who should play, how much and which combinations of guys worked best. But it appears that now, with six weeks to go in the regular season, he's got things pretty well sussed out. Remember, this is nothing new for Stotts - even last year, with a fairly established roster, he took his time to explore it. McCollum played 30 minutes per game in the playoffs last spring and Crabbe played 20, but it took Stotts several months to realize those youngsters were worthy of time.
This year, again, it's been a long-term process. But it now appears to have panned out - in Henderson, Davis and Harkless, Stotts finally has three bona fide bench players who are undoubtedly qualified to play major minutes in March and April. In fact, all three of them are significant reasons why this Trail Blazers season might extend farther into April - and, heaven forbid, perhaps even early May - than anyone previously expected.