Since coming to Portland in the summer of 2012, Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts has earned the respect and admiration of seemingly every fan in Rip City. At the time, though, his hiring felt a little underwhelming. Sure, he was a part of Rick Carlisle's 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks coaching staff, but the 115-168 record he compiled in parts of four seasons as coach of the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks from 2002-2004 and 2005-2007, respectively, didn't exactly scream "needle-mover," as Blazers GM Neil Olshey might say.
Portland had a 27-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge -- coming off his first All-Star campaign during the 2011-12 season and just entering his prime -- paired with Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and sixth-overall pick Damian Lillard to form the core of the Blazers when Stotts was officially brought on four years ago.
In his maiden voyage as coach in Portland, Stotts steered the team to a 33-49 season -- disappointing from a win-loss perspective, sure, but the groundwork for success was laid as Stotts brought a new style of "flow" offense that contrasted starkly with former coach Nate McMillan's iso-heavy system, leaving fans excited and hopeful for the future. Olshey just needed to add a few pieces around his core-four to take the team to the next level.
The 2013 offseason saw the addition of center Robin Lopez, rounding out the starting lineup. Needing reinforcements for the bench, Olshey brought in Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson and Earl Watson. Williams registered over 24 minutes per game that year as the team's sixth man, but Wright's 14.5 minutes a night were the next highest for any reserve -- a clear sign that the Blazers still needed depth.
Olshey brought in veterans Chris Kaman and Steve Blake the following summer, and -- rather unsurprisingly, due to a clear lack of proven talent available -- it seemed Stotts again went to his reserves only when necessary for the 2014-15 season. The main knock on Portland's coach from most at the time was that he didn't play his bench enough. In all fairness, though, Blake, Kaman, Wright, Joel Freeland and the unproven Meyers Leonard and CJ McCollum didn't exactly form a Murderer's Row backup unit that struck fear into the hearts of opposing teams and fans, either.
So when Aldridge, Matthews, Batum and Lopez (among others) found themselves in different uniforms last summer and Olshey switched gears mid-offseason -- bringing in a host of largely unproven or overlooked players to complement Lillard, McCollum and Leonard -- many asked: How would Stotts sort out his bench rotation going forward?
With veterans Gerald Henderson and Ed Davis in tow, Portland's coach finally had a few legitimate bench pieces with starter's experience and youth on their sides, a first for Stotts with the Blazers. Allen Crabbe had a solid Summer League before hurting his ankle, so there was hope he could become a contributor, and some combination of Noah Vonleh and Maurice Harkless would be expected to inject some energy into the bench rotation. Eventually, Leonard -- a starter in October and November -- hurt his shoulder and lost his starting spot to Vonleh and then Harkless, paving the way for him to come off the bench in 51 of his 61 appearances before he was shut down for the year later in the spring.
Perhaps out of necessity and certainly as a response to the increase in reserve talent, Stotts finally found himself over the course of the 2015-16 season comfortable with giving multiple players on his bench extended minutes, a privilege saved for just Williams a few years ago and Blake and Kaman the season before last.
The Blazers' backups responded this season by garnering more minutes, points and rebounds per game than they had in years. Compare the production of the reserves in Portland from the last three seasons, courtesy HoopsStats.com:
The Blazers' reserves went from being one of the least-played, lowest-scoring and poorest rebounding groups of subs in 2013-14 to one of the more reliable bench rotations in the league this past year.
Henderson, a starter for most of six seasons in Charlotte before he was brought over to Portland in the Batum trade last offseason, gracefully accepted a bench role with the Blazers. Though his per-game stats were the lowest they'd been since his rookie year in 2009-10, Henderson's per-36 minute numbers were all at or near his career marks theretofore. He even added the 3-pointer to his resume, shooting 35.3 percent from deep in Portland after knocking down just 30.1 percent of his outside shots in Charlotte.
And even though Henderson's offensive style of shooting midrange jumpers off the dribble contrasted with Stotts' offensive system, he was an effective change-of-pace player off the bench this past season and brought an extra dimension of toughness and a veteran presence on both ends of the court. Sometimes you have to take what the defense gives you, and if that's the midrange, then Henderson's a more than willing and capable weapon to have among your backups.
Allen "Cool Breeze" Crabbe, Henderson's reserve wing counterpart, broke out in his third season for career highs of 26 minutes and 10.3 points per game. He sank 39.3 percent of the 3.5 threes a night he attempted and was fourth on the team in minutes played, a sure sign that Stotts trusted Crabbe with a heavy load. He was No. 3 on the team in total fouls this past year, however, signifying some room for growth on the defensive end of the floor for the 24-year-old.
Still, not many had Crabbe pegged to become the Blazers' third-leading scorer this year and biggest contributor off the bench, and yet he forged himself a role as Stotts' sixth man, a remarkable accomplishment for a guy who was an afterthought for many in the personnel shuffling of last offseason.
Davis, coming off a career year with the Lakers, was Stotts' steadiest big man off the bench for the 2015-16 season. He was expected to provide hustle plays -- rebound the ball, score garbage points and play hard-nosed defense. Davis delivered in all those categories and then some, averaging 7.4 rebounds and 6.5 points per game while shooting a staggering 61.1 percent from the field. Despite some offensive limitations, he quickly endeared himself as a fan favorite in Portland and earned the respect of many a Blazer supporter.
Rounding out the 2015-16 bench in Portland was Leonard, possibly the most polarizing player to suit up in the crimson, silver and black this year. After a solid postseason performance against the Grizzlies in the 2015 playoffs, he declined a reportedly lucrative contract extension from the team last offseason, putting the spotlight squarely on himself this year as he bet on his ability to earn a larger paycheck in the 2016 free agency period.
Leonard began the season on a horrible note as a starter, hitting just 15.4 percent of his threes in October and 28 percent in November. After spending a few weeks in street clothes due to an early season injury, though, Leonard was relegated to the bench and thrived in a reserve role as a stretch-big shooter, increasing his 3-point percentage every month of the season until he was shut down for good in late March.
If viewed as an athletic specimen with heaps of natural ability, untapped potential and a limitless ceiling, Leonard will almost surely disappoint. But change your expectations of him from "potential All-Star Lottery pick" to "solid role-playing sub with a somewhat limited but useful skillset," and Leonard's 2015-16 output comes across much more palatable.
The Blazers' bench finally became respectable and reliable this past season, a first for Stotts in his four years in Portland. And, coincidentally, it was also just in time for three of the Blazers' biggest reserve contributors to hit the free agency market this summer; Henderson is unrestricted, while Crabbe and Leonard are restricted, meaning Olshey can match any offer sheets they sign with another team.
Of Leonard, Crabbe and Henderson, who will rejoin Davis among the Blazers' backups next season? Only time will tell, but it's almost a certainty that retaining all three free agents this summer isn't particularly likely if Olshey hopes to improve his starting lineup.
Still, it's worth celebrating that Stotts finally had a full cupboard of players from which to draw off the bench this year and that he trusted his reserves enough to play them significant minutes. And if Olshey is as aggressive at adding pieces to the team as he was last offseason, fans in Portland can likely say goodbye to the days of sporting the league's least-productive bench -- a welcome change after years of reserve futility.