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Mailbag: The Bench and Lillard’s Minutes

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With the Blazers bench playing so well, is that going to take the pressure off of Lillard and the starters?

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers bench has gotten plenty of attention during their hot start, and deservedly so. Second-unit efficiency is the most obvious change between last season and this for the Blazers. Is the upward trend enough to take focus off of Portland’s starters, and superstar Damian Lillard in particular? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Hey Dave,

I’m really excited about our team this year, especially the improvement of the bench. There have been two games so far where Dame has played less than 30 minutes due to the bench’s ability to build and/or maintain a solid lead. There were only 4 games, in total, where that happened last year. Are we seeing a new trend? Or is it just the small sample size that’s playing with my head?

Thanks!

Both, really. Lillard isn’t going to log many sub-30-minute games for reasons other than foul trouble or injury. He isn’t the reason Portland’s bench is better; he’s the reason Portland’s bench being better makes a difference.

That the bench is playing better is both well-chronicled and beyond doubt. Evan Turner’s field goal percentage is up from 44.7% to 49.1%. Zach Collins has raised his from 39.8% to 56.6% and his three-point percentage has jumped from 31.0% to 38.5%. This is roughly the equivalent of dumping Pete Davidson in favor of Ariana Grande. With Nik Stauskas shooting 40% from the arc and Seth Curry 50%, the Blazers couldn’t ask for more offensively. With the ball moving and shots falling, the team looks more energized on defense top to bottom, including the bench. In short, they’re on a roll.

It would be perfectly possible for Portland to be getting these same numbers while hovering near .500. The highest-scoring player from the last paragraph is Collins, and he’s barely topping 10 points per game. Efficient bench play has translated into a winning record because Damian Lillard is playing above his All-NBA level of last season. Every time Portland looks like they’re in danger of losing a lead or (heaven forbid) a game, Lillard steps up like Superman.

This sets up the ideal scenario for the rest of the season. The Blazers would love the bench to play well enough that Lillard keeps fresher than normal, perhaps avoiding the inevitable mid-season injury and post-season fatigue that plague him annually. When the playoffs arrive, however, the Blazers will still go as far as Lillard takes them. Supporting players will be important. As we saw against the Pelicans last season, nobody survives being the sole target of a post-season defense. But 100 out of 100 playoff opponents would rather have Turner and Stauskas trying to win the game for Portland than Lillard.

The bench is playing well. That may vary with sample size and opponent attention. Lillard is, and will remain, the only player who’s (nearly) immune to those forces. The job of the second unit is to provide a platform high enough for the starters to grab the brass ring. Lillard gives them the jumping power to reach it.

Thanks for the Mailbag question! Keep them coming to blazersub@gmail.com!

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com