The Portland Trail Blazers have had one of the lower scoring bench units in the NBA over the last several seasons. But with a few tweaks and a couple of low-cost signings, that’s changed this season. So far this year, the reserves are ranked in the top-10 in minutes, points, field goal percentage, and 3-point percentage.
Is this all due to Nik Stauskas and Seth Curry? Well, no. But a good chunk of it is. Stauskas is averaging nearly 10 points per game on 45 percent shooting from beyond the arc, and Curry - despite not putting up gaudy scoring numbers - is shooting 46 percent from downtown.
Obviously, the two free agent acquisitions are playing well. Stauskas, in particular, is outperforming his vet minimum contract. But it’s not just them making a big difference for the Blazers. It’s that the two big question marks headed into this season - will Zach Collins step up and can Evan turner run the bench unit - have both been answered with a resounding yes so far.
When Neil Olshey declined to make a contract offer to Ed Davis, it surprised a lot of Portland fans. Collins had shown improvement throughout the season as a rookie, but he didn’t look at all ready to take on Davis’ role as an energy rebounder/defender. Not to mention that Collins played nearly exclusively with Davis in the second half of last season.
While Collins doesn’t necessarily do the same things that Davis does - dominate physically, or turn the tide with momentum-swinging plays - what he has been doing this season has been incredibly effective for this team. Zach has always played with solid defensive instincts. He gets his feet to the right spot, he stays vertical, and he has a nose for the ball. He’s managed to improve on those traits this season while getting away with taking a few more chances on defense. His foul rate is up slightly, but that’s something that Blazer fans will live with.
On the offensive end, Collins has taken a massive leap. He still struggles backing down defenders in the post, but he’s simply not attempting to do so as much. Last season, he would either try a back down, or a Dirk-esque fadeaway, with mixed results. This season, he’s showing more patience, waiting to gather, and using an up-and-under to get himself better looks. To me, whether Collins would take a step forward or not this year was the most important question of the summer. So far, so good.
This is important because neither Caleb Swanigan nor Meyers Leonard has claimed the final big man rotation spot. Both have had their moments this season, but both have also struggled immensely at times. If Collins had gotten out of the gate slowly this season, we would be having a very different conversation about Portland’s fortunes so far.
But Collins isn’t the only returning player thriving in a slightly different role. Evan Turner finally looks comfortable after two seasons that saw him struggling to find a role in the offense. He bounced in and out of the starting lineup, he alternated between ball-handler and corner shooter. None of it really worked. But Stotts decided that he was going to play CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard more minutes together - and sit them on the bench more frequently at the same time.
With Turner spending more time as the lead ball-handler, without an A or A+ scorer next to him, he’s more free to play to his strengths - get in the mid-range, work the ball around the arc, and free up perimeter shooters. And it’s worked like a charm. Turner’s per-36 scoring, rebounding, and assists are up. His 3-point attempts are down. He looks closer to the Boston Celtics version of E.T. than we’ve ever seen in a Blazers uniform.
All of this bench success has real benefits beyond the box score. After averaging 36.6 mpg last season, Lillard is down to 34. McCollum is playing 32.2 after playing a hair more than 36 mpg himself. If the Blazers are hoping to make a late season push, or see success in the playoffs against a team that hedges and traps against the guards like New Orleans did last spring, having their two star guards just a touch more fresh can only be a positive.
It remains to be seen if the bench can continue playing at this pace, but there’s nothing about their early season success that seems unsustainable. Neil Olshey definitely deserves some credit for finding value players that fit what his coach is trying to do. And Stotts deserves his own credit for putting this collection of players in a position to succeed.