Despite a 49-win season in 2017-18, the Portland Trail Blazers bench was, how can we say this politely, less than productive last season. For the year the team’s reserves averaged 27.7 points per game, ranking 28th among the 30 NBA teams last season.
Portland’s bench will do better this year.
I know, they lost some real talent. Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier were among the better reserves at their respective positions last season. Heck, even Pat Connaughton threw in some decent games from time to time.
Despite the loss of talent, this year’s bench is better suited around their main reserve, Evan Turner.
We all know Turner’s limitations; he can’t shoot the three consistently, he needs the ball in his hands, he’s decent at most aspects of the game but great at none of them. Of course, with his hefty contract, Turner isn’t going anywhere. So Neil Olshey has assembled a bench unit that is built to thrive around Turner.
Of course, first we need to assume that Turner will actually be coming off the bench, and Maurice Harkless will be starting. Despite their being yanked in and out of the lineup, I believe that Terry Stotts has seen enough out of Harkless (especially last spring) to recognize that Harkless deserves to be in the starting lineup.
That leaves Turner, whose minutes never varied significantly - regardless of role - to come off the bench. Once Harkless started to break out last spring, one of the side benefits was the luxury of playing Turner exclusively in a reserve role with one, or neither, of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Turner may need the ball in his hands, but he’s not a selfish player.
Allowing Turner to be the main ball handler off the bench plays more to his strengths, or at least away from his weakness as a spot up shooter. He tends to make the proper play and find the open man more often than not. Which brings us to the real reason why Portland’s bench will be improved this season.
Understanding that Turner will have the ball in his hands more this season off the bench, it only makes sense to surround him with a much 3-point shooting as possible. Enter Seth Curry, who shot 43 percent from beyond the arc last season, and even Nik Stauskas who, despite his limitations, shot 40 percent from the 3-point line last season. Even both of Portland’s rookies this season, Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons have a sweet stroke, should they see playing time.
And then there’s the big man rotation. With Ed Davis off to Brooklyn, the Blazers reserve big man rotation consists of Zach Collins, Caleb Swanigan, and Meyers Leonard. Regardless of how you shake out the minutes, all three of Portland’s bench bigs are capable of hitting the 3-pointer - especially Leonard, who is a 38 percent shooter from beyond the arc since 2014.
When looking at the bench as a whole, it’s clear that plan is to allow Turner to handle the ball and work his way into the mid-range, where he is most effective, and surround him with 3-point shooters. While Tuner was put and that role often last season, there were too many instances where we saw him camped in the corner last year. Look for that to decrease this upcoming season.
The Blazers bench may not have gotten better on paper, but it is more appropriately geared to play to Turner’s strengths. It’s debatable whether or not this is a solid strategy, but since Turner isn’t likely going anywhere for the next two season, it only makes sense to make him as effective as possible during his shifts. The Trail Blazers have managed to set him, and the players projected to share minutes with him, up for success this upcoming season.