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Trail Blazers Bench Needs a Major Overhaul

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Portland’s bench was supposed to be better this year. Occasionally they look good, but the story hasn’t changed.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

The name “Portland Trail Blazers” evokes images of Damian Lillard canning clutch threes, CJ McCollum working mid-range wizardry, and now Jusuf Nurkic pasting historical 5x5 performances on Willie Cauley-Stein. The name does not go hand-in-hand with depth or economical bench play. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

The bench started out the year on fire but they aren’t performing well lately. I never doubted coach Stotts before but how many players have to cycle in before we ask whether he’s able to get the most out of them? Why aren’t the bench guys performing as well and how do we get the most out of them long term?

Harold G

The obvious answer is that they’re not that great. I believe the Blazers wanted to take advantage of a different (maybe better) bench this season. They schemed for that going into the year. No matter what Terry Stotts does, he can’t turn shoe leather into bacon.

If that seems too tough, we’ll modify: this year’s bench may not be bad, but they’re not much better than last year’s bench.

Both last year and this, the Trail Blazers have relied on four steady starters: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, and Al-Farouq Aminu. In 2017-18, the four steady starters accounted for 63.2% of Portland’s overall points. As of December 29th, 2018, those same three were scoring 63.6% of Portland’s points...virtually no change.

(Side Note: Damian Lillard accounts for 24.1% of Portland’s total, up from 22.7% last year. Nurkic’s percentage remains unchanged. Aminu is up to 8.2% from 7.4. McCollum scored 20.0% of Portland’s points last year. He’s down to 18.4% this season.)

Any shuffling of scoring responsibility has been minor. Last year’s team and this year’s are quite similar when it comes to distribution of points. No matter who the Blazers field under the top four, they aren’t changing the basic shape of the roster. The particulars might shift, but the overall story remains the same.

  • The Blazers perform well in the first period, scoring 28.2 points on average, earning a +1.9 margin. That all goes to heck in the second, where scoring drops to 26.5 point (24th in the NBA) and the margin to -0.7 (21st). As we chronicled the other day, the Blazers don’t perform well in the fourth period. They struggle to maintain any advantage when the reserves play heavy doses.
  • 11 Trail Blazers underneath the main four have seen playing time this season. 10 of those 11 carry a negative net plus-minus. Only Seth Curry ends up a net positive.

When the Blazers try to rely on their bench, they find those players aren’t up to the job. This increases pressure on the top four to keep control of the ball and the game, lessening the ability of the bench to affect the outcome. The cycle continues, broken only by occasional highlight performances that make individual bench players look good but don’t change the prevailing narrative, as they’re not sustained.

Portland’s reserves do offer some good stories. Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard have re-emerged this year. Curry and Nik Stauskas have had moments. But in aggregate, this bench performs pretty much like you’d expect when those name are featured along with Moe Harkless and a bunch of young players.

That’s why it doesn’t make much sense to talk about the roster in terms of coaching or “long term” planning. One way or another, the reserve rotation will be cycled out over the next two seasons. There’s no foreseeable future in which this bench survives intact.

  1. If the team wants to excel, those players aren’t good enough to push them to the next level.
  2. If the team is going to cycle to a new era, those players aren’t good enough to keep.
  3. The main names are expensive compared to their effect, making them bad values.
  4. Even if one of the new players had a break-out season, the Blazers couldn’t afford to re-sign them in 2019 without going deep into the luxury tax.

Ultimately, coaching staff and fans alike will need to run the race to completion, then re-evaluate the next time the Blazers get real maneuvering room. Barring a significant mid-season trade, that won’t happen before this summer, at the earliest. Until then, celebrate the highlights and keep your fingers crossed.

Thanks for the question! You can send your Mailbag questions to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll try to get to them!

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