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Are the Trail Blazers a Deeper Team This Season?

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Neil Olshey has claimed that this year’s roster is deeper than any he’s assembled in Portland. We examine the rotation and the value of depth.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers Media Day, 2019 is in the books. As is typical of the annual event, the Blazers served up a heaping helping of optimism and resolve about the season to come. President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey engaged in his usual positive rhetoric about the team’s summer moves, part of which form the basis for today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question.

Dave,

Olshey said that the Blazers are now the deepest and most talented team assembled since he’s been in the chair. Do you agree with this? Why or why not?

Paul from Gresham

Depth isn’t easy to quantify. Does it involve talent, numbers, positional redundancy or some combination of the three? The slippery nature of the concept makes it an easy selling point. I wouldn’t argue against the Blazers being “deeper” this year from the right angle, but that isn’t the only perspective possible.

Let’s try to quantify depth by breaking the roster into general categories, then seeing how this year’s Blazers stack up to the 2018-19 squad. I’d suggest the following categories:

Stars: Unquestioned NBA star players by virtue of production, position, and history.

Solid Starters: Non-star players who, given an open position, could reasonably claim to start on most NBA teams by virtue of track record or talent. Note that a player doesn’t actually have be in the starting lineup to fit into this category. Enes Kanter did not start for the Blazers until Nurkic went down last season, but he’d still qualify.

Solid Bench Players: Known quantities who fill out important, but not central, minutes in the rotation. Skill set, track record, and dependability factor in. Again, whether a player actually starts or comes off the bench isn’t the most important question when determining fitness for this category. Moe Harkless started multiple games over several seasons for the Blazers because of roster construction. That doesn’t mean he’d be a clear starter on most NBA teams.

Bench Hopefuls: Young or unproven players with acknowledged potential, waiting on the runway to see if they can fill a bigger role. Think of this category as, “Unproven, with an asterisk.”

Lower Bench: Minor role-players filling out the rotation.

Presumed Non-Factors: Speculative players who might get a chance if things break right for them, but aren’t expected to see regular doses of playing time or make a significant impact. If these players do anything remarkable, they’ve had a good season. (Note that this includes most non-lottery-pick rookies by default.)

Here’s how this year’s team compares to last year in these categories.

STARS

2018: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum

2019: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum

This category is simple. Portland fielded two stars last year; they still do. Jusuf Nurkic might have been easing his way towards star status, but his injury will put him farther behind to start this season than he was last, quashing hopes of promotion.

SOLID STARTERS

2018: Jusuf Nurkic, Enes Kanter, Al-Farouq Aminu, Rodney Hood

2019: Jusuf Nurkic, Hassan Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Rodney Hood

Two of the names in this category remain exactly the same: Nurkic and Hood. Nurkic’s impact will be modified by injury, but he still belongs here when he returns. Hood is technically a bench player, but he’s good enough to be a fourth or fifth starter on many teams.

Bazemore and Whiteside factor prominently into Portland’s hopes for improvement. The possibility is legit; both have been starters for pretty much their whole careers, each for a successful team. The name value of Whiteside and Bazemore far eclipses that of Kanter and Aminu, but does that equate to depth?

Aminu, though limited, was a serviceable and dependable power forward in Portland. Kanter performed beyond all expectations here. Whiteside and Bazemore did not average more minutes per game in Atlanta and Miami than Kanter and Aminu did for Portland last season. Aggregate points and rebounds between the pairs are basically a wash. Kanter and Aminu shot better percentages from the field and the arc.

The Blazers sent two players off and took two in, all comparable in stats and operating at the same general level in the rotation. The newcomers might provide more upside, but whether they add more depth is arguable.

SOLID BENCH PLAYERS

2018: Evan Turner, Moe Harkless, Seth Curry

2019: Zach Collins

This is where Portland’s depth suffers after the summer trades. Like Aminu, Evan Turner and Moe Harkless had limits. They were still solid utility players who could carry big minutes when asked or fill smaller roles when needed. Meanwhile Curry became Portland’s primary reserve point guard, ran in a three-guard lineup, and ended up as one of the very best three-point shooters in the NBA.

Portland will hope Collins blossoms right past this category into solid starter, or even more. At this point, he’s still a Rorschach Test for analysts. Averaging fewer minutes per game last year than any of the players listed above—fewer than Jake Layman even—he has plenty to prove before he balances out the loss of 2018’s mid-rotation trio.

Some will argue that Anthony Tolliver belongs in this category. With competition at his position including Skal Labissiere, Mario Hezonja, and an aging, injured version of Pau Gasol, he’ll get the chance for minutes he didn’t see in Minnesota. Still, his performance was short of Curry’s last season and was nowhere near Turner or Harkless. He has the potential to grow into a role, but putting Tolliver here now doesn’t seem warranted without further evidence.

BENCH HOPEFULS

2018: Zach Collins

2019: Anfernee Simons

With Collins presumably (hopefully?) on his way up, Anfernee Simons becomes the new rising star candidate. If he fills Curry’s former role, the Blazers will be fine. We have no idea if he can, though. Either way, as far as depth goes, the Blazers had one shining hope last year and they field exactly one this year.

LOWER BENCH

2018: Jake Layman, Meyers Leonard

2019: Anthony Tolliver, Pau Gasol

The Blazers certainly have more name power at this level than they did prior. They also carry more age and injury risk.

Gasol played just 30 games last year, averaging 12 minutes. his stats were good. If he can play regularly, he’ll make the depth chart look better.

Tolliver played 16.6, which is a healthy amount for a “lower bench” player. His statistical performance was mixed. 37.7% is a decent three-point percentage for a power forward, but it’s far off his best seasons. His two-point percentage was a career low, his 8.6 PER nearly so, as were his defensive stats. Tolliver is a good guy to have in the deeper bench. If he needs to play higher up, he’ll have to show more. Either way, Meyers Leonard’s numbers either equaled or exceeded Tolliver’s, making it hard to argue that the Blazers added depth even at this modest level.

PRESUMED NON-FACTORS (until proven otherwise)

2018: Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent, Skal Labissiere

2019: Nassir Little, Gary Trent, Skal Labissiere, Mario Hezonja

This looks about the same as last year, substituting in Little for the promoted Simons and Hezonja for last year’s temporary hope Nik Stauskas (not listed because he was traded).

Looking at the entire list, it’s clear that the Blazers added “name recognition” players this summer. They also added veteran know-how. Whether they added tangible, on-court depth is more of an open question. The answer will depend on the performances of Collins and Simons, plus the injury-return timetable of Nurkic.

That’s only comparing last year, though. Stretch back to 2014-15 and you’ll find a team with Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Arron Afflalo/Will Barton, Robin Lopez, Steve Blake, Chris Kaman, CJ McCollum, Allen Crabbe, and Meyers Leonard. Arguing the 2019-20 team is deeper than that one would be even harder.

Overall, though, I’m not too concerned about the issue. Depth is overrated. At the highest level, teams win and lose based on their superstar players. To contend, they need to surround those players with a strong framework, but that framework ends right around the 7th spot in the rotation. After that, they just need players to eat minutes and hold the fort without giving up games that the top seven otherwise would have won.

If anything, pitching a tent in the marsh of depth indicates that the top of the rotation isn’t good enough to claim real relevance. Portland’s strength lies at the top of the rotation. If they have hopes of contending, those hopes lie in Lillard, McCollum, Whiteside, Bazemore, Hood, Nurkic, and Collins, modified by whatever mid-season trades they can make with same.

I wouldn’t say the Blazers are a deeper team this season, but they could still be a better one.

Keep those Mailbag questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com! We’ll do another one tomorrow!