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Youthful Trail Blazers Bench Vacillates Between Hope and Disaster

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Dave and Dia take on the thinnest part of Portland’s roster: the guys who don’t start.

Sacramento Kings v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

When people talk about the Portland Trail Blazers, particularly during the off-season, they tend to focus on the top of the roster: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic. That’s understandable. The Top 3 Trail Blazers are far more famous (and talented) than the rest of the roster.

Today we’re going to go the other way, though. In our weekly Wednesday chat, Dave Deckard and Dia Miller will try to define Portland’s bench, how strong it is, and what (if anything) needs to change.

Dave: Our colleague, Steve Dewald, is doing a marvelous job writing up the roster in detail from bottom to top. He’s taking a microscope to Portland’s rotation, so let’s go a little more big-picture and right-brained than he is.

Here’s an easy, general question to start with. Your affinity for the team as a whole is well-chronicled. Does that extend all the way through 15 positions? How attached are you to the Blazers bench as a whole?

Dia: It’s really no secret that I’m emotionally attached to the Trail Blazers. I’ll admit that there’s definitely bias. I’m more attached to some than others, both on the level of my own personal love for them and on the level of talent. I think the more personality and play we see from players, the more attached I am to them. So while I’m definitely a big fan of all of our bench guys, there are some that I would fight harder to hold onto than others.

Dave: (pulling up a chair and an iced coffee) Oooh! Well don’t leave us hanging! Dish! Which players would you most fight to hold onto?

Dia: I feel like this needs a disclaimer. I love them all. That being said, I think first and foremost, I would do basically anything to keep Gary Trent Jr. If somehow giving up part of my liver would keep Gary Trent Jr on the Blazers, I wouldn’t give It a second thought. Ant Simons is another one. I know he’s had ups and downs this year, but that guy has huge potential. I think he needs to get in a groove and he could be incredible. He’s one of those guys that if we gave him up, I’d be sad every time I saw him dunking for another team. After our time in the bubble, I’m pretty attached to Wenyen Gabriel as well. He really pulled through for us, and he’s so young. With some time and experience, I think he will be a big asset for us!

Dave: I can only imagine Danny Ainge saying, “We want McCollum, Collins, and 32% of Dia’s liver for Hayward.”

“Would you take a quarter of a spleen instead?”

“No! Liver or nothing!”

That said, I agree on Trent, Jr,, simply because he’s the first player I can remember who has a chance to make one of Portland’s main players expendable. He’s one of the few marker of true depth the squad has had since 2015. If an opposing GM wanted him in a package for an absolutely prime player, the Blazers should consider it. Trent and Rodney Hood also free up McCollum, though. That, plus his ability to defend at shooting guard, make him valuable enough that I’m in agreement about keeping him.

I’m on the fence about Anfernee Simons. I can see him developing into a fancy, new point guard. On the other hand, Blazers fans (and apparently the organization) are all, “Dame 4 Life, then resurrect him as Undead Dame and have him start for the next 50 years after!” If that’s the plan, Simons should be available in trades that make Dame’s remaining years count. No team keeps every good player or prospect. If Ant moves the needle, let it happen.

That’s pretty much my view on every player south of Nurkic, though. For me, the line of “completely untradeable” stops right after Dame, with Nurk falling into the “mostly untradeable” category. After that, I’m open to talking about players as assets, not just on-court performers. I think the team’s performance over the past five years pretty much mandates it.

Where is that line for you? You like all the players to varying degrees, but which players fit into your “hang up on opposing offers” category?

Dia: I always feel like I’m betraying my family when I have this conversation. But Dame, Nurk and Gary Trent Jr are my no trades. Everyone else is expendable in the right deal. But “right deal” is key. It has to be worth It. With a team like Portland, who has established chemistry, a trade just for the sake of trading isn't worth It to me.

Dave: Let’s divert into that for a second. I’ve said this often in my regular posts, but it bears repeating. While I have affinity, respect, and great appreciation for the players who wear the uniform, I’m actually ok with talk about trading them. That’s not because I care about them less, but because I feel like we’re in a particular kind of relationship. I’m totally ok if, after serving the terms of their contract, one of those players wants to move on and play somewhere else. In many cases it makes me sad, but you know what? It’s that player’s career and life. They not only deserve the right to make those choices, they deserve nothing but applause when they do so. Providing they played in an applause-worthy manner when they were here, moving on doesn’t diminish my respect for them one bit.

I feel the same way about the team. Theoretically everybody is working towards the same goals: to win and make the franchise better. They may disagree on the means to do so. A player may think he deserves more minutes and touches than he’s getting. That’s expected, especially if the guy is riding the pines. In the same way, a GM may decide that a different roster has a better chance of winning. They’re different sides of the same coin for me. As long as everybody is working towards the same goal and showing general competence doing so, I’m cool with all of it...including trades.

You know the guy I hated to see go, really? Seth Curry. I thought he was a brilliant piece of the puzzle. Right position, right skill set, evolving mentality and place. But hey, maybe Anfernee Simons will turn out better in the long run. I can run down either avenue, as long as each makes sense.

You’ve said you like the bench players individually, and I can see that. How strongly do you rate Portland’s bench as a whole? For our purposes, let’s include Carmelo Anthony as a possible bench player next year but assume the Blazers part ways with Hassan Whiteside. Let’s say they bring back the roster from Anthony on down relatively unchanged. How confident do you feel in that group?

Dia: Before I answer that, I want to comment on your first sentiment. Anyone who follows me on twitter, or who has read my articles here on Blazer’s Edge knows that part of the allure of team fandom for me is becoming invested in our individual team members. I love following them on instagram, reading articles about their lives, and learning about their families and hobbies and other talents. I spend the season completely invested in them not only as a team but as individuals. It makes watching the games so much more fun when I remember that before they’re athletes, they're humans. I think this is a big part of why trade season is so emotional for me. I have come to love them as individual people and not just an asset for the team.

That being said, I agree with what you said. When a player leaves Portland on good terms to go to another team, I always wish them well. I often continue following their career, and I’ve even considered buying jerseys from other teams (*ahem* Meyers Leonard Miami jersey). I am not naive to the fact that not every player is a perfect fit with every team— and ultimately because I’m invested, I want them all to do well, wherever they go.

Seth Curry was a really tough loss in my opinion as well. I spent a lot of this season thinking, “man I wish we still had Seth.” He would have been the answer to several of our questions this year. I think our bench has holes. As individuals, I think we are packed with young, up and coming talent. But together, we are young and haven’t found our groove. I’m not confident in our bench. I can acknowledge that making changes wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Dave: You’ve hit on something there: youth. Carmelo Anthony had 16 years of experience coming into the season. Check out this list of names: Rodney Hood, Mario Hezonja, Zach Collins, Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr., Nassir Little, Wenyen Gabriel, Caleb Swanigan, Jaylen Adams, Jaylen Hoard, and Moses Brown. Those players have 16 years of NBA experience combined. That’s basically the entire bench.

Have you ever gotten mixed signals while riding in someone’s car...like you are supposed to be going to Destination A, but the driver misses the exit and now you appear to be headed to Destination B instead? You’re familiar with that moment of confusion?

Internal Monologue: Did we just miss the...???

To Driver: “Uhhhh are you sure this is the way?”

Looking at Portland’s bench right now gives me the same feeling.

Damian Lillard is in the heart of his prime years, with CJ McCollum not far behind. The Blazers should be making a push for a championship, or at least relevance. Yet half the roster has two or fewer years of experience. Of the remaining half, Hood and Hassan Whiteside are either gone or on expiring deals. Anthony and Trevor Ariza are comparatively ancient and also not guaranteed to be with the team. Mario Hezonja is in the same kind of spot.

Jusuf Nurkic is the only undeniably-talented, under-contract player in the same age/experience range as Portland’s starting guards. Worse, the next bracket up—veterans just sliding past their prime who still have a couple years to give to a playoffs push—is completely void for the Blazers. The experience gap jumps from 7 years (Whiteside and Lillard) to 15 (Ariza).

A casual glace at the roster leaves the impression that the Blazers are driving towards a rebuild more than an NBA Finals run. Or at least they haven’t gotten into the exit lane for Championship Highway yet. They’re still somewhere in the middle lane with no blinker on. They may not have missed the exit yet, but if they’re planning on turning off, they need to get that signal flashing at some point.

Boston has done well with extremely young rosters, but they also have plenty of talent up and down the rotation that the Blazers can’t match. Toronto and Utah look more like Portland, but none of them are left in the playoffs. The Lakers, Clippers, Heat, Rockets, and Bucks all have significant help from veterans with 8-13 seasons in the league. Every team I just mentioned has a better bench than Portland right now.

I think they need to recycle out some players and hold on loosely to some of their young, talented guys to get the help where—and when—it’s needed. I like Simons and Collins and Little as much as the next guy, but if Lillard ages out, I don’t think those three will form a championship core without him.

Dia: That’s fair. But a hard pill to swallow. I agree that in Dame’s prime, we should be working toward a championship. I mean, ultimately we always want to work toward a championship but obviously there will be years that are used to re-build. But right now, we have one of the best players in the league, and he has been outspoken about staying in Portland for the foreseeable future. We have to capitalize on that. This is where my brain has to overrule my heart. Although, both my brain and my heart want a Championship win for Dame. The question is, will our front office come to those same conclusions? I have my doubts.

Dave: Financial realities come into play as well. Part of the reason the Blazers are thin is that they can’t afford more. They have limited resources to get those players, made even more sparse by investing in some players that haven’t exactly worked out. I think even if the Blazers drive hard for those guys this summer, it might be a tough road. But your question is apt. It’s hard to know whether the front office has made decisions because they thought this was the best course or because other options didn’t pan out.

Well, at least we’ve agreed that something needs to change, though the level of change will depend on money and overall franchise plan. I think it’s pretty easy to see the players the Blazers should be most invested in—basically the ones you named—and the players that should be more negotiable. Any last thoughts on the bench?

Dia: I can’t help but be excited for the future of this team. We might not be there quite yet, but I don’t think we are far. I think a few calculated moves could get us in a situation to win a championship, while still holding onto a few guys that may become the future of the Portland Trail Blazers. So while we didn’t do It this year, that’s a pretty good place to be.

We take questions for the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag on the regular, but if you’ve got any topics you think would be appropriate for Dave and Dia to discuss, send them to blazersub@gmail.com and put “Dave and Dia” somewhere in there!