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The Blazers Have Talent, but What About Depth?

How much will a thin roster hurt Portland this year, and what are their prospects for improvement?

Golden State Warriors v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers boast a starting lineup that could be the envy of the Western Conference. Beginning with Damian Lillard and flowing down through Robert Covington and new acquisition Larry Nance, Jr., their Top 6 players are proven veterans with multiple skills. But what about depth? Do the Blazers have, or need, any? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

I see Zach Lowe has talked bad about our bench and I think you have said some similar things. Do you really think it’s that bad? I don’t think we’ll be as bad off as people think. I like MacLemore and Snell at least. Give me an honest assessment of the depth.

Jon B

I kind of agree with you if we look at the right angle. I think Zach Lowe does too, if it’s any comfort. The Blazers are going to be just fine depth-wise as long as three things happen:

  1. Everybody stays healthy (by far the most important factor)
  2. Anfernee Simons plays a pivotal role off the bench, either scoring like hotcakes or learning the point guard position
  3. They don’t have to play against tall, talented small forwards in the playoffs

Give me those three things and I’ll ride with this roster for now. Let Nassir Little flourish and I’ll be even happier. That would provide reasonable depth down to the 9th spot, with some real talent at the top. I like it!

The catch comes if these things don’t happen. Jusuf Nurkic, Larry Nance, Jr., and Cody Zeller do not have a long history of sterling health. Take any one of them out for a significant part of the season—or even all three for various parts—and the frontcourt gets thin.

For all the power at the wing/guard positions, the Blazers only field three bankable players: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Norman Powell. All three start. They can mix and match the trio in different positions with first and second units, but that’s still three players filling three positions. Simons has to be the fourth, otherwise they have no depth. And should one of those main three go down again this year? Yikes.

You may notice a theme here: “If everything goes right.” Unfortunately, with injuries, that seldom happens. That’s part of the purpose of depth, so you can win even when things go wrong. Portland would have difficulty absorbing the loss of even one player in their Top 6. That’s one of their main vulnerabilities.

There’s more, too.

Over the years, the Blazers have honed in on the roster they want, balancing needs against their ever-increasing salary cap burden. They’ve now reached the extreme edge of that path. They’re paying six players actual money. The other eight will be making as small of a salary this year as they possibly can, given their rookie-contract or veteran-minimum status.

As the middle-ground for salaries and roster spots has shrunk, so have Portland’s options. If they wanted to improve depth right now, they’d have two options: trade one of the Top 6 or trade a min-salary player. It’s hard to do the former and end up ahead. The latter won’t likely yield a great return without throwing in other incentives.

Not only do the Blazers not have great depth right now, they aren’t in a position to get great depth either. There aren’t a ton of alternatives left besides trading Lillard, McCollum, or Jusuf Nurkic. Sure, they could move Nance, Jr. or Robert Covington for the next flavor-of-the-month forward, but that’s not going to change the story. It’d probably make it worse, in fact.

This is the end of the road. This is what it was all building towards, all these years. That we have serious questions about whether it’s enough—and that we have to posit a near-flawless injury outcome to make it work optimally in the first place—tells you all you need to know about Portland’s precarious position.

Not every team is in this situation. Even though the Top 6 of the Blazers look great, the Lakers, Jazz, Suns, Nets, and Bucks at minimum would all rather have the upper half of their rosters over Portland’s. The Blazers have no depth to tip the balance in their direction over those teams. Nor can the Blazers bridge the gap easily, given their relative lack of assets, many of which were spent building the roster to this point.

Right now, I’m hoping the Blazers have a magical, charmed, almost-totally-health season. That might provide the roster infrastructure necessary to make Ben McLemore’s corner threes look like unfair daggers instead of an inflated latex glove to cling to in the ocean’s storm. If everything settles in well, Portland’s mid-to-low roster players will have a chance to contribute above their heads. Cody Zeller and Anfernee Simons might end up beloved, becoming the “secret weapons” during a great run.

Batten down the hatches anyway. The Blazers don’t have a ton of redundancy or buoyancy. If this thing starts to list, it might tip quickly.

Thanks for the question! You can always send yours to blazersub@gmail.com!