A hot start and a place atop the Western Conference standings for the Blazers early in the season was a surprise to many. Last year’s team was a mediocre squad that couldn’t muster a single win in their last 13 games, so this team had no business looking like a “real” contender. Some were perhaps less shocked if they were wise to the slew of offseason deals that the front office made to shore up a bench that was the absolute worst in basketball last year. With fresh new faces backing up the steadfast starters, it was almost inevitable that the team would improve. After all, these reserves were much better than last year’s group.
Unless they weren’t. Portland’s bench has regressed back to its place in the cellar of backup units. The Blazers’ reserves are dead last in the league in minutes per game and points per game (per hoopsstats.com). Certainly there are other measures than simply scoring that illustrate a bench’s quality, but these are certainly poor indicators. So what happened with all these sly deals that were supposed to save Portland’s bench production? Let’s examine by looking where the minutes went from last year to this year.
Mo Williams (last year: Eric Maynor)
Mo is usually the first reserve to see action in each game, and he has the experience and gravitas of a veteran leader. Now, if only some more of those shots would go in. Mo’s line is 40.5/36.8/87.1 (FG/3P/FT percentages) comparable to Eric Maynor’s 42.2/38/68.3 from last year. Mo hands out assists at a slightly lower rate than Maynor did, but turns the ball over less. He’s also a better rebounder than Maynor was. I wouldn’t argue that the Blazers would be better off with Maynor, but if Williams continues to hover around just 40 percent from the field, it’s not hard to see why there hasn’t been a substantial upgrade in bench production. Luckily for Mo, he sees most of his time with 4 other starters and so the lineup data is in his favor: the top 3 lineups that include at least 1 bench player have positive net ratings.
Joel Freeland (last year: Meyers Leonard)
Injuries to both Freeland and Leonard make this somewhat of a wash, but Joel took over Meyers’ minutes from the jump this year. In fact, Meyers is down to just 9.6 minutes per game in 23 appearances. Freeland is a better offensive rebounder than Leonard and also moves the ball a little better, with a pleasant 14.6 assist rate for a big man. However, Freeland has been terrible in the restricted area, shooting just 50.6 percent. Meyers shot 64.1 percent from that same spot last year. Freeland is a slightly more stout defender, but no better at protecting the rim than Meyers. The sooner Freeland is back the better, but neither has been a revelation.
Dorell Wright (last year: Luke Babbitt)
Excuse me, 6th Man of the Year vote-getter Luke Babbitt (look it up, I’ll wait…I KNOW, RIGHT?!). But seriously, anybody would be better than Babbitt. Wright is just as much of a specialist as Babbitt, with 72.6 percent of his shots coming from 3-point range, but only a slightly better shooter this year (Wright is shooting 35.5 percent as compared to Babbitt’s 34.8 percent). The good news is that the top two Blazer lineups in net rating that have played at least 25 minutes feature Wright. The bad news is that so do the bottom three.
Thomas Robinson (last year: Victor Claver)
This one is a bit of a stretch, but they had to be paired for the purpose of this exercise. Robinson has been a tremendously exciting player to watch with put back dunks and insane transition blocks. He knows his role in that he almost never shoots outside of the restricted area and finishes at an acceptable rate (52.8 percent). He’s also a beastly rebounder and has held opposing power forwards to a 15.7 PER (per 82games.com). Not bad for a reclamation project. Claver has been dusted off recently due to injuries, but was a pretty terrible shooter last year and nowhere near the rebounder Robinson is. Again, this may be a little unfair to Claver, but he did see a decent amount of time at the 4 last year and Robinson is a much better option at that position.
C.J. McCollum (last year: Will Barton)
Apologies to our editor, but thank goodness for C.J. [Ed.’s note: YOU’RE DEAD TO ME, GRADY!] He’s shooting much better than Barton did last year with a 43.5/42.6/72.2 line. That 3-point percentage is especially helpful with the emphasis the Blazers system puts on spacing. McCollum isn’t the athlete Barton is, but he’s much better equipped to carry a 2nd unit. In fact, C.J. has almost exclusively seen action in lineups with at least two other bench players and has mustered positive net ratings when he does. I think it’s safe for Portland fans to get excited about this kid’s future.
Was that little experiment ridiculous? Maybe so, but the bottom line is that whenever two or more bench players take the floor for the Blazers, the drop in quality is precipitous. This is why the Blazers starters have played a full 1,117 minutes together, more than any other starting lineup (only Indiana comes close). Perhaps some of this is self-fulfilling. If the bench seems bad, it plays less, and if it plays less, it seems bad. But while there are a few encouraging spots, it doesn’t appear that Portland’s backups have done enough to shake the reputation of worst bench in the league.
All stats courtesy nba.com unless otherwise indicated.