Through six games this season, two dominant storylines have emerged for the rebuilding Portland Trail Blazers. The first is obvious: Damian Lillard is really freaking good. Any doubts about his readiness to run an NBA offense have been erased. The second is a little more troubling: the talent disparity between Portland’s starting lineup and its bench. The Blazers’ reserves are averaging 12.8 points per game, by a decent margin the worst in the league. No individual player on the bench has scored in double figures in a game. On Saturday, the reserves were outscored 63-4 by the Spurs’ bench. There’s been discussion throughout the local media of moving Meyers Leonard to the starting lineup to allow J.J. Hickson to lead the second unit’s offense. However, as of now, the wrong debate is being had with regards to the bench. The real issue facing the Blazers isn’t a question of how Stotts can fix the bench’s lack of production. The discussion that should be had centers around the workload of the starters, the lack of playing time for the rookies with the most to gain from consistent minutes, and an honest assessment of where this season is headed.
The bench scoring in and of itself isn’t a problem, or shouldn’t be with a realistic perspective on the season. Nothing is surprising about this team’s bench scoring in single digits every night. It was obvious going into the season that depth was going to be an issue. What is a problem is Stotts’ management of minutes, both between the reserves and amongst the starters. Portland’s five-man starting unit (Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and J.J. Hickson) is third in the league in total minutes played this season. They trail the starters for the Pistons and Suns, two other teams with no playoff prospects. Batum ranks fourth and Aldridge ranks seventh in the league in minutes per game. Matthews is playing 37.7 minutes per game, the highest average of his career and a full four minutes a night more than he played last season.
This isn’t a new development: Aldridge played the second-most minutes in the league in 2010-11, and was averaging 36.3 MPG in last season’s jam-packed lockout schedule before being shut down with a hip injury. At the very least, in the 2011 season and the first half of 2012, the team saw themselves as a playoff contender. But giving Aldridge a similar workload and risking another injury during a year in which the team has no playoff hopes is unwise.
Giving Batum heavy minutes is a little more palatable. Between a shoulder injury in 2009-10 and the presence of Gerald Wallace for parts of the last two seasons, this is the first year in which Batum comes in firmly entrenched as the starting small forward with no threat to lose that job. He’s also younger than Aldridge, and just signed a contract paying him for a role he’s still growing into. He should be encouraged to play longer and assert himself as a leader on both ends of the floor.
Aldridge is a different case entirely—he’s coming off a season-ending surgery and has already established himself as an elite, top-20 level player, meaning he doesn’t have contract or role-based doubts to answer. Cutting his minutes from the 38 per game he’s playing now to, say, 34 would not only help preserve his long-term health for next year (when the Blazers may be trying to contend again), but would also open up a few minutes a night for Joel Freeland. Freeland has barely played at all this season, but shown a knack for rebounding and a solid jumper when he has. He should be getting into games regularly, even if it’s just for a handful of minutes. That will help his confidence and develop his skills a hell of a lot more than a string of DNP-CD’s will.
That goes double for Will Barton and Victor Claver. Barton has only had one real, non-garbage-time shift this season, when he scored 5 points and had 4 rebounds, an assist, a steal, and a block in 15 minutes in the win over Houston. His skills are still extremely raw, but when he did get extended run, he showed that he has the ability to contribute in a variety of ways. Claver has only been on the active roster once, and played four minutes in that game. I legitimately have no idea whether or not he’s good. He had his moments in the preseason, but we’ve seen so little of him that it’s impossible to pass judgment either way.
Neither player serves any purpose sitting at the end of the bench, especially while Sasha Pavlovic is playing a sixth-man role. Except for Meyers Leonard, Pavlovic has played the most minutes this season of any of Portland’s reserves with 80, and the next closest is Ronnie Price with 49. That’s indefensible and idiotic. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Pavlovic is a terrible basketball player in every respect, among the very worst in the league. He’s only even on the roster because the Celtics are paying his salary. Stotts likes to point out that he averaged 32 minutes per game in the Finals as justification for giving him minutes, but that really says more about how awful the Cavs team that LeBron James dragged to the Finals in 2007 was than it does about Pavlovic. He has done nothing in his career to show that he is worth anything more than the 15th spot on the bench, a player to be used only in the most extreme cases of shorthandness.
That Stotts insists on running him out there for 16 minutes per game while Claver and Barton languish on the bench is baffling. Those two players may or may not pan out, but they are talents the Blazers organization spent draft picks on, and in Claver’s case waited several years to bring over from Spain. Their development is magnitudes more important than whatever miniscule “veteran leadership” contributions Pavlovic brings, and that development is only going to come if they’re actually allowed to play.
To this outside observer, there appears to be a pretty sizeable disconnect between Neil Olshey and Terry Stotts regarding the goals for this season. Since Olshey took over as general manager, he has beaten the drum of gathering assets and maintaining cap flexibility. His desired model is one of sustainable success. He wants no part of the not-quite-playoffs not-quite-high-lottery middle ground, and nor should he. Since coming up empty in his attempt to sign Roy Hibbert in July, not once has he mentioned making the playoffs this season as a serious possibility.
Olshey wants his young talent to grow and develop, preferably while playing its way into one more high draft pick to add to the Lillard/Batum/Aldridge core. Winning too many games this season becomes doubly dangerous when you consider that Charlotte (by way of the Gerald Wallace trade) owns Portland’s 2013 first-round pick if it falls outside the top 12. For a team that isn’t in the playoff race this year, losing their draft pick would be, if not deadly, at least not at all ideal. The incentive to tank is very real, and Olshey rightly understands it.
Stotts has different ideas. It’s understandable that he’s seemingly trying to make the playoffs this season. When Olshey hired Stotts, the former Mavericks assistant came with a strong endorsement from Rick Carlisle. But to the general public, he’s still largely viewed as a mediocre head coach due to his mixed track record with the Hawks and Bucks in the mid-2000s. This isn’t an entirely fair perception, as Stotts has proven so far in Portland to be a much more creative offensive strategist than Nate McMillan ever was. But part of me wonders if part of Stotts’ motivation to put this team in the playoff race is to shake his own less-than-stellar reputation.
It’s hard to see the directive to work the starters this hard coming from the front office. Olshey is too smart to honestly think this roster is playoff-caliber, and it would contradict nearly everything we know about his team-building philosophy. Stotts may believe that his job security depends on making the playoffs this year, but that’s not why he was hired. He may just need reminding of that.
For as many minutes as the Blazers’ starters are playing, the losses are piling up, and with the Hawks, Rockets, and Bulls coming up in the next week, their schedule isn’t getting any easier. The bench’s scoring is atrocious, and will continue to be atrocious, but that doesn’t have to be a problem. It’s a problem because Stotts’ response to their play has been to give Matthews, Hickson, and Aldridge even more floor time. It’s a problem because, even accepting that the bench isn’t contributing, he isn’t giving backup minutes to the players who need them most. It doesn’t have to be a problem. If Stotts can let go of the idea of winning games, the bench scoring issue becomes far less glaring. The focus of the season needs to be solely on developing Lillard and the other young talent, so they will be ready to play in future seasons when the Blazers are pushing for a playoff spot. Successes and failures this season should be based not on wins and losses, but on how much better Lillard, Leonard, Claver, Freeland, and Barton are at the end of the year than they are now. The losses and ping-pong balls will take care of themselves, just as they are now, but the aim should be solely to make sure the rookies get better. Running the starters into the ground for a chance to maybe win 30 games instead of 22, still not make the playoffs, and come away with a worse draft pick or no pick at all is senseless and detrimental to the long-term health of the franchise.