Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Portland's Bench

With the season still only a little over a week old, it is still way too early to jump to many conclusions about any team. As a general rule, schedules will even out, guys will cool off or heat up and things will regress to the mean. At this point, most of the stuff that jumps out to me is eye test stuff that may or may not hold up over a longer time period. All that said, there are a few things to worry about already. Here's one - Portland's bench.

Sometimes, all it takes is one play to throw up the red flags. For me, it came in the second quarter of Portland's loss to Golden State on Monday, when Steve Blake was matched up against Klay Thompson and Thompson blew past him on the base-line as if he wasn't even there. Thompson ended up going for 29 points on 11-22 shooting and all I could think was, I don't know if the Blazers second unit is good enough to contend.

Blake is the perfect example of the problem. This is a guy the Warriors traded for at the deadline, although they didn't have to give up much (MarShon Brooks and Kent Bazemore) to acquire him. They ran him out there for a few months and decided that he wasn't good enough - they let him go for nothing and added Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa to the roster. If Blake was still in Golden State, he would be the 11th man.

At this point in his career, that's probably the best use for his skill-set. He's still a decent NBA PG with decent size (6'3 185) who can function as an emergency starter in a pinch and keep an offense afloat for a few weeks after an injury. However, the days of him being an effective rotation player on an elite team may have come and gone. The first red flag is that he has been on 6 teams in the last 6 seasons, including 2 stops in Portland.

If you look at his stats, you can see why. In the last 4 seasons, he has only been over 40% shooting once - 2012 with the Lakers, when he was playing in MDA's PG porn offense that boosts everyone's numbers. As long as his three-point shooting doesn't fall off he won't be completely useless, but he doesn't have great quickness or size on defense and he can no longer get to the rim on offense. He's becoming a 34-year old Derek Fisher.

A two-PG line-up with Blake and Damian Lillard is going to bleed just as many points as one with Dame and Mo Williams, except it won't be nearly as explosive on offense. Williams was an important part of the Blazers team last season and Blake won't be able to replace him. While their competitors in the West were upgrading their bench, Portland was downgrading theirs, which is never a good sign for a team trying to improve.

They did bring in Chris Kaman to add more scoring to their second unit, but he has the same red flag as Blake in terms of being on his fifth team in five seasons. While he has always been able to put up big stats, you have to wonder about a guy who hasn't been able to stick anywhere since he moved into his late 20's. His defense is really bad and the two-man unit of Kaman and Blake could get absolutely shredded in a seven-game series.

Where Portland has to get better is through internal improvement, namely two young guards who they have drafted in recent years - CJ McCollum and Will "The Thrill" Barton. While they have been competing for PT with each other, the Blazers would be better off if they were both getting minutes. That is not to say they would both produce if given bigger roles, but that Portland needs them to if they are going to take the next step out West.

Here's the best case scenario with those guys: Barton becomes Manu Ginobili and McCollum becomes Patty Mills. To be clear, there's almost no situation where Barton becomes as good as a future Hall of Famer. What I'm saying is that he has the skill-set to be a 6th man you can run a lot of offense through on the wing, which in turn would open up McCollum for the role he's best suited for - coming into the game and bombing away from 3.

Barton was a really high-usage player in college who averaged 18 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists a game on 51% shooting at Memphis. He has never been given that type of freedom in Portland, as he is such a wild player that point Barton would almost inevitably result in on-floor choas. However, he does have the chops for it - he's very fast and very long, he can dribble into the lane and he has shown flashes of real passing ability.

I don't know if he is ready for that type of role, but this is his 3rd season in the NBA. At a certain point, you have to know what you have with the young guys you have drafted. That was one of the biggest pluses from Mark Jackson's tenure in Golden State - he wasn't scared to give guys like Harry Barnes, Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli big minutes right away. Now, all three have big roles on one of the best benches in the NBA.

It's the same deal with McCollum, whom Portland spent a lottery pick on two years ago. A small-market franchise that isn't very active in free agency can't afford to just punt on an asset like that, not if they want to make real noise in the West. It's not like he's a developmental guy - McCollum was a four-year senior without a ton of athletic ability. The stuff he's good at - hoisting 3's and handling the ball - should have translated right away.

McCollum's problem is that it's hard to pair him with another PG like Lillard or Blake because of what it does to your defense. With two small guards in the game, Portland has very little chance to match up with a big SG like Klay Thompson. McCollum needs to share a back-court with a big wing like Barton. In theory, those two have fairly complementary games and they could give the Blazers a different dimension on their bench.

The idea would be you give Barton the ball on the wing and he drives and kicks to McCollum for 3 - basically Manu plus Mills in SA. I like the idea of running offense on your second unit through a 6'6 guy, because it gives your team a different look and allows you to put a pure scorer at the PG position. You look at what Mills can do for the Spurs - he comes into the game and guns the ball, shooting 43% on 4 3's a game.

That's the role that best makes sense for McCollum. He came into the league with the reputation of an elite shooter, as he was a career 38% 3-point shooter from Lehigh on 6 attempts a game. He's not going to give you great defense and he probably doesn't have the size or athleticism to make a living in the lane that a guy like Barton can, so if he's going to be a good NBA player, it's going to come from lighting teams up from deep.

Maybe McCollum and Barton aren't reliable enough to have big roles on offense and aren't good enough on defense to prevent the team from bleeding points. That's certainly a possibility. However, I can tell you right now that Blake is just good enough to get you beat in a playoff series. If the Blazers don't believe in their young guys, they had better start thinking trade. The West is too good to get away with the bench they are using right now.

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