Blazers: “Here, take the win.” Wolves: “Nah, we’re good, thanks.”
— Sean Highkin (@shighkinNBA) January 6, 2013
I’m going to start this recap off by saying something that might be a little unpopular with the serious Blazer faithful. Let’s all take a deep breath, now the Portland has vanquished Minnesota Saturday night to finish a very difficult road trip 3-1, and try to manage our expectations. Tonight, the Blazers are 18-15, somewhere around the 7th spot in Western Conference. With the West not being as deep in the middle as some might have predicted, the Playoffs might be within the reach of this Blazer team. I’m imploring you out there in Blazer-land, though, let’s try very hard not to think about it.
Why am I being such a downer after a great start to arguably Portland’s most difficult month of 2012-13? Here are my reasons.
Reason number one: The minutes distribution is unsustainable on both the micro and macro levels.
Minutes distribution un-sustainability on a micro level was on full display Saturday night. Portland held the lead over Minnesota almost from start to finish. The Blazers’ biggest advantage came when Luke Babbitt drilled a top of the key three-pointer to push the score to 82-61 in favor of the away team to start the fourth quarter. Maybe Portland got their biggest lead too early, maybe not. Whatever you believe to be true, what should have been mop up minutes for the Blazers’ reserves turned out to be nothing of the sort.
With the likes of Victor Claver, Luke Babbitt, Joel Freeland, Ronnie Price, and Jared Jeffries on the floor, the Timberwolves were able to turn a 21-point lead into a 14-point lead. Up by 14 should probably have been enough for Portland to keep their starters on the bench, but with eight and a half minutes left to play, Terry Stotts had a tough choice. Go with his bench and see if they can bail themselves out of giving up a massive lead, or put his starters back in and see if they can overcome fatigue and hold on. In the end, there was no choice at all. Stotts pulled his reserves. He had to. If he’d let his second unit finish the game, the Blazers would be coming home 2-2 and not 3-1.
Not being able to trust a bench to finish a 20-point blowout is a problem. So maybe Portland makes their run a little bit later, gets that 21-point lead with 6 minutes to play and not 12, and Saturday’s game doesn’t come down to three or four possessions at the end. But how do you expect a group to build a 10-point lead to a 20-point lead if that same group can’t maintain a 20-point lead. And think about how this game goes if Portland enters the fourth quarter up 12, and Minnesota pulls it to within six or four at about the six-minute mark? Again, this one has a very different finish.
So that’s Saturday’s minutes distribution problems on the micro level. It was certainly evident on a macro level Saturday too. Four out of Portland’s five starters logged at least 35 minutes. The lone outlier was J.J. Hickson, and he racked up 29 and a half minutes. Three of four Blazer starters played just about 38 minutes.
Those three guys, Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum, and LaMarcus Aldridge, are all in the top 20 in the league in minutes played per game. Nic is 8th, Damian 12th, and LA 14th. Portland is the only team in the league with three guys in the top 20 in minutes played per game. After that, both Wesley Matthews and J.J. Hickson rank in the top 110 in the league in minutes played per game.
Minutes-played averages in the 30s are manageable, that’s not really the problem. The problem is that Portland’s starters are being relied upon to play all the minutes and do all the scoring. For instance, the Chicago Bulls have two of the top three guys in minutes played per game. Loul Deng is number one, averaging 40 minutes per; Joakim Noah is 3rd playing 39 minutes a night. But other than Deng and Noah, only one guy on Chicago’s roster averages 30 minutes a night (Carlos Boozer), and six guys average 15 minutes or more (without reaching 30). That’s a pretty healthy minutes distribution.
I’m not going to cry injury potential or fatigue, I don’t like to predict injuries and I don’t believe that professional athletes really struggle with fitness, but I don’t think the minutes distribution as it is for Portland right now is sustainable in the long-term. Either some bench guys have to step up and make more out of their minutes, or the Blazers have to resign themselves to losing some games when their starters are getting some rest.
Which brings me to reason number two for my downer attitude.
Portland’s bench is wildly inconsistent:
I’m over saying the Blazers have no bench. That is something we all know. However, Portland’s bench is going to have to play. Right now, they Blazers’ bench just hasn’t been able to be consistent. Saturday, Portland got 14 points from its reserves. Friday, they got nine. Portland matched its 23-point bench output over their last two games on Wednesday in Toronto, but the bulk of those points came when that game had already been decided. Even in the Blazers’ big win against the Knicks, the bench chipped in only 13 of Portland’s 105 points.
What the Blazers need to make the leap from fun to watch, winner of a couple big games to actual Playoff team, is a game in which Portland wins while getting a meaningful contribution from their reserves. They didn’t get that Saturday night in Minneapolis.
And here’s my final reason for tempering my expectations following this win and this recent bout of unexpected success.
Making the Playoffs this season shouldn’t be this team’s goal:
The Blazers, as they stand right now, have a solid core that consists of Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews. LA is 27 and Wesley is 26, which isn’t young but also isn’t super old, but Nic is only 23 and Dame is 22.
The rest of Portland’s core consists of Joel Freeland, Victor Claver, Will Barton, and Meyers Leonard. Those guys are young too, and have some serious potential. Trading J.J. Hickson for picks, passing on the extensions of Nolan Smith, Luke Babbitt, and Elliot Williams, and not re-signing Jared Jeffries, Ronnie Price, or Sasha Pavlovic gives the Blazers a ton of room to find a couple of free agents that can contribute. Add to those free agents some draft picks that can actually play, and 2013-14 could be a special season for the Blazers.
However, throwing away that future to attempt a Playoff run this season would be mighty short-sighted. Luckily, there is very little Portland can do right now to impact next season. Basically, the only thing they can do is not trade J.J. Hickson.
Saturday, Portland looked like a winner, but not exactly a Playoff team. They took advantage of a short-sided team. They capitalized on a couple of possessions late. And they played defense when it mattered. We should all be excited about that. I’ve said before that this season wins and losses aren’t going to be the way to judge the Blazers in 2012-13. I still believe that.
If, and it’s a big if, Portland can address some of the issues I’ve raised, then we can begin that other discussion. I don’t think it’s impossible, but I want to see it happen before I get too excited about where this team can go, and what this team can be.
One quick thing:
- I forgot to do it after Friday’s win in Memphis, so here’s my Standings Watch. By beating the Timberwolves, the Blazers have moved into 7th place in the Western Conference, basically tied with the Denver Nuggets (Portland’s winning percentage is .545 and Denver’s is .543) and half a game behind the Houston Rockets. We’ve got a long way to go, but if the Playoffs started today, the Blazers would face the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round. The Clips blew out the Golden State Warriors Saturday night.