So, if you’re on the #Blazer bench and you never removed your warmups in a game when your team led by 27 points, what do u think?
— Candace Buckner (@blazerbanter) March 22, 2013
The above is the kind of question you ask when Portland is up 15 on the road against the Bulls with a minute and a half to play and LaMarcus Aldridge drains a jumper that should be the final nail in the coffin. The above is also the kind of question you DON’T ask when in one minute and 29 seconds the likes of Nolan Smith, Will Barton, Luke Babbitt, Joel Freeland, and Meyers Leonard give up seven straight points and let Chicago make the final score look semi-respectable.
Thursday’s win, a blowout for much of its 48 minutes, will be on the short list for Portland’s most impressive of 2012-13. Personally, I’d rank it below both the wins at San Antonio and at home against the Heat, but still from both a timing and performance stand-point this one is up there.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that there are many important things about this team that need to be addressed. Things that, if they go unchecked in this off-season, could very likely derail the long-term march to contention that the Blazers’ front office is selling the fan base on. One of those things, maybe the most important thing, was evident in Thursday’s final minute and change: Portland literally has no depth.
The addition of Eric Maynor has been huge. Not only has he shown that he can provide offense by himself, but he’s turned the Blazers’ second unit around. Portland was four or five players deep until the trade deadline, and they’re six or seven guys deep now, all because of Eric Maynor. But seven is a rotation. Seven is not depth. For next season, and the season beyond that, Portland needs to get to 10 playable guys.
Here’s why, the Blazers right now have zero margin for error. When Portland shoots 49% from the floor and 48% from three while holding their opponent to 44% from the field and 29% from three, they’ll win. But that’s basically perfect basketball from the Blazers, it’s not something that should be expected. Portland’s been forced to play basically without making errors all season, and they’ve only got 32 wins to show for it. If that carries over to 2013-14, you can expect the Blazers’ record won’t get that much better.
Portland needs to find a center, that’s probably the number one priority for Neil Olshey, but adding some players deeper in the depth chart should also be very close to the top of the list. This isn’t just about garbage time too. This is about having guys that can be inserted into a game and have an impact. Right now, the end of Portland’s bench can’t even come into a 20-point blowout with less than a minute to play.
I know it seems harsh to dwell on the shortcomings of the Blazers’ scrubs following a convincing win against a playoff-bound opponent in the middle of a spirit crushing late-season road trip, but that’s what this part of the season is all about. Portland won’t be making the playoffs, but they’ve given themselves a leg up on the future. Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge have become one of the most potent inside/outside tandems in the league, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum have both shown marked improvement that certainly doesn’t feel fluky, and Eric Maynor will only get better. That’s the core of a playoff team. But if Portland wants to get beyond the first round of the playoffs they’re going to need to be more than just a core.
Over the course of the next few weeks, head coach Terry Stotts is going to have to figure out what to do with his end of the bench guys. Joel Freeland and Will Barton are keepers, same with Victor Claver. Nolan Smith and Luke Babbitt aren’t. Elliot Williams is a huge question mark, but that’s not really here nor there. If Freeland and Barton are going to be contributors next season, they’re going to have to play. If that means losing games (or failing to get leads big enough that they literally can’t be blown in 90 seconds), that’s what it means.
It’s hard to say where Portland should go after Thursday’s win. When the Blazers beat the Bulls in Chicago last season, Mike and Mike basically flipped out and predicted Portland was right back in the playoff hunt. These kinds of victories bring out those kinds of attitudes.
My hope is that the Blazers celebrate this win for as long as they hung their heads after being whipped by the Bucks. This stretch run isn’t really about winning, just as this season hasn’t really been about winning. Portland has something here, LA is the reigning player of the week, Lillard is rookie of the year, Eric Maynor, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews are strong pieces to build around. We as fans can’t lose sight of the future by getting to pumped up about the present.
The Blazers continue their road run in Atlanta on Friday.