It’s no secret that the bench from last year’s Blazers squad was the team’s weak link. The bench contributed only 18.5 points per game (worst in the NBA), but perhaps the more damaging consequence was that it forced the starters (Damian Lillard in particular) into playing unsustainable minutes. Changes were needed this off-season, and GM Neil Olshey admirably rose to the occasion.
As David detailed here, every single position is shaping up to have a new backup during the upcoming season. While this may get overlooked by non-Blazer fans, owing to the fact that four out of our five starters are returning, this change is quite the upheaval. And frankly, it is one that all Blazer fans should be ecstatic about – in today’s league with hyperactive defenses and offenses, bench play is absolutely essential.
There are several different trains of thought regarding the bench. One that you often hear, especially recently during the playoffs, is that the bench really doesn’t matter during the postseason, because starters play more minutes. While true, this is really just common sense. Where having a good bench really benefits a team is during the 82 game grind of a regular season, which every team must complete before even having a shot to participate in the playoffs.
One must look no further than the two teams who played in the Finals this year – the Spurs and the Heat. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is notorious for strictly regulating the amount of minutes his starters play, and even the Heat got in on the action. Towards the end of the season, several key players including King James himself missed games for injuries (which were most likely “injuries”). Both coaches know just how important it is to minimize the wear and tear on key players during the course of a long, grueling season.
Eighty-two games is an incredibly large amount of contests (and in my opinion too many). While starters certainly dictate the majority of a team’s success, they cannot carry the team on their own. This was never more evident than during the Blazers’ last season, in which it appeared the overworked starters just succumbed to exhaustion and/or injury at the end of the season.
As of March 16th, the Blazers were still only three games away from .500, sitting at 31-34. Sadly, over the next 17 games, they went 2-15. There is no doubt in my mind that the extended minutes that starters were forced to play earlier in the season finally caught up with them, although deliberate jockeying for a more favorable position in the draft was certainly at play as well.
Well it looks like these fears can be put to rest, as, at least on paper, next year’s bench looks to be a substantial upgrade across the board. The overall effect should permeate into all aspects of the team’s success. The upgraded bench should allow the starters more rest, which in turn makes these key players less susceptible to injury and allows them to be more effective in the minutes they do play.
Coach Terry Stotts’ job gets easier, as he does not have to constantly worry about how many minutes he can coax out of the reserves before he is forced to put the starters back in the game. Young players who have not cracked the starting rotation should be able to have more quality playing time, which in turn benefits the franchise’s future.
Bench play cannot be ignored. You have to resist the temptation to grow frustrated with the lack of “big” moves made by the Blazers this off-season, because the complete revamping of the bench is a “big” move. I have seen some discontent with what is perceived to be a lack of a “splash” made by Olshey and the Blazers, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. He has darn near worked magic to bring the bench up to an acceptable level, and there is a good chance the unit will perform far above the “acceptable” benchmark.
Our starting lineup was by and large successful last season, and with four out of the five starters returning, there was no real reason to shake that combination up. Olshey fixed what needed to be fixed the most, and we will see immediate benefits.