The Portland Trail Blazers have made a complete rehaul of their bench this offseason, capped off by their surprising Wednesday signing of Mo Williams. CJ McCollum, Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson, Allen Crabbe, and Williams are all part of a completely retooled Trail Blazers secondary.
In the process, many of the players that came off of the bench last season were sent packing. Gone are Eric Maynor, Luke Babbitt, Nolan Smith, Sasha Pavlovic, and Jared Jeffries. It speaks volumes that, at the time of writing, just one of those players have been able to find a home with another NBA team (Maynor with the Wizards). Many of those players are barely fringe-level NBA players.
Next season, the Blazers’ bench will look much stronger. Their new additions will work wonders for them in turning the ship around from last season, where they fielded a bench group that was arguably the league’s worst. With that said, however, it wasn’t a complete head-to-toe rebuild of the bench.
Some of the players that played with last season’s bench have stayed on, with contracts that didn’t expire this offseason. The Blazers chose not to trade or waive them, and instead, they will be brought back to play for the bench once again. Coincidentally, those players all played their first NBA seasons last year. However, only center Meyers Leonard and guard Will Barton were selected in last year’s NBA draft. Forward Victor Claver was drafted in 2009 and stashed overseas, while forward-center Joel Freeland was picked in 2006.
How do those players factor into the Blazers’ short-term and long-term plans? Let’s take a look.
Meyers Leonard: Leonard is easily the most important of the players being brought back from last season’s bench. Drafted with the 11th overall pick last season, Leonard is one of the Blazers’ brightest young pieces. His rookie season was as much of a mixed bag as one would expect from a 20-year old rookie center. The upside was visible between his athleticism, mobility, and sneaky range. Just as visible, however, was the lack of NBA polish as Leonard struggled to defend and rebound.
The signing of a new center in Robin Lopez gives Leonard an opportunity to claim more minutes from last year, and certainly, the Blazers are expecting him to continue in his development in his second season. Leonard will be one of the more important players off of the bench next season for Portland. In the future, the Blazers are hoping that he can be even more than that. This team invested a lottery pick into drafting him, and the plan is for him to develop into being a legitimate contributor for them down the road.
Will Barton: Barton closed out his rookie season in impressive fashion, averaging 16.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists in his final six games of the season. With that said, he wasn’t too impressive for most of the regular season, and he was clearly still a work in progress. His jumpshot lacked polish and his thin frame needed to fill out to be able to hang with stronger NBA players. Barton did flash nice athleticism and his late-season numbers were very intriguing, and Portland would benefit from taking a long-term look at him to see what he has.
With C.J. McCollum and Mo Williams both clearly ahead of Barton on the depth chart, Barton might have his work cut out for him in trying to snag a consistent role. He will compete with rookie Allen Crabbe and veteran Earl Watson to be the fifth guard on the roster, and it would likely take injuries for Barton to step into a big-minute role in his sophomore season. That said, the Blazers will watch him carefully in practice and training camp, and depending on what happens in the future, Barton might eventually get an opportunity to establish himself as a solid rotational player.
Victor Claver: Claver finally crossed the pond to play in the NBA after being drafted with the 22nd pick in 2009. He wasn’t anything special, but as a forward capable of playing both the 3 and the 4, he showed that he could be serviceable at times with room to improve. Claver was mobile enough and had a relatively well-rounded skillset that he could play small forward, but he was also big enough to play power forward. The thing with that combination, however, is that it wasn’t favorable to play him for long stretches at either position.
Like with Barton, Claver has nothing certain in terms of his role. Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson look like much more preferable options at small forward and power forward respectively. Between Wright’s inconsistency as a three-point and Robinson’s murky future after struggling in his rookie year, Claver might get an opportunity at some low-end bench minutes. The onus will be on him to prove to be valuable in those minutes, as he was at times last season.
Joel Freeland: If there’s one player the Blazers would have liked to offload this season, it was very likely Joel Freeland. He struggled mightily last season, barely resembling an NBA-level player at times. Unfortunately, he’s tied to a very poor contract, which sees him paid $2.9 million in guaranteed money this season and $3.0 million the season after.
Freeland might be the very last guy on the bench next season. Certainly, he would be my first guess as the player to spend the most time on the inactive list. However, if he can impress the coaches with improved play, he offers size that the Blazers lack on their bench after Meyers Leonard. The difference from Freeland’s 6’10” to Robinson’s and Claver’s 6’9″ can be a lot against NBA big men, even if Freeland is still a little bit undersized to play center. It’d be a long-shot, but Freeland might see a chance if a few things turned in his favor.