There have been all sorts of developments through the first few weeks of the season. The Blazers are 18-4, have beaten 3 of the best 4 teams in the league, and have a power forward who’s generating early MVP-conversation-consideration (a prerequisite for a seventh-place finish in the voting) even though he’s shooting the worst percentage of his career.
As some observers have pointed out, the Blazers still play their starters a lot. So far, they’ve played 72% of the available minutes– even more than last year. This team competes in the Western Conference, where every team is one bad injury from landing with the twelve-seed. The elite teams, the favorites, succeed without this type of run for their starters. The Heat’s top five players have played 55% of the minutes available. The Spurs? 53%. The Blazers dodged a bullet last year, when they played Damian Lillard more minutes than anyone in the league and he never got so much as a bloody nose. They shouldn’t be counting on that sort of luck.
For the Blazers to be real contenders, they have to maintain play at or near this level without overworking the starters. There are only four players after the starting five whom Terry Stotts trusts with any minutes at all: Mo Williams, Joel Freeland, Dorell Wright, and Thomas Robinson. Barring one of the deep bench guys grabbing a spot in the rotation (unlikely), more minutes for the bench means more minutes for one of those guys (or CJ McCollum, but I’ll get to him in a minute).
The question, then, is whose minutes should be increased. The Blazers have a reasonably solid bench now, but there’s no one in the second unit who can really be called above-average. Mo Williams and Dorell Wright are known quantities at this point, and to a lesser extent, so is Joel Freeland.
That leaves Thomas Robinson as the guy. Some improvement from him would allow him to sop up minutes (more than his current 12 per game) and provide injury insurance. At the moment, if the team wanted to rely on their starters less, they’d have to concede a few more defeats.
A few months ago, when Freeland beat out Meyers Leonard for the backup job, I said that development mode is over. But that’s not true, not really. The team wants to win now, and they won’t be sacrificing wins for development at the same rate that they did last season. But they do still have to think long term, and finding out what they have in Robinson would go a long way toward determining the team’s ceiling.
Thomas Robinson might be the fulcrum of the current team. If he plays well, the team can rest the starters (especially Aldridge, who leads the team in minutes) without giving up much. Otherwise they have to run out an inferior bench crew or risk injuries and exhaustion come playoff time.
So what have we seen from T-Rob? First, what we knew about him from the start is still true: the guy can rebound. He’s second on the team in rebound rate behind Meyers Leonard, who hasn’t played enough for that to mean anything. He’s real athletic, and he can push, shove, and score down low as well as anyone on the team.
The bad news is mostly mental. He’s a decent ball handler for a player his size, which should come in handy in transition, but he presses and dribbles too much in the halfcourt offense. He’s got decent court vision, which has led to some real nice dishes off the dribble, but he forces passes too much to be a net positive. He gets turned around on defense and gets out of the flow of the offense.
Some of these are forgivable flaws; the Blazers don’t need him to be great. In fact, if he is they should trade him for a great player who won’t be stuck behind Aldridge. But at least a few of these issues have to clear up enough to convince the Terry Stotts that he can run him out there and he’s not conceding much.
CJ McCollum is the wild card here. I fully expect him to be pretty bad when he first returns. When he gets back, he won’t have played anything but Summer League and scrimmages since January 5, when he first broke his foot. He’ll be adjusting to his recovered body and the increased level and speed of play, and there won’t be any preseason to let him ease into it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he stays glued to the bench for much of his rookie season.
Stotts clearly doesn’t trust the third string at all. Meyers Leonard, who played more minutes than any non-starter last year, has played 33 total this year. Victor Claver is nowhere to be found. It’s up to the higher bench players to take the team to the next level, and Thomas Robinson might be the only candidate who has a next level.