Portland’s bench was their Achilles’ heel all season. Of course, there were times when the Blazers’ bench made huge contributions, like Dorell Wright’s game-winning three against the Kings and Thomas Robinson’s huge blocks all season long. Overall, though, the bench lacked consistency and forced Head Coach Terry Stotts to play the starters so many extra minutes throughout the year.
One-through-five, the Blazers were as good as any team in the league and proved it throughout the entire season. Winning 54 games is never an easy task, especially in the Western Conference. When you factor in having the worst bench production in the league, it makes the Blazers’ season even more impressive. For Portland, the 2013-14 season was as successful as it could have been, but it was also an eye-opening reminder of how much the Blazers still have to improve to compete with the NBA’s elite and win a seven-game series in the later rounds of the playoffs. It is one thing to win one game against the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, or Miami Heat in the regular season, but winning four-out-of-seven in the playoffs is a whole different beast. To take the next step and compete with the NBA’s elite in the playoffs, Portland has to make improvements to its second unit.
1. Portland needs to find a veteran leader for the bench
According to James Herbert of CBS Sports, Mo Williams will opt out of his current contract and wants to sign a three-year deal. Coming off the year Williams had, it makes sense that he wants a commitment from the organization. Blazers’ GM Neil Olshey should do all he can to ensure Williams gets what he wants… unless there is a better option available.
Williams isn’t as good as he used to be with the Clippers or as a teammate of LeBron James in Cleveland, but he is the veteran presence off the bench and in the locker room that Portland needs. On the court, Williams had a below-average impact, as he posted a PER of 11.8. Of course, that number looks really terrible, but as a point guard who worked mostly with young, inconsistent players, Williams made the most of what he had. If Portland can fill-in the second unit with better players, Williams should have a much better statistical impact if he returns next season.
Realistically, teams will want Williams. As much as I would like to have him back, it feels like he is gone, based on how many teams have need for veteran leadership at point guard. If Williams does part ways with Portland, the Blazers will need to find a veteran to add to the bench. C.J. McCollum is capable of handling the back-up point guard duties, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be a veteran point guard. However, the possibility of Shaun Livingston joining the Blazers is incredibly intriguing. He would be an instant upgrade on defense, as he can guard four positions. Livingston’s length also helps on the boards, and his passing skills allow Damian Lillard to play off the ball more as well.
Maybe Livingston isn’t the answer right now, but a player like him, who has been around the league for a long time, is exactly what Portland needs.
2. Can one of Portland’s young players emerge as the bench’s go-to scorer?
Almost all of the elite teams in the NBA have scorers on the bench who can change the game with their offense. The Spurs have Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills. The Thunder had James Harden, and now they have Reggie Jackson. The Clippers have Jamal Crawford. The Heat have Ray Allen and Norris Cole. The Blazers don’t have anyone on the bench who impacts the game like those guys do. Portland has some talented players who can have an impact at times, but those occurrences are few and far between. In order for Portland to make that next step and become a true contender, the Blazers need to find a consistent bench scorer, a sixth man who can carry the offense while Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge are taking a breather.
Together, the front office and coaching staff will have to decide whether that scorer is already a part of the roster or if they need to get a scorer via trade or free agency. Hopefully, that scorer is already a part of the roster, and GM Neil Olshey won’t have to use valuable resources like cap space or draft picks to acquire a new player.
Maybe I’m too hopeful, but I think McCollum and Will Barton can be the scoring punch the Blazers so desperately need. McCollum missed 35 games at the beginning of the season, forcing him to miss desperately needed time for growth and finding a role within the team. He only appeared in 38 games after returning from injury and averaged 5.3 points in 12.5 minutes per game. Barton posted similar numbers to McCollum this season, averaging 4.0 points in nine minutes per game. Not exactly Sixth Man of the Year numbers.
Hold up, though! We are talking about two guys in their rookie and sophomore seasons, hopefully far from how good they’ll actually be in their careers. I see something in each of their games that makes me hopeful for the future. McCollum and Barton will probably never be defensive stoppers, but offensively we’ve seen flashes of brilliance in their games. In college, McCollum was an awesome shooter and scorer, but his game wasn’t based on his athleticism. His first year in the NBA was an athletic wake-up call. McCollum has seen what it takes and can now take his game to the next level by utilizing his craftiness and being more comfortable overall.
Barton is the complete opposite. He’s an athletic freak and uses it to the best of his ability. Right now, his game is based on penetration and attacking the basket. With time, I expect Barton to develop his outside shot. Throughout the season, I was not impressed with Barton, as he spent most of his minutes running out the clock in games that had already been decided. And yet, when Williams went down in the playoffs, Coach Stotts was forced to use Barton to find scoring on the bench. Barton had games of 9, 13, and 17 points against San Antonio and played almost 30 minutes in Portland’s Game 4 win. Hopefully, it’s a sign of things to come for Barton and the Blazers.
3. Where does Portland find a back-up big?
Stotts brings Robinson off the bench to provide a spark with his energy. He’s still developing an offensive game, which is totally okay for a player of his age, but his size presents a liability if T-Rob isn’t paired with another rim protector. Robinson’s blocks are usually highlight reel worthy, but he’s just not big enough to keep larger players like Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan away from the rim and off the boards consistently. The tricky part is finding someone who can play alongside Robinson who adds length and protects the rim. Unfortunately, Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard haven’t cut it.
Freeland may have a role because of his shooting and offensive ability, but defensively, he’s not going to stop anyone. Leonard just hasn’t panned out so far, either, and honestly, I’m beginning to think he never will. There is just nothing about his game that makes me think, “Well, he does that well.” That’s harsh, but it could not be more true.
Who, then, do the Blazers get to protect the rim while Aldridge and Lopez rest?
(Drum roll, please…)
Nazr Mohammed! He’s available, and he’s cheap. Mohammed doesn’t need many minutes per game to make his impact felt. He’s been making a career out of only playing defense for 15 years. Mohammed only does one thing well, and he’s still pretty good at it. He’d be an instant upgrade on defense, which is exactly what Portland needs right now. Well, defense and depth, of course.