According to… well just about everyone at this point, the Portland Trail Blazers are probably looking at a rather quiet summer. They have no draft picks, minimal cap space, and a roster that was by all accounts more successful than its 13 most recent, prior iterations. Though it would behoove management to consider shaking things up, there will be no surprises in Rip City if next year’s team looks essentially identical to this year’s.
The Trail Blazers will make a few minor moves in free agency, but let’s say they show up in October for game 1 of 82 with the exact same commodities they have today. Portland will have to rely 100 percent on internal growth in order to make improvements. In reality, circumstances are not so dire, but not so “not” that taking stock of house goods is inapplicable.
Thanks to the bittersweet philosophies of head coach Terry Stotts, we actually know very little about the Trail Blazers bench. The youngsters cannot lie dormant forever; one or more is going to emerge as a legitimate role player next year the way Joel Freeland sort-of-almost-kinda-maybe did this year. Let’s look at who our candidates are and what we know about them.
- Joel Freeland (26): Yes, I just mentioned him, but I would be remiss to neglect his remaining potential for growth within his role. The oldest of Portland’s soon-to-be third year players, Freeland is the closest thing we have to a known quantity. He has already become what he is ultimately going to be, but there is a decent chance that he is given more responsibility if he can stay healthy. He is a reasonably dependable defender, but is unlikely to make vast improvements from here on out.
- Victor Claver (25): We almost caught slivers of glimpses of him this year, but not enough to know for sure what he can contribute. He is a better rebounder than most, but his shooting is sub-par (just like our next candidate). Claver is a quality player, but I cannot see Stotts suddenly giving him minutes over Dorell Wright as a backup 3.
- Thomas Robinson (22): T-Rob has the highest upside of any bench player in my eyes. He is the most athletic player on the team, he is aggressive, he can defend, he can rebound, and he has recently embraced his role. Unfortunately, that role is behind starting power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who will receive consistently heavy minutes. Robinson could certainly make the leap to steady relevance, but he would have to do so in a limited capacity.
- Meyers Leonard (21): We have sadly arrived at a point where optimism is met with more disbelief than pessimism when it comes to Leonard, but I still think patience is key. The 7’1” center could not have legally drank alcohol during the All-Star break if he had been in the mood to celebrate and we are asking him to lock down the most physical veterans in the league. Give him more time. If he has even a small “Ah-Ha!” moment, he could retake his spot in front of Freeland and surprise everyone.
- C.J. McCollum (22): A re-broken foot drastically shrank our rookie sample size for McCollum, but that is no reason to discredit his potential. That being said, he did not exactly impress this year. His strengths are shooting and penetrating; neither of which shined for him. Remember, though, 38 games do not a career define. He is the most controlled of Portland’s bench babes – an early gift that bodes well for quick development.
- Will Barton (23): Speaking of control, Barton lacks it in spades (if that’s thing). Sometimes it is alright – a team needs their Charlie Kelly to cut the brakes when the plan stagnates. However; if he can reel in his sporadic play, he could be one hell of a positioned punch off the bench. I would rather have a talented player that needs coaching than a smart player that lacks talent. Barton is the former and can be taught.
- Allen Crabbe (21): I often look at Crabbe and wonder what he would become with legitimate playing time—then I remember. He is almost exclusively a spot-up shooter. Granted, 100 minutes of total playing time in an entire season leaves a plethora of question marks, I am confident that Crabbe will remain a dedicated 3-point specialist. He can always become a weapon, but I am skeptical that he will become a soldier.
Of the seven players listed, Robinson, Leonard, Barton, and McCollum interest me the most. Problem being, of those four, only Robinson receives the lion’s share of the minutes off the bench at his position. Leonard competes with Freeland, and Barton/McCollum compete with each other. If the Trail Blazers are to maximize internal growth, they need to isolate the best candidates for development and focus their purpose. Stepping back from the “exact same commodities” angle, once the Trail Blazers know who they want to focus on, they can more easily clear out the excess for external growth (those minor free agency moves).