Utility players give Trail Blazers unique injury insurance


In 2013-14, the Portland Trail Blazers were one of the healthiest teams in the league over the course of the season. Of the starters, LaMarcus Aldridge was the only player not to play in all 82 regular season games.

Of course, in a perfect world, all of the Blazers stay healthy for the whole season and wouldn’t have to worry about the “what ifs” when it comes to injuries. That is simply not reality.

In the Western Conference, an injury to a key player might mean the end of the season for any of the playoff hopefuls, including the Trail Blazers.

While the Blazers lucked out on the injury front last season, there is a plan in place should any of the starters, or role players, get hurt next season. Every team has a strategy and contingency plan for dealing with injuries, but universally, there is no perfect method for replacing injured players.

The Blazers have a unique setup for dealing with injuries this season. Likely, the Blazers’ eight-man rotation will consist of the five starters from last season, Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Aldridge, and Robin Lopez, and three bench players, Steve Blake, Thomas Robinson, and Chris Kaman.

If one of those players goes down with an injury, head coach Terry Stotts has a built-in safety net, if you will, behind those eight players to be able to replace any of them at any time. It’s unique because each of the players waiting to fill-in for the Blazers can play multiple positions. Essentially, the Blazers have four utility players (C.J. McCollum, Will Barton, Dorell Wright, Joel Freeland) that cover all five positions on the swing, if needed.

Based on who they’re playing and the matchups, Stotts can go to any of his four bench reserves to step into the action and contribute.

C.J. McCollum: PG/SG

McCollum is a talented guard with good shooting stroke and playmaking ability. At this point of his young career, he just needs more playing time to get in a rhythm and find a part of his game that works.

In college, McCollum was a primary ball handler. He has the dribbling skills, speed and quickness, and passing ability to be a solid backup point guard in the NBA. An injury to Lillard or Blake would likely bump McCollum into the backup point guard role, and I think he can excel in that area.

McCollum’s also a great outside shooter and scorer when he puts his mind to it. Against NBA defenses, McCollum has yet to have that breakout performance we’re all waiting for, but he’s shown he has that ability to catch fire in summer league against some decently stiff competition. If Matthews were to get hurt or get in foul trouble, McCollum could fill-in at the shooting guard position and, hopefully, replace some of Matthew’s offensive production and three-point shooting.

Will Barton: SG/SF

Barton might be the Blazers’ best energy option off the bench right now. Blake, Robinson, and Kaman are all good players, but I don’t think they necessarily have that spark that Barton brought in those playoff games in San Antonio. There are only a handful of bench guys in the league that can get you 17 points against San Antonio in the playoffs.

Barton is quick enough and fast enough to play on either wing position. He’s a little unorthodox and lacks some awareness at times, but for a quick fix off the bench, he’s one of the best options in the league.

At 6’6″ with a 6’10” wingspan, Barton can be used to fill-in for Matthews or Batum, although his size could be problematic if he has to guard bigger wing players like Kevin Durant or, god forbid, LeBron James. But, come on, only Kawhi Leonard can stop those guys anyway.

Dorell Wright: SF/PF

I wrote about how Wright can contribute this season for the Blazers last week.

Wright has to be more consistent than he was last season on offense. He’s a liability defensively and basically a one-dimensional player at this point in his career. He can shoot threes, but he has to shoot at a better clip to ensure he gets into the lineup. Wright has a four or five three game in him. Hopefully, it comes at the right time of the season.

Wright is in a weird spot because he isn’t going to beat out anyone for minutes, especially if Barton plays like he did against San Antonio. I like Wright as the small-ball four or a quick fix solution at the three surrounded by Lillard, Matthews, Aldridge, and Lopez. In those situations, he can create a slight matchup problem because of his size and his ability to make threes and stretch the floor.

At this point of his career, it’s likely Wright will not improve much, but even so, if he can increase his three-point percentage as he gets older, like Richard Jefferson, I really think Wright has a bigger role to play on this Blazers team than people expect.

Joel Freeland: PF/C

Freeland is the perfect bench option big for the Blazers. He’s quick enough to contain bigger power forwards and big enough to battle against teams centers. There is a lot to like about Freeland’s offensive game, as well, and he’s got good touch for a big man.

Freeland does get overpowered and thrown around against he league’s biggest and best centers, but so do a lot of other big guys. Freeland fights, though. He doesn’t give up on plays, and often times can draw fouls on guys like Dwight Howard, because the officials see Freeland go flying out of bounds. He is a solid fourth big to have on a team.

Freeland was overmatched in many situations last season, but this season, I expect him to have a little more freedom to show what he has to offer and give the Blazers solid minutes when he plays.

The Blazers don’t have the deepest bench in the league by any means, but there is room to get better. I can understand why a lot of people, analysts, and media guys/gals are predicting the Blazers finish in the seventh/eighth spots in the playoff picture. There are a lot of good teams in the West. Looking at the Blazers offense from last season, which was one of the best in the league, the Blazers have the ability to get better with the pieces they added this offseason. Plus, the Blazers’ young players, like Lillard, McCollum, Barton, and Robinson, are another year older and, hopefully, another year better. That improvement in the bench depth could be all the difference for the Blazers next season; especially if injuries become a factor in Portland’s lineup options.

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