Trail Blazers’ new sixth man: who replaces Arron Afflalo?


On February 19th, the Day that Shook the Twitterverse, the Portland Trail Blazers took the leap into the Western Conference Land of Honey by trading for Arron Afflalo, a move that effectively added the last piece of the puzzle this team needed for a championship run.

This was the roster that dreams were made of. The Blazers kept their starting five, a core group that’s logged the highest minutes per five-man rotations and also ranks fifth in average +/- among current lineups (per They gave up rump roast for a starting-caliber, two-way player in Afflalo and round out the rotation with Steve Blake and Chris Kaman, two formidable veterans capable of playing in crunch time and providing quality minutes.

Afflalo was the perfect sixth man for Portland, the one everyone had been dreaming for (count me, at least). The Blazers were bringing a guy off the bench who can create his own shots as well as guard the opposing team’s best scorer. He’s been one of the top dogs on underachieving teams for most of his career, and was thrilled to be joining an established contender like the Trail Blazers, as he was quoted in an open letter he wrote upon hearing he was coming to Portland:

"“I’m here to help this team reach its goal of winning a title…It isn’t just enough to be a contender — it’s time for us to show the media, fans and most importantly, ourselves, why we’re a championship-caliber team.”"

Feb 25, 2015; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Arron Afflalo (4) looks to get open against San Antonio Spurs at Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The sixth man is hardly a recent trend, but coaches have created ways of saving one of their most talented players to contribute off the bench. A quality sixth man is a player who necessarily isn’t the sixth-best player, but one for which the team doesn’t miss a beat after that first substitution. The top-tier guys, or the creme de la creme, aren’t just the ones who can lead the second unit, but guys who can lead the entire team come crunch time. These are guys who can create shots, facilitate the offense and hit shots when it matters.

A simple, working man’s definition? A player off the bench who is better than one or more of your starters.

Afflalo was that guy.

After the trade, the Blazers had a devastating small-ball lineup when using Damian LillardWesley Matthews-Afflalo-Nicolas BatumLaMarcus Aldridge, in which they could load the floor with slashers and shooters and thus create spacing nightmares for opposing defenses. Between inserting Afflalo or Robin Lopez, Terry Stotts had the type of flexibility in his fourth-quarter lineups that other coaches would dream of having.

Then Wesley’s ankle popped, and the floor caved in.

Luckily, the decision for replacing Matthews was easy: Portland just got a guy who has started for most of his career. The big question now is: who will replace Afflalo?

Who is Portland’s sixth man?

Our candidates, in working order, include: Kaman, C.J. McCollum, Blake, Meyers Leonard, Dorell Wright, Alonzo Gee, Joel Freeland, and Allen Crabbe. Okay, so realistically we’re down to Kaman, Blake, McCollum or Wright.

The obvious successor would be Kaman who, in terms of overall scoring at 8.7 ppg (, is Portland’s best offensive option off the bench. Kaman is a magnet for offensive rebounds, and can stretch the floor semi-effectively with his ability to shoot high-percentage shots from the top of the block.

Would Stotts play Kaman over Lopez in crunch-time minutes? Well, Lopez converts at a much higher percentage, and is much more effective at scoring near the basket. He is also a demon on pick and rolls, and his chemistry when Batum handles the ball is a thing of beauty.

However, Kaman’s shooting ability can draw opposing rim protectors, thus giving more room for Aldridge to work the low post for when Portland needs to isolate him in crunch time.

Lopez, though, is much more stout of a rim protector and, most importantly, turns the ball over far less frequently than Kaman. In more cases than not, I’d go with Lopez.

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Blake receives the highest amount of touches off the bench (, but that’s not surprising given he’s a main ball handler. Blake excels in facilitating the offense and he’s an absolute hound at defending opposing guards. Lillard, as much as I wholeheartedly love the guy, can be a complete whiff on defense. His scoring is so valuable though that you could never sub him for Blake altogether. However; with some of the loaded backcourts the Blazers will face, Blake’s defense could be needed in late–but not last–minutes to effectively hide Lillard. 

McCollum and Wright each serve the same function for the Trail Blazers but in different circumstances, as they’re more or less plug-and-play guys. Stotts has recently used McCollum as the first guy off the bench, mostly if Afflalo looks gassed or gets in foul trouble. McCollum has the skill-set to handle bigger minutes as the Blazers’ top option off the bench, but has only proved it in short stretches.

Wright receives the lowest amount of minutes of the bunch, but has the ability to come in late and still contribute strongly. He has never been more than a three-point specialist, though, and hardly constitutes use as the Blazer’s sixth man.

One of Portland’s best lineups this year, in terms of +/-, was when Crabbe filled in for Batum during Batum’s four-game absence in November. Crabbe showed a huge step forward in terms of putting the ball on the floor and a willingness to take shots. To make this short, though, I don’t think anybody wants to see Crabbe playing the final two minutes of a playoff game. Not this year.

A dark horse candidate would be Gee, the other piece Portland received in the Afflalo deal. Gee has shot surprisingly well in his time with Portland, and has looked spry on fast breaks and playing in transition. Most of his minutes have come in lieu of blowouts, but he has the skills to potentially be an option off the bench. A late, deep option, but still an option.

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Looping back around, are any of the aforementioned players better than the Blazers’ current starters? The short answer would be no. Stotts is likely going to use his bench players as he did before the Afflalo trade, which is mostly for relieving his starters. He could potentially use late lineups with Kaman subbing for Lopez, or Blake for Afflalo or Batum, but we’ll probably go back to seeing the original five ending games.

Stotts has shown confidence in McCollum, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see an even bigger uptick in minutes if he can improve his shooting efficiency. As a speedy shooting guard, McCollum has the highest potential to be Portland’s sixth man in this coming playoff run, but for now I just don’t think he’s more playable than Kaman, who can give so much more.

That being said, Kaman is the guy to bring off the bench. He has proved invaluable for jumpstarting the offense. There are times when Portland’s shots aren’t falling early, and Kaman has been able to come in and drop a few buckets to get things going. He can create his own shots–very valuable for a sixth man–and his offensive rebounding skills give the Trail Blazers plenty of second-chance opportunities.

The Trail Blazers were lucky to have the insurance in Arron Afflalo for Matthews’ devastating injury. This isn’t a team that’s ten-deep like the Warriors, but Stotts still has quality players that can keep Portland’s offensive rhythm going as well as play the stout type of defense we see from the starting five. We’re going to see a wider rotation, with minutes a bit more spread out, but expect Kaman to be Portland’s top contributor off the bench.

Nobody planned for Matthews to go down like this, but that’s in the past. One day that small-ball lineup will resurface and plunge stakes into the hearts of the Western Conference powers; but for now, Portland still has the pieces to make a run in this year’s playoffs, and guys like Kaman are crucial to making that happen.

Next: Blazers need C.J. McCollum to help carry bench