There's nothing like a postseason exit to remind a team it still has a few things on which to work. The Portland Trail Blazers leave 2014 behind with mostly good memories, especially if you try really hard to focus on that first-round series against the Houston Rockets.
But things unraveled a bit against the San Antonio Spurs in those semifinals. Good as Portland looked on paper and hot as the team was, the well-oiled Spurs machine came, saw and conquered in what seemed like the blink of an eye.
Much of that can be accounted for with the Spurs' superior experience. It's a team that's been together longer, one that's been in plenty of postseason scenarios. The Trail Blazers will learn to better cope with time. As the team develops better connective fiber and synergy, it will find itself far better prepared to handle elite teams at pivotal junctures.
But the other difference between Portland and San Antonio was the bench play.
Over the course of the series, San Antonio's second unit outscored Portland's by a 220-77 margin.
Granted, much of that difference simply has to do with what kind of teams we're talking about. The Trail Blazers play their starters long minutes, relying on that unit to do the vast majority of heavy lifting game in and game out.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich distributes his minutes far more evenly in his well-documented attempts to keep his starters fresh.
It's not as if Portland's reserves were laboring for long stretches, failing to score despite their best efforts. They just weren't on the floor as often. They just didn't factor into the series nearly as much.
The question is whether that's a sustainable policy for Portland. The Spurs looked fresher, fought harder and played sharper. They looked like the more well-rested team, like a team that had been saving its best shot all season long for a moment like this one.
The Blazers looked spent.
And perhaps they were.
It surely didn't help that backup guard Mo Williams was missing for most of the series, but he wasn't going to single-handedly correct a pattern that so thoroughly repeated itself game after game.
LaMarcus Aldridge averaged over 36 minutes per game in the regular season and 40.1 during the playoffs. Point guard Damian Lillard averaged 42.4 minutes during the postseason. These guys were playing huge minutes, many of which came in a high-octane (i.e, exhausting) first round.
Something's going to have to change for this team to take things to another level. The bench may be a big part of that change.
Stay the Course
Portland has a young bench, and that has a lot to do with why head coach Terry Stotts hasn't entrusted it with more responsibility. Outside of Williams, Dorell Wright and Earl Watson, the Trail Blazers' primary bench contributors are still on their rookie contracts.
The best path to improving the second unit may simply be waiting for some of those guys to develop. Thomas Robinson brings a lot of energy to the game and is still honing his skill set. Will Barton could become a consistent scorer, a poor man's Jamal Crawford. And C.J. McCollum has all the makings of a fine young combo guard.
Then there's 22-year-old Meyers Leonard, the center Portland took with the 11th overall selection in 2012.
Leonard's minutes were cut in half this season thanks to the acquisition of Robin Lopez. As he matures, though, he could factor far more heavily into the rotation, spelling Aldridge for an additional five or 10 minutes on any given night.
There's a lot of talent on this bench. It just hasn't had much time to grow. Allowing it to do so could yield untold dividends. At the moment, there's really no way to know exactly how good any of these youngsters will be.
Waiting on them seems like the best thing to do in terms of this team's future and chemistry alike. While there's an understandable feeling that Portland needs to improve on several fronts, there's no reason that improvement can't come from within.
It just might take a little patience. That's not an easy sell for a club that appears so close to contending, but we should be careful about embracing the alternative. A roster shake-up could backfire. It could send the wrong message to those left standing. It could disrupt the synergy that's thus far been built.
If the right deal comes along, however, a minor shake-up may be in order.
Acquire a Veteran
There are plenty of teams out there who'd love to get their hands on some of Portland's young assets. It's unlikely the Trail Blazers will break up their starting lineup, but you could easily see a rebuilding team seeking a package built around guys like McCollum and Leonard. Those are precisely the kind of prospects for whom a bad team will happily wait.
Could Portland gets its hands on a more proven veteran like Thaddeus Young or O.J. Mayo? There's no reason to rule the possibility out, and there's no doubt an acquisition of that magnitude would give Portland a starting-caliber sixth man.
If Portland avoids the trade route, it could look to make a modest investment in free agency. The team won't have much in the way of cap space, but it could potentially attract a veteran with the opportunity to join a budding contender.
It's hard to say where Portland's biggest needs lie, but it could certainly use some help on the wing. At the moment, the best options are Wright and Barton, so there's room for an upgrade. Veterans like Richard Jefferson or C.J. Miles would probably be affordable and amenable to the notion of joining an upstart contender like the Blazers.
Mo Williams will opt out of the remaining season on his deal with the Blazers, but he remains interested in the possibility of working out a longer deal with the team. That would benefit both sides and ensure Portland at least has an experienced scorer coming off the bench.
There are a handful of free-agent bigs who could make contributions as well—everyone from Kris Humphries to Elton Brand.
One thing you can count out is the prospect of the Trail Blazers getting any younger. The team doesn't have a selection in this summer's draft, and that's probably just as well. It would be nice to have an additional trade asset, but Portland needs a gritty vet or two at this point, someone who's made the rounds in the postseason.
It doesn't need a rookie.
Portland's bench ranked dead last this season in minutes averaged and points per game. One way or the other, Stotts has to find himself in a position to deploy his reserves more regularly. The fact that he was unable to do so in the regular season all but sealed the postseason's fate.
The playoffs are no time to start relying on guys who haven't been tested.
We may find that Stotts already has some gems right underneath his nose. If not now, perhaps after another summer of player development. The key will be making something out of guys like Robinson, McCollum, Leonard and Barton. If they aren't going to get sufficient playing time in Portland, a trade is probably the way to go.
One way or the other, adjustments are in order. This team can't put everything on its starters' shoulders.
There's no sense in panicking about a team that's clearly headed in the right direction, but some priorities couldn't hurt. Depth is increasingly a necessity rather than a luxury in this league. And Portland's in store for more heartbreak if it doesn't get deeper.