The Portland Trail Blazers are back in business.
It may have taken a while, but the Blazers have returned to a level of superiority in the Western Conference. Portland can continue that trend going forward, but there’s work the team needs to do in the offseason to ensure that.
The Blazers must improve their bench.
This might be more an orchestra of moves than a single one, but they’re all predicated around one area. Portland made enormous strides this season, in terms of player development and achievement as a team, but the reserve squad was inconsistent all season.
Per HoopsStats.com, the Blazers bench ranked No. 26 in field-goal percentage and last in minutes, scoring and offensive efficiency.
As such, head coach Terry Stotts and his staff had their hands tied to a certain extent. Per NBA.com, the starting lineup played a total of 1,373 minutes together, ranking No. 2 to the Indiana Pacers’ starting group, which was indicative of the inability to trust the bench.
This was even more evident during the playoffs, as LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum all averaged more than 40 minutes per game. Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez were close behind at 38.7 minutes and 33.4 minutes, respectively.
Moreover, it’s reasonably possible that Portland’s season closed on the back of its fatigued stars. Going up against the San Antonio Spurs is always a major dynamic, as perhaps the NBA’s No. 1 composed, coached and intelligent team, but each loss was by a devastating margin.
Despite taking Game 4 in a 103-92 victory, the Blazers lost the other four matchups by an average of 19.5 points. Combine Portland’s relative lack of experience with playing the starting unit a great deal, and it was easy work for San Antonio. The defense was able to adjust easily, as very little was done (or was able to be done) to shake things up with contributing reserves.
The Blazers already have 13 players on the roster for next season, excluding the player option for Mo Williams’ deal. He has already stated his desire to opt out and return for a longer contract, hence the roster could realistically jump to 14. It doesn't give Portland much to work with, but they can make some moves regardless.
In the 82 games the Blazers played during the regular season, forward Victor Claver and guard Allen Crabbe played the least amount of games at 21 and 15, respectively. Neither averaged more than nine minutes per game, putting forward shooting accuracies of 40.5 percent and 36.4 percent and PERs (Player Efficiency Rating) of 8.8 and 7.7, respectively.
Portland can open up two roster spots by waiving both, thereby making room to sign free agents that can contribute right away. Assuming Williams does re-sign with the Blazers, the team should then look to pursue other veteran players with a focus on the frontcourt.
The reserve big men on the roster in Joel Freeland, Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson, are all relatively unproven and inexperienced. All three are talented players, with Leonard and Robinson being lottery picks of the 2012 NBA draft, and just completed their second year of professional basketball but still have a ways to go to become consistent contributors.
Portland needs immediate contribution to continue its success in the Western Conference.
The Blazers' payroll of $64.9 million for next season, courtesy of ShamSports.com, has them below the projected luxury tax threshold of $77 million, hence they are able to use the full non-taxpayer mid-level exception of $5.3 million (per Larry Coon's NBA Salary Cap FAQ) to sign players.
That amount can be split amongst players, so the re-signing of Williams could come to fruition as well as adding a veteran big man. Elton Brand, Jermaine O’Neal, Emeka Okafor and Kenyon Martin are just a few of those available, in terms of guys who could contribute in a limited role.
The Blazers could also take a different path and offer the full mid-level exception to a single player. If the team is ready to trust rookie guard C.J. McCollum, he could fill the role Williams was given this season as the first man off the bench.
McCollum played just 38 games this season after missing time with a foot injury, averaging 5.3 points on 41.6 percent shooting. His return was a little too belated though, as he was finally healthy when the rotation was set. McCollum first broke his left foot in January of last year, then broke it again during practice in October.
He missed the first few months of the season, and it was simply too late for him to slide seamlessly into the rotation. If Portland is ready to hand the keys of the bench to McCollum, the team could essentially offer the full mid-level exception to a big man like Spencer Hawes, Jordan Hill or Chris Kaman. All three would provide a different skill set to the team and in turn create a unique aspect off the bench.
Hawes’ shooting would fit seamlessly into Portland’s offense, Hill’s athleticism would be terrific in the Blazers’ system and Kaman would play fundamentally similar to Lopez.
Portland has enough cap room to make a solid offer above the veteran's minimum, which can work as a point of interest. The Blazers' improvement as an up-and-coming team is also a factor to consider, and they are just a few steps away from contending.
One of those steps is the improvement of the bench, which again becomes a major point of persuasion. Contending teams like the Miami Heat can often have offers refuted due to the concern of not receiving playing time.
Coach Stotts and his staff haven’t shown a willingness to allow the reserves to regularly play, but that would ultimately change with a supporting cast that knows their role and how to contribute proficiently. As such, incoming free agents could be swayed by the notion that the Blazers’ further improvement would be predicated on their own involvement instead of riding the bench.
The Blazers are suffocating offensively, solid defensively and a well-coached unit. The team’s bench is the sole issue on truly preventing it from progressing further, hence upgrading the reserve unit should be the sole focus in the offseason.
Aldridge’s contract situation can’t be properly solved until next season, and he’s more likely to want to re-sign for a longer deal. Re-signing once his contract expires gives Aldridge the luxury of receiving a five-year deal, as opposed to the max three-year extension he’d receive before the end of next season.
In any case, Portland is close to reaching a level of supremacy in the respective conference. The roster only needs a few tweaks, and the Blazers will be that much closer to contending for an NBA championship. The roster is talented at almost every spot, but there’s still room for improvement. And that can happen during the upcoming offseason.
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