While some teams rely on their starters out of a position of strength, Portland did so last season out of desperation. Coach Terry Stotts simply had nowhere else to turn because his bench was stocked with below-replacement-level players stretched into roles unbefitting their talents.
Every Trail Blazers reserve registered a net-negative impact while on the court, according to RAPM (regularized adjusted plus-minus), and not a single one rated as even a remotely average player by way of Player Efficiency Rating or win shares. But in the interest of saving the starting five some incredible burden, the likes of Luke Babbitt, Victor Claver and Sasha Pavlovic had to play.
So they did, and the Blazers suffered for it. While leaning on those hapless reserves, Portland's defense dropped further from the team's already depressing season standard, and overall the bench ranked last in per-minute reserve scoring. Stotts went to great lengths to keep his starters on the floor for as long as possible, and as a result Portland assigned the fewest minutes to its subs in the NBA. Even in that reduced sum, though, we're talking about some 6,400 minutes logged by fairly marginal NBA players -- the kind that even standout talents such as LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard could not redeem.
That should soon change, as Portland's offseason renovation sought to primarily address that woeful second line. Swingman Dorell Wright and guard Mo Williams were signed at bargain rates in free agency. Power forward Thomas Robinson and center Robin Lopez arrived in trades that didn't cost Portland much. Guards CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe should log minutes immediately after being drafted in June. There are plenty of individually compelling pieces in that lot, but of even greater interest to Portland is the synergy of adding so many useful and versatile players at once. A complete bench overhaul allows Stotts to mold lineups from scratch -- an endeavor facilitated by the fact that most every player acquired is capable of filling minutes at multiple positions.
Portland didn't have a single non-starting lineup that logged more than 150 minutes last season, as Stotts was left to cobble together five-man units on a night-by-night basis. It should be a bit easier for Portland's reserve lineups to gain traction this season, if only because McCollum and Williams offer a higher baseline in terms of shot creation. It was no coincidence that Portland's offense plunged into an abyss whenever Lillard checked out of the game last year (scoring dropped from 105 points per 100 possessions to 93.5); the juxtaposition between his savvy shot creation and that of Portland's reserve point guards was almost unbearable to the point that playmaking responsibilities were often entrusted to swingmen Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews for lack of a better option.
McCollum and Williams both help close that gap. Both can play off of Lillard or behind him, and because of that they will be able to provide essential perimeter shooting (the Blazers ranked 20th in three-point percentage last season) and the means to manufacture offense on a relatively consistent basis. That's far more than Eric Maynor, Ronnie Price and Nolan Smith were able to muster last year, and from that new offensive base comes the means to relieve players like Batum and Matthews of their shot-creating burdens.
Wright should wind up as a stylistic extension of Batum, in a way -- incapable of some of the more dynamic things that Batum does with the ball but fit to mimic Batum's role in certain sets and score in some of the same ways. He's also a solid defender sprung from a Portland bench that had no such luxury last season. That's a relatively minor upgrade for a defense that still needs serious work, but Wright's ability to guard multiple positions effectively broadens the possibilities for Portland's perimeter coverage.
It's players like Wright that give Stotts the coveted ability to pick and choose; with lanky wings, combo guards and a floor-stretching big man, Portland's ability to manipulate matchups and counter specific opponents has widened dramatically. Such factors are often taken for granted when evaluating team efficacy, but that freedom of choice means a great deal to a tactician of Stotts' caliber.
Robinson is a bit more difficult to pin down, but he's a natural athlete who at the very least seems committed to working his way back into favor. Even on the Las Vegas Summer League stage, Robinson was fighting hard for box-out position and scrapping for every loose ball, all of which bodes well as he'll need to create peripheral value to justify his time on the floor. He's young and lacks a defined skill set, but some earned playing time and gradual development could make him a worthy NBA regular in time. Regardless, gambling on Robinson's potential is very much preferable to crossing your fingers and hoping that Babbitt takes a leap, and illustrative of the level of improvement in play for a Blazers team on the playoff cusp.
The Blazers still face brutal competition to make the postseason, but correcting the NBA's worst bench brings them that much closer to solvency. Statistical support provided by NBA.com.