It was plain to see for everyone at the Rose Garden, and everyone watching on TV. Sure, the Portland Trail Blazers were playing against arguably the deepest bench in the NBA in the shape of the Los Angeles Clippers, but the Blazers lack of bench production scuppered their attempted comeback in Thursday night’s game. After being down by 25 at halftime, Portland mounted a furious onslaught in the second half, and were within 6 heading into the fourth quarter after Nicolas Batum‘s buzzer-beating layup. They got within 4 in the fourth on the only real memorable moments from a Portland bench player all night, when Meyers Leonard dropped a one-hander down in the face of Ronny Turiaf, then threw down an alley-oop (seen below) from Batum. But the Blazers ultimately fell short, losing 103-90.
The box score goes quite some way to telling the story for Portland. The Blazers’ starters actually outscored their counterparts on the Clippers 68-58. However, the bench scoring tells a whole different story, one where the Blazers were outscored 45-22. Granted 25 of the Clippers’ bench points came from 2009-10 Sixth-Man of the year winner Jamal Crawford, a former Trail Blazer. But that just means that one Clipper was able to outscore the entire Portland bench. Even without his points, four Clippers bench guys scored 20. Six Portland bench guys scored 22. That’s a huge disparity in the quality of bench play, and one that the Blazers have to remedy if they are to make the playoffs. The biggest problem is obvious; while Portland have some decent role players like Leonard and Ronnie Price, they don’t have a legitimate scorer who can come off the bench and spell the starters effectively. The very best teams all have that guy. And Thursday night you saw the difference that guy can make as Crawford produced a game-high points total in just 28 minutes on the floor.
It’s not just the need for scoring off the bench either. For the game, three Blazers; Batum, Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge all played over 40 minutes, while Wes Matthews played a healthy 38. Just one Clipper, Chris Paul, played over 30. If that kind of playing time continues, the Blazers run the risk of wearing their starters out, or worse, injuring them. It’s obvious that coach Terry Stotts doesn’t really trust the depth of his bench and that has to be addressed. Leonard has been able to spell both Aldridge and center J.J. Hickson pretty well, and Price has put in some decent minutes at the point. But the Blazers either have to make a trade for a quality scorer, or somehow get improved play from the likes of Jared Jeffries, Luke Babbitt, Nolan Smith, Joel Freeland and Sasha Pavlovic. My bet is on the former being necessary for Portland as it’s rare that a role player suddenly flips the switch mid-season.
The trade option always begs the same question though; who is available? The vast majority of NBA teams aren’t going to be willing to let go of a quality bench player. At least not without something worth their while in return. This is where Portland has to decide whether they want to compete now, or continue to build through the draft. If they trade now, they risk losing some potentially high draft picks. If they don’t, they risk losing their All Star power forward, Aldridge. If you ask me, the Blazers need to take the risk and make the trade. The team has to show their proven star that they are committed to winning now as, at 27, he enters his prime. The Blazers missed the window in free agency to sign a Ray Allen or a Lou Williams, but there are still some quality guys out there that their teams might be willing to deal.
The first name that comes to mind is MarShon Brooks of the Brooklyn Nets. Brooks was used as trade bait over the summer in the Nets’ unsuccessful moves for Dwight Howard. The second year player out of Providence has undeniable potential but it seems that he has fallen behind both C.J. Watson and even Andray Blatche (?!?!?!) in terms of minutes off the bench. That certainly puts a damper on Brooks’ stated goal of winning the Sixth-Man of the year award. As a rookie, he averaged over 12 points per game in a reserve role and in Portland, he would get more minutes to build on his season count of 10.3 points per game as well as being the definite sixth-man. Brooks turns 24 in January, so he also fits the youth movement bill in Portland and it’s hard to imagine a better place in the league for him right now. Yet Brooklyn were unwilling to give Brooks up in the Joe Johnson trade, and that raises questions about how willing they might be to deal him. If Portland were to offer a package along the lines of Joel Freeland, Sasha Pavlovic and a couple of draft picks, however, the Nets might be swayed into dealing the young guard, who would give the Blazers the legitimate scorer off the bench that they so desperately need.
Trade speculation aside, Thursday night’s game proves that the Blazers need more bench depth if they want to have a winning record this season. If they don’t address that need we could be in for a long season of almost-comebacks like the one we saw against the Clippers. Portland ran out of steam against L.A. and that’s directly attributable to the fact that the Clippers have depth and the Blazers don’t. A MarShon Brooks-type player could change that.