An improved bench ensures that the Portland Trail Blazers aren’t doomed as a result of Robin Lopez’s impending absence. Not that their reaction to his injury would have you know it. After Lopez suffered a fractured right hand in the team’s win over the San Antonio Spurs, his teammates stressed how difficult it would be to move forward without him.
There’s no current timetable for Lopez’s return. Coach Terry Stotts simply said that his starting center would be out “a while.” Portland’s marquee players were shellshocked upon hearing the news.
Via Joe Freeman of The Oregonian:
“I don’t even want to think about having to play without RoLo,” All-Star point guard Damian Lillard said…
“I don’t like it, I don’t like it, I don’t like it,” LaMarcus Aldridge said, when asked about the prospect of playing without Lopez. “That’s it. I can’t get past I don’t like it…
“It’s going to be different,” [Wes] Matthews said. “It’s going to be an adjustment. Everybody’s going to have to step up their defense and work that much harder. What RoLo provides, it’s not something that you can really put into a stat sheet. Some games he will stuff that stat sheet up, but his talking, his activity, his unselfishness on offense and defense, his energy; we’ll have our work cut out for us. But, unfortunately, that’s part of the game and we have guys that are going to be willing and are going to need to step up.”
It’s true that the value of players like Lopez can be difficult to quantify. He’s Portland’s best screener, a willing passer, surprisingly adept mid-range shooter, and hugely impactful defender on the perimeter and at the rim. The influence of his zany, gregarious personality on the Blazers’ close-knit group can’t be discounted, either.
Lopez is one of the most underrated big men in the NBA. No question.
But Portland is equipped to play without him. This injury might have left the team for dead last season, when its reserve group was among the very worst in basketball. That’s no longer the case, a reality supported by the numbers.
The Blazers are 2.8 points better per 100 possessions with Lopez on the floor in 2014-2015. His fellow starters boast similar on-court/off-court splits. Last year, the discrepancy between Stotts’ first five and the rest of his players was much bigger. Portland actually had a -.8 net rating when Lopez went to the bench last season, a 6.5 point swing from when he was on the floor. Predictably, the impact of Lillard, Aldridge, Matthews, and Nicolas Batum was closely relatable.
The additions of Steve Blake and Chris Kaman – flawed but effective players with obvious strengths and weaknesses – have proven bigger boons to the Blazers’ bench than anyone anticipated. Blake has already notched 238 minutes alongside Lillard to surprising effectiveness, while Kaman has given Stotts’ bench a much-needed scoring jolt. Allen Crabbe has emerged as a legitimate perimeter option, too.
What will be interesting is how Stotts decides to juggle his rotation. Though surface analysis leads one to believe that simply inserting Kaman as a starter is the most likely scenario, that take belies crucial context. The Blazers don’t count on RoLo to score; as his teammates indicate, Lopez performs the dirty work other key players on the roster aren’t accustomed to doing.
That’s why leaving Kaman on the bench and going with Joel Freeland or Thomas Robinson in his place would be Stotts’ most prudent option. An overlooked effect of injury to a starter is how that player’s absence impacts the entire rotation – not just the first unit. Leaving Kaman in his current role as reserve scoring cog makes most sense from that perspective, and Freeland, especially, is the type of player comfortable doing a reliable if lesser Lopez impersonation.
Robinson and even Meyers Leonard will likely see increases in playing time, as well. Though the upside with either player is bigger than Freeland’s potential one, they’re not disciplined enough defensively to help maintain Portland’s stingy play on that end when given major minutes. Look for Robinson to sink or swim, though; he’s that type of guy.
This is a blow to Portland. They should be riding high off beating the team that ousted from last year’s playoffs instead of reeling as a result of Lopez’s injury. But the Blazers were bound for a health obstacle after the team largely avoided the injury bug last season, and an active summer will help them ably navigate it.
Assuming Lopez returns in six weeks or so, this is likely the difference between the chance for home-court advantage come postseason play or otherwise. RoLo’s injury is unfortunate, basically, but hardly the killer it would have been at this time last season.
What do you think?
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