Are Blazers’ Bench Woes Partially To Blame For The Team’s Injuries?

In the Golden Age of Advanced Metrics, the “lab rat geeks” that Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley, and the rest of the cranky old guard complain about so much have come up with all kinds of creative ways to track the types of stats we never even dreamed of asking about before; for example, how many marathons has a particular player run during his on-court time this season?

The Portland Trailblazers – who have suffered a rash of injuries in the second half of this season – have to be at least a little bit ambivalent about some of these numbers, especially the ones that show definitively that star point guard Damian Lillard not only leads the entire NBA in minutes played (again), but that he’s run the equivalent of six marathons during games this season, as Dwight Jaynes over at CSSNW.com pointed out recently. That’s enough for him to lead the league in total miles traveled with 173.7, according to NBA.com. He also leads the league in both miles traveled per game (2.6) and per 48 minutes (3.4).

So is it any wonder he’s been struggling lately? The Blazers just lost four straight road games, and over that period Lillard shot just 40.6 percent from the floor and a well-below average 25 percent from behind the arc. You don’t have to be an analytics disciple to surmise that at least some of his recent slump is due quite simply to fatigue. Never one to make excuses, Lillard tried to squash that notion when speaking to the media at Monday’s shoot-around.

“I got to play better,” said Lillard. “I don’t want to blame a four-game losing streak on, ‘I’m tired’ or ‘this is hurting or that’s hurting.’”

To be certain, the Blazers and head coach Terry Stotts both deserve credit where credit’s due. After struggling defensively during his first two years at the helm, Stotts now has his team ranked in the top 10 in both offensive (7th) and defensive efficiency (5th). This is no doubt thanks in part to the additions of Chris Kaman as a more reliable big off the bench and defensive stalwart Steve Blake last summer.

Despite this, the Blazers’ bench woes are as bad as they’ve ever been in terms of scoring. For the past two seasons, they’ve ranked dead last in bench scoring. Kaman and Blake were supposed to help change that, but despite the noticeable strides the team has made defensively, the bench still astonishingly ranks 29th in points scored, according to Hoopsstats.com. That’s precisely what led to the trade deadline acquisition of Arron Afflalo, who was supposed to help mitigate the bench/starters divide by giving the second unit some sorely needed scoring output, but since starting shooting guard Wesley Matthews ruptured his Achilles, Afflalo has been thrust into the starting line-up out of pure necessity.

Understandably, that’s led Stotts to continue running his starters ragged. Despite playing just a total of 32 games together, the Blazers’ starting lineup of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicholas Batum, Matthews, Robin Lopez, and Lillard leads the league in minutes per game at 19.7. Only two other top-tier teams – the Clippers and Bulls – rank in the top five in terms of starting lineup minutes (per NBA.com), and one of those teams – the Bulls – has also suffered injuries to key players.

In an era where NBA coaches have become extremely savvy about managing their star players’ minutes, it’ll be incumbent upon Stotts to take a closer look at this moving forward.

As progressive as Stotts has been in so many respects, he’s still part of the old guard that includes coaches like Tom Thibodeau who have a tendency to over-rely on their starters precisely because they are so apprehensive about their second unit. And fair or not, some believe Thibs is at least partially responsible for injuries to key players like Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, and Joakim Noah, “some” quite frankly meaning the Bulls’ front office, who have raised Thibs’ rankles recently by issuing a decree to limit Noah’s minutes. Noah, coincidentally, sat out Monday night against the Charlotte Hornets for the rather nebulous reason of “general soreness.” But Butler’s return after missing 11 games with an elbow injury helped lift the Bulls to a win and clinch a playoff spot.

Aldridge, on the other hand, opting to play through a hand injury and postpone surgery until after the season has also been a dangerous enterprise after he re-injured that same hand against the Grizzlies Saturday. He, along with Kaman and Batum, all sat out against the Golden State Warriors last night.

The Blazers currently sit at fourth in the West, but there’s a log-jam in the four through seven spots with the Clippers, Spurs, and Mavs all vying for playoff positioning, and it’s conceivable that the Blazers could fall all the way to the seventh spot depending on their health during these last few weeks of the season, which puts Stotts in an even greater predicament in terms of being able to rest players in anticipation of what they hope will be a lengthy post-season run.

With the playoffs looming, it’s a Catch-22 for Stotts and the Blazers: give players some rest and risk losing a few games (and possibly ideal playoff positioning), or stay the course and have your main guys running on fumes during the post-season. Either way, they’ll have to start questioning the wisdom of their current philosophy going forward, and that’ll mean yet another re-evaluation this summer of their seemingly endless rotation issues.