Why Few Options Exist To Fix Portland’s League-Worst Bench

An NBA basketball team has more than five players for a reason. No matter how badly a coach may want to play his starters a full 48 minutes on any given night, he knows it’s not an option. One of his starters may roll an ankle. His center could commit two early fouls. Maybe he’s playing the Nuggets and George Karl goes small with four guards and a stretch four. A trustworthy bench allows a coach to adapt his gameplan and can be the difference between a good team and a great one. Without a good bench, a playoff team can be one inopportune ACL tear away from a potentially disastrous season.

During the Blazers’ home loss to the Kings on Saturday night, SI.com and Blazersedge writer Ben Golliver tweeted, “Monday night’s starting lineup for Portland: Damian Lillard, Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, LaMarcus Aldridge, J.J. Hickson.” I chuckled. Then I thought about the task head coach Terry Stotts has ahead of him and I bet he would gladly waive half his salary to be able to roll that impossible lineup out against any opponent.

The Blazers bench has been historically bad this season. According to Hoopsstats.com, this is the NBA’s least productive bench in at least the past 15 seasons (luckily for Portland, Hoopsstats.com data only goes back to 1997). They are averaging a league-worst 14.9 points per game, nearly ten fewer points than the 29th-ranked Lakers. The season is nearly a quarter over and the Blazers’ bench has yet to outscore an opponent’s reserves in any game. On November 10, the Spurs’ reserves outscored the Blazers’ 63-4 and the Blazers only lost by three. It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that Portland’s bench numbers do not equal great news for Rip City.

Stotts is in a difficult position as the coach of an extremely young team. After a complete roster overhaul last season, the Blazers have eight new players, including a whopping five rookies. Stotts doesn’t have a Manu Ginobili or a now-rejuvenated Jamal Crawford (sorry Stotts, one year too late) he can turn to for instant offense. In fact, nobody on the Blazers bench has ever even averaged double-digit scoring in a season. The most productive season a Blazers reserve has had was when veteran swingman Sasha Pavlovic scored nine points a game for the Cavaliers in 2007. After watching the bench struggle during the little court time they’ve seen, it comes as no surprise that four of the Blazers five starters are ranked in the top 15 in minutes in the league.

The most obvious cure for the Blazers’ bench blues would be to move a starter to a reserve role, instantly sparking the production of the second unit. Unfortunately for Stotts, he doesn’t have a ton of options. Swapping Wesley Matthews means Stotts is stuck with Nolan Smith or Ronnie Price guarding James Harden or Kobe Bryant. Sitting Nicolas Batum presents the same issue if Pavlovic or rookie Will Barton is forced to check LeBron James or Kevin Durant. The chances of Stotts benching rookie of the year candidate Damian Lillard or All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge is somewhere between zero and negative one percent.

That leaves center J.J. Hickson. Moving Hickson to the bench would have absolutely nothing to do with demoting the big guy. Although he’s been playing out of position all year, Hickson has been a beast on the boards while routinely taking a pounding from taller and heavier centers. While Hickson and Aldridge have played well together, Hickson is at his best when Aldridge is not on the floor. In 10 starts last year after Aldridge was shut down Hickson was fantastic, averaging 17.6 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. It’s clear that the Blazers can’t afford one second of game time without either Alridge or Hickson on the floor, so by allowing Hickson to be the first big off the bench, Stotts will have an easier time shaving a few minutes off Aldridge’s 38 minutes per game (sixth-highest average in the league), while also giving Hickson more looks in the offense.

Moving Hickson to the second unit would also allow Stotts to insert promising rookie (and the team’s only true center) Meyers Leonard into a starting role. Leonard is already leading the bench in minutes, scoring, rebounds and blocks, while also being the team’s best free throw shooter (85 percent) and having the second best field-goal percentage (53 percent). In two starts this year when Hickson was sidelined with an injury, Leonard averaged 12 points and shot 63 percent from the floor. While he regularly gets lost defending the pick-and-roll and is still learning how to play without fouling, Leonard uses his size and athleticism to cover a lot of ground. He’s also shown excellent touch out to 12 feet and can beat nearly any center down the floor. The Blazers used a lottery pick on Leonard for a reason; they may as well get their money’s worth now.

Obviously Stotts wants to win as many games as possible, and he certainly should. But the current iteration of the Portland Trail Blazers is not a championship contender and Stotts should see what he has in his reserves. To his credit, he has experimented with several different bench combinations, and his guys have responded when given a chance. Sharpshooting forward Luke Babbitt (42 percent from deep this season) has seen increased minutes in the last few games and his confidence and production have skyrocketed. Now that Batum and Matthews are both questionable for tonight’s game with injuries (back and hip, respectively), Stotts no longer has a choice — he has to turn to his bench for production if he wants to win games. Unfortunately for Stotts, he doesn’t have a lot of firepower to turn to.

What do you think?

Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanmcochran.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.