Braly’s Blazers: Bench the Unsung Hero

Max Braly Sports Contributor

A regular NBA fan might look at the Trail Blazers and give Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum all the credit for the team’s success. As much as they deserve, Portland’s bench has at least earned a shoutout.

As a unit, the bench has the sixth best plus-minus in the league since the start of the new year, relatively the time when the Blazers became a competitive team.

A positive plus-minus means the players have outscored their opponent while they were on the court. It seems arbitrary to state, but this is the most important statistic for bench players. The role of a substitute basketball player is to be competent while the starters take a rest and freshen up on the bench. Having a bench who can hold their own is huge, because when the starters come back in they can pick up right where they left off and not in a big hole.

First off the bench for Portland is usually Meyers Leonard–the guy everybody either loves or hates–a seven foot one inch three point shooter. You might think that Leonard is wasting his size when he shoots his threes, but really he is the glue that makes the second unit work. His height alone forces opponents to put their own bigs either on the bench or out defending on the three-point line, and either situation is a win for the Blazers.

In Leonard’s 21 minutes per game he only scores 8.4 points, but his sole purpose is to create space in the opposing defense. Just by stepping out onto the floor, he makes the offense work and opens up space for his teammates to work near the basket.

On defense Leonard is a little space-cadet esque, where there are times when he will lose his man. But when he needs to defend, he is competent. In matchups against some of the league’s best centers he as done well. Sometimes his defense is so annoying that opposing players had to be restrained from throwing punches–go watch his highlights against Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins.

Speaking of incessant defense that causes fights, Gerald Henderson–who also comes off of Portland’s bench–needed to be separated from Washington’s Alan Anderson on Tuesday night.

Many people, including myself, thought that Henderson wasn’t going to be Trail Blazer by the end of the season. We all thought that he would have been traded for a future draft pick or another young talent to develop.

As it turns out, Henderson has been a key contributor, and since that January first mark has averaged 21 minutes and 9.4 points. Aside from the numbers, Henderson supplies the team with offense that is self-created, this means that the Blazers don’t need a superb distributor to come off the bench, and that takes a lot of pressure off head coach Terry Stotts and his usual assist men–Lillard and McCollum.

Allen Crabbe is a usual suspect when it comes to being on the receiving end of an assist. Like Leonard, Crabbe is on the floor to shoot three-pointers, and by shooting percent he is the third best shooter from beyond the arc on the team behind McCollum and Lillard at 37.3 percent.

If it’s not a three that he is shooting, its a long mid-range jumper that accomplishes the spacing goal. In his 26 minutes per game, he averages 10.4 points.

Though his shooting ability is nice, Crabbe’s defense is easily his greatest strength. When it comes time for the Trail Blazers to play against the premier guards in the league–Stephen Curry, Paul George, LeBron James or many others–it’s Crabbe’s job to slow them down. For Portland, having Crabbe as a first-rate defender is significantly valuable.

Sometimes, player’s effectiveness can’t be tracked using statistics. Center Ed Davis doesn’t wow people with his rebounding numbers or his points, but his toughness and his hustle certainly do. Per game he only plays 21.2 minutes, scores 6.5 points and secures 7.4 rebounds. If he were to play a full 36 minute schedule, Davis would be the Blazers best rebounder, which show his great effort.

The main thing he is asked to do is to make the opposition think twice before driving into his territory. He is good at defending the paint, for every shot he blocks–about one per game–he has affected 10.

Similar to Davis, guard Maurice Harkless has untrackable contributions to the team. Because he can be slightly erratic, his minutes are down compared to his teammates. His playtime is purely defined by matchups. Basically if the other team has a big guard, Harkless is in to defend them.

Granted, Harkless has had some stellar performances and they’ve been against good teams. These outbursts of quality prove that he is worth keeping around and developing–please remind yourselves that he is only 22 years old.

The Trail Blazers as a whole are very young, with one exception–Chris Kaman, who will be 34 years old by April. Kaman has only played in ten games this season and in those games has only been on the floor for an average of 7.2 minutes. He is a different player than he was six years ago when he was an all-star. Aside from his age, Kaman’s play style doesn’t fit all too well in Stotts system, as he isn’t very quick or athletic anymore and he doesn’t space the floor with threes–actually, he made his first career three against Detroit last Sunday.

Now, Kaman is asked to be a uniform-wearing coach on the end of the bench, this is something he has been surprisingly good at. His forwardness and brutal honesty has made it easy for the young fellas to respect him. Perhaps because of Kaman, the youngsters have vastly improved throughout the season.

Having a competent bench that can play real minutes is important, and now the Blazers finally have one. Last year, the team had one of the lowest scoring benches in the league, and it proved to be detrimental to the team’s health and success. Last year, five different players averaged over 30 minutes per game, compared to just two this year. The difference comes with less injuries, Lillard is the player who has missed the most games this season and he has only missed seven.

As a team, the Blazers have to be happy with how their secondary players have performed. The backups don’t lose any ground while the starters are resting and that’s huge.


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