There has been a lot of discussion about the Portland Trail Blazers bench or lack thereof this season. It was no secret heading into the 2012-13 campaign that this was going to be a sore spot for this Blazer team. However, as you may want to criticize the second string for lack of productivity or GM Neil Olshey for failing to assemble a collection of reserves worth their salt, realize that there are three to four young players gaining valued experience in relatively meaningful games.
Meyers Leonard, Victor Claver, Will Barton, and newly acquired Eric Maynor will likely be key contributors on the 2013-14 Blazer team. The opportunity for these young players to play extended minutes in a season in which every victory over 30 wins is a bonus for the team is sure to pay dividends in the next few years to come.
Victor Claver has steadily been improving throughout the course of the season. Often times called onto spot start for the battle scarred Wesley Matthews, Claver has not been one to shine brightly necessarily, but he is steady and gets the job done. Sunday against the Celtics, seeing more time at the power forward position, Claver, who many may not realize is 6’10”, snagged 10 rebounds. This was an impressive and needed performance with star LaMarcus Aldridge in foul trouble.
Meyers Leonard, most would agree, is a raw talent. But the only way to shed that label is to get on the floor and take some lumps and learn from both success and failure. The minutes logged this season may position him to move into the starting spot next season.
For a short stretch of games in late January and early February, it seemed as if Nolan Smith might be turning a corner and solidifying his presence as the backup point guard. However, his play has been inconsistent at best and last week at the trade deadline, the Blazer organization clearly stated that they were looking to move in another direction to back up their point guard of the future, Damian Lillard.
The Blazers GM worked a deal at the trade deadline that could be equated to working in a stick of the rock hard and dusty bubble gum from a pack of baseball cards for a player you just have a feeling might turn into something. The Blazers gave the Oklahoma City Thunder a trade exception and a Greek player nobody has heard of for Eric Maynor, a point guard picked 20th overall in the 2009 NBA Draft.
Although Maynor last played December 17th, and is returning from major knee surgery, he looked good in his first appearance as a Blazer. He has a confidence and comfort on the court that the Blazers lacked from the guards coming off the bench this season. In 15 minutes Maynor tallied 2 point and 3 assists, but looked at ease considering just one practice with the team.
Despite the improved play of some of the aforementioned, the Achilles heel of this team has been the lackluster bench play. Portland ranks dead last in bench scoring in the NBA, tallying just 16.5 points per game. Indiana is second to last, but averages almost 10 points a game better than the Blazers at 26.4. The Blazers have lost 14 games by six points or less. If the bench could have contributed an additional seven points in half of those games, the Blazers would be right in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.
But there is really no sense in woulda-coulda-shoulda scenarios. This is a year for growth and maturation. If the Blazer management can adhere to a long term plan, as it seems they may have adapted, this could be a team to reckon with in the years to come.
The likes of Leonard, Claver, Barton, and Maynor could graduate from being the tailbone to becoming the backbone of the Portland squad. Some cap flexibility in the summer may lure some additional bench talent for next year. In the meantime, Blazer fans will need to learn to enjoy the ride with this Trail Blazers club as they develop into a winning team.
Patrick Hughes is on Twitter. Follow him at @phughespdx