The second half of the season is off to an exciting start for the Portland Trail Blazers. Well, not if you’re tracking the team strictly by wins and losses. Then the 3-4 mark they’ve shown is about on par with the rest of the season.
But if you’ve spent time watching this team and have seen the way it’s progressing and evolving, you’ve got to be excited about the way things look going forward.
In the seven games since the All-Star break, coach Terry Stotts has shaken up the lineup. The starting five has remained unchanged, but those five starters are finally being allowed an opportunity to catch their breath for more than a minute at a time. That’s because Victor Claver, Meyers Leonard and the recently acquired Eric Maynor have all been logging quality minutes off the bench. And with the increased quality of those minutes, there has been an increase in the minutes themselves.
Instead of playing reserves equating to free points for the opposition, now Portland’s bench shows signs of life… of fight even.
Whereas early in the season it was rare to see more than two bench players on the floor at the same time, in the team’s 91-85 loss to Memphis on Wednesday, there was a moment – albeit a brief one – in which Maynor, Leonard, Claver and Will Barton were all on the floor together at the same time.
Barton is still scatterbrained enough to deserve 43 minutes a night on the bench. But once he plays like an adult instead of a sixth grader hopped up on Pixie Stix, he could help the team.
Stotts is comfortable with his new eight-man rotation of Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, JJ Hickson, Claver, Leonard and Maynor.
Going forward, Stotts and the front office will need to take a good long look at this group. In this short showing after the break, Maynor, Leonard and Claver have shown they will be key components to the Blazers’ future.
With four of the five starters locked up through at least 2015, re-signing Hickson this offseason has to be priority No. 1 for Portland. He has put to rest any concerns about his lack of height by becoming a reliable double-double every single night. With the NBA’s gradual transition away from the traditional center, Hickson is a tremendous fit for Portland.
Once Hickson is signed, Portland needs to make a qualifying offer on Maynor to keep him in town. Then the question becomes whether to risk re-signing Elliot Williams and his frail body. If Williams can remain healthy and Barton can show the same maturation process over the next summer that Leonard has shown over the last few months, Portland will have a stacked 10-man rotation.
That means see ya laters are coming to Luke Babbitt, Nolan Smith and Joel Freeland. Those guys will be expendable. Jared Jeffries likely keeps a spot as an emergency center and veteran presence in the locker room.
If – and it’s a big if – Hickson can be kept, Portland should develop into a 6 seed next season. Should Hickson walk, Leonard will be plugged into the starting lineup. That wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for the Blazers, but it would likely stunt the team’s ability to be a playoff lock in 2014.
Leonard needs to bulk up to keep from being backed down on a nightly basis the way he was by Marc Gasol earlier this week. He has a big frame that can support the bulk; it’s only a matter of hitting the weights.
At the same time, he must keep his explosiveness. He showed against the Bobcats on Monday night that he’s willing to go to the rack strong possession after possession.
He’s a skilled finisher and loves to dunk. He has a fearless attitude that he demonstrated by still slamming home dunks after being fouled hard.
Leonard still needs to improve on defense, but he’s shown a willingness to learn and a bit of savvy. His constant hip checking of opposing point guards on pick-and-rolls seems like it should be a foul but goes uncalled time after time.
Maynor has flourished in his short time in Portland, whether running the show with the second team or while splitting time with Lillard. He is a huge upgrade from Portland’s previous backup point guards and has certainly earned a spot with the franchise moving forward.
And Claver, with his versatile skill set and length, has proven himself to be the rich man’s version of Babbitt. He might not be the knockdown shooter Luke is, but his all-around game puts Babbitt’s too shame.
Those three, with the possible additions of an improved Barton and a healthy Williams, give the Blazers a respectable bench. Paired with a starting five that gets another season together and Portland should find itself in a fight for playoff positioning next year rather than trying to back into the 8 spot.
Kyle Boggs is on Twitter. Follow him at @KyleKBoggs