If the past NBA champions have left any sort of blue-print for those who would follow, one thing is clear: depth is extremely important, and you need a solid bench. And what is clear today but will hopefully change, is that the Portland Trail Blazers do not have one and that is concerning as the losses and defensive woes start to mount.
Yes, there are still plenty of games left, and it’s still too early for the panic button, and someone on the Portland Trail Blazers bench may just surprise all of us as the season nears its close and the playoffs get even closer.
The truth is that the Blazers have a very talented roster, and have not suffered a serious setback and/or injury to any of their best and most important six players. One issue is abundantly clear, however, and it’s that the Blazers are nearly devoid of quality bench players beyond backup guard Mo Williams. As of right now, reserve combo guard CJ McCollum has shown the most promise, but lacks consistency, and is nowhere near taking minutes from away from Williams, or starting guards Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews, unless the Blazers find themselves in a lopsided contest.
The front court is particularly in need of a boost. After starters Robin Lopez, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Nicolas Batum, there is virtually an empty cupboard. Joel Freeland has been a nice surprise this season for his gritty play on the defensive end when called upon and may be back in a couple of weeks, or he may be back just in time for the playoffs. Either way he will be rusty and more of a body on the court than a player until he can get back in to playing shape and knee injuries are the worst from a lingering standpoint. As the frontcourt’s primary and only consistent reserve, that is a problem.
Forward Victor Clavor has done a great job of disappointing everyone even though he was drafted ahead of Taj Gibson and DeJaun Blair, both of whom are proving themselves to be serviceable if not starting-caliber big men in the NBA. Then there’s Meyers Leonard, who plays exactly like he looks: a young and “green” project who collects more fouls and missed shots than rebounds or blocks. Leonard was drafted a year before Lopez arrived, however in hindsight, Tyler Zeller, Jared Sullinger, or Miles Plumlee would have been more suitable choices to play behind or alongside the Blazers prized rim protector.
Dorell Wright is a good outside shooter and that’s basically his whole game. He had a couple of good seasons with Golden State but after 10 years in the league, it is safe to say that he isn’t going to pan out as a starter or even a quality reserve as he lacks an all-around game to really contribute on a consistent basis.
That leaves Thomas Robinson, who is only in his second year after being drafted number 5 overall (a pick ahead of all-star point guard Damian Lillard) by Sacramento but is already on his third team. He does play with a chip on his shoulder and isn’t afraid to sacrifice his body for any single play or possession, but doesn’t get much consistently accomplished in the time he has received in the rotation.
A defensive presence behind Lopez and Aldridge is what the team is sorely missing. A rim protector and rebounder who could occasionally contribute in the offensive side but would not be relied upon. You wouldn’t necessarily need a starting caliber guy like Spencer Hawes or Anderson Varejao that has the height and ability to play power forward or center, but that deal probably could’ve been accomplished if the Blazers were interested.
It wouldn’t even take much. A reserve player like Robinson or Leonard (or both) and a top-15 protected pick in 2015 and that deal is probably signed and both teams get what they need: The Blazers get an above average player who helps them win now and the other side gets a player with potential and the ability to draft one with equal or greater potential than the one they give up.
It makes sense. So why didn’t it get done? How could sending a player and a draft pick that is unlikely to help them win, hurt the Blazers? And when Freeland comes back, they’d be even stronger?
It wasn’t that Cleveland and Philadelphia weren’t interested in moving players. The two teams actually signed a deal that sent Hawes to Cleveland in exchange for what amounts to three second round picks (two second rounders and two reserve players). Both players would be injury concerns as they frequently get banged up but in a reserve role that possibility goes down. I’m not saying either player has the potential to be 1986 Bill Walton, but the potential was absolutely there and the Blazers passed on it. Hawes, a Washington native, probably would’ve been thrilled to move closer to his childhood and college home and to a team with a real chance at competing in the next couple of years as the window on his prime closes.
Hawes was a trade option, and while not ideal, it would have made the team better today and tomorrow. Whatever their reasons were, they didn’t land a new player that could help them get out of their current skid and make them better on the defensive side when the playoffs roll around. Whether they didn’t offer the right deal or weren’t willing to accept one, or it’s another reason entirely, is as of yet to be reported.
Whatever the reasoning, the Blazers must have decided that their current roster is not just good enough, but actually good. And they’re right. But good enough to get this team in its current mold to the NBA Finals, which is the whole point of playing the season? Even if everyone stays healthy and the starting five doesn’t continue to show signs of being worn out, which is increasingly unlikely with Freeland out and Clavor and Robinson proving to be the unreliable when it counts, it’s going to be an uphill climb.
Whatever happens now, the trade deadline has come and gone, and Portland has chosen not to make a deal
Was it the right call? I guess we’ll know for sure in June.