Damian Lillard, last season’s Rookie of the Year, led the NBA in minutes played. To put that into perspective, over the last five seasons, only two rookies – O.J. Mayo and Derrick Rose in 2008-2009 – even placed in the top 15 in minutes played. That comes out to three rookies among 75 players, a minuscule 4 percent.
It is beyond a tremendous burden to put on a rookie, much less one who is handling the ball.
That burden extended to the rest of the Portland lineup. The Blazers were one of only four teams – joined by Golden State, Oklahoma City and Philadelphia – that had multiple players in the top 20 of minutes played. And if you use the minutes per game metric, Portland had three players in the top nine, with LaMarcus Aldridge joining the party.
One likely reason Lillard, Aldridge and Nicolas Batum logged so many minutes was the unreliability and poor play of Portland’s bench.
The Blazers’ bench play was unquestionably the worst in the NBA last season, as demonstrated by its abysmal numbers, per HoopsStats:
|POR Bench||MPG||PPG||FG pct.||3FG pct.||RPG||FTA||FT pct.|
|Avg (Rank)||13.3 (30)||18.5 (30)||39.9 (29)||29.8 (30)||10.5 (30)||3.8 (30)||68.8 (29)|
How can a bench shoot under 40 percent from the field and under 30 percent from three for an entire season? It’s impossible to trust a unit that plays so poorly, including rebounding the ball and shooting free throws. It’s no wonder the team’s bench logged by far the fewest minutes in the league, and that Lillard, Batum, Aldridge and others were forced to play so much last season.
To make matters worse, Portland’s bench allowed its opponents to shoot 45.1 percent from the field (27th in the league) and grab 15.3 rebounds (26th) according to HoopsStats.
So it should have come as no surprise that the Blazers’ top offseason priority was to improve their league-worst depth. And Portland general manager Neil Olshey did really well for himself and the team.
A key signing came last week when Mo Williams agreed to a two-year deal worth $5.5 million. Anytime you can sign a player who scored nearly 13 points per game while shooting 38.3 percent from three for about $2.75 million a season, that’s a huge win.
Williams also shot 88 percent from the line, nearly 20 percent better than Portland’s bench last season. Williams was limited to just 46 games with Utah last season but played nearly 31 minutes per game. He will take a lot of pressure off Lillard and 10th overall pick C.J. McCollum.
To help Aldridge and properly pace Meyers Leonard’s development, Olshey shoehorned his way into the Tyreke Evans sign-and-trade and acquired center Robin Lopez from New Orleans. He also capitalized on Houston’s desire to clear salary and snagged promising power forward Thomas Robinson, the fifth overall pick in 2012 who is now on his third team in seven months.
Even with his trade kicker activated, the 25-year-old Lopez will make $5.9 million next season, and his improvement over the course of his career is extremely encouraging.
Lopez deserves to play more than 26 minutes per game in the upcoming season and will be a major contributor to the Blazers. His numbers continue to get better practically across the board and will make things easier for Aldridge and second-year center Meyers Leonard.
Robinson is still extremely raw as an offensive player; his 43 percent shooting as a rookie was pretty bad for a big man. But he showed a lot of promise defensively after his trade from Sacramento to Houston in February.
With the Rockets, Robinson’s defensive rating improved from 109 to 101, his Win Shares per 48 minutes got better and his PER improved from 10.6 to 12.9. Robinson clearly has a long way to go if he wants to justify where he was drafted, but he is an intriguing prospect who will help Portland’s bench.
Olshey also realized that his bench needed a proven shooter, and he got a very good one in Dorell Wright, who signed a two-year deal worth just over $6 million. Wright was once among the NBA’s top minute-men, logging over 38 per game for the Warriors in 2010-2011. But he has settled nicely into a supporting role over the last two seasons. He shot 37.4 percent from three with Philadelphia last season, a huge improvement over the putrid Portland bench.
Wright averaged over nine points per game and shot over 85 percent from the line. He and Williams will immediately boost the team’s 3-point shooting and actually give the team a chance when the starters need a breather.
As stated in previous StatBox columns, there are seven teams in the Western Conference that will most likely make the playoffs: San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Golden State, the LA Clippers, Houston and Denver. That leaves one other team that will make the playoffs, with the rest going to the lottery.
With the improvements Olshey has made to the team’s depth during the offseason, Portland appears to be the most likely team to claim that eighth seed and reach the playoffs (sorry, Pelicans, TimberWolves, Mavs and others). As Lillard, Aldridge and Batum improve while having the additional supplementary support that was not there last season, things are finally looking up for the franchise.
Shlomo Sprung loves advanced statistics and the way they explain what happens on the court. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. His website is SprungOnSports.com. You can follow him on Twitter.