The first month of 2014 wasn’t so kind to the Blazers, in the relative sense. Portland finished two games above .500 for January, a pedestrian record considering the final two months of 2013 were two of the best months in the history of the franchise. Still, some things have changed over the last month with the Blazers.
What’s changed is that the 2013-14 NBA season has entered the holding-pattern phase, which starts in January and lasts through the beginning of April. All team goes through it, but it’s a little different with the Blazers. As a few members of the media have pointed out, this season’s Blazer team has skipped a step or two on their road from the lottery to contention. Because of this, January’s regression, if that’s what it is, has taken on a different tenor.
Where the San Antonio Spurs can be forgiven for dropping a game or two, since everybody knows Tim Duncan and co. will show up come playoff time, a few losses for the Blazers are being treated as an indication that regardless of getting north of 30 wins before the All-Star Break, this team may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
The irony of the situation is that the same thing being touted as one of the primary reasons for the Blazers’ November and December success is now being floated as the culprit for the Blazers coming back down to earth in January. That thing is the bench. And the bench begins, and in some ways ends, with Mo Williams.
Mo didn’t come to Portland specifically to become the Blazers’ most important, or most talked about, reserve. He came to Rip City as a mid-level free agent with a standing relationship to a general manager who had a mandate to rebuild.
Williams came to town as an established veteran, joining a team with a superstar in the making at the point guard position, but absolutely nothing in the way of a reserve unit. From day one he was going to play a lot, but nobody could foresee that his play would be catalyst the Blazers needed to leapfrog some of the middling Western Conference teams of 2012-13 that were interested in reaching the top four this season.
At least that’s how it seemed. The addition of Mo’s instant offense may not have been the only reason for the Blazers blasting out of the gate to the top of the NBA ladder, but it was a hard case to argue against. Williams, coming in for Damian Lillard in the first half of games, helping to helm the second unit (improved but still without much variety in the scoring realm) when the other starters were resting, and sometimes helping to start or finish fourth-quarter runs, was welcome following the veritable black hole that made up the Blazer bench only a season ago.
And then something happened. Veteran Blazer correspondent Dwight Jaynes was the first to suggest that maybe Mo wasn't the “best back-up point guard in the league,” as Blazer coach Terry Stotts likes to suggest over and over. Ben Golliver, of Blazersedge and Sports Illustrated, did everyone a favor and ran some numbers.
“The Blazers have done very well with Williams as a stand-in for Lillard," he concluded, "but Williams hasn't been so overwhelmingly amazing that he's able to carry units that are more heavily bench-dependent to great success.”
The beef Jaynes has with Mo has more to do with the hype, but Golliver makes the point that maybe some of the hype actually is a little over-blown. The response from the team? Stay the course, and hold to the line that Williams is the best back-up point guard in the association.
“He’s got experience, he’s been on big teams, he was an all-star. He is the best point guard off the bench, period,” Nicolas Batum said a few weeks ago. “We know when (Mo) comes off the bench he’s going to bring something. He’s going to run plays. He can make shots. He can get assists.”
But Batum is confident in more than just his team’s newest sixth man. The Frenchman firmly believes that the Blazers’ reserves have not only improved greatly, but that this season’s bench gives Portland legitimate depth, something they’ve been lacking in the early stages of the Terry Stotts era, even if he admits the starting five are still playing a lot of minutes.
“We play a lot, but you know like last year it was the starting five stayed a lot together on the court,” Batum said. “Now it’s sometimes just Dame and Wes on the court. And then it’s going to be LA and me on the court. We mix the rotation. We have different match-ups because all those guys from the bench bring something every night.”
Regardless of where the truth abou Williams specifically and the Blazer bench as a whole falls (which is likely between the speculation that Mo is more harm than good or the assertion that he’s the best second point guard around), it’s nearly impossible to argue that it hasn’t gotten better for the Blazers when it comes to getting production from the sixth, seventh, and eighth guys on the depth chart.
There are going to be nights going forward when Williams puts up terrible shots early in the shot clock. But Nolan Smith will never again step on the floor in a Blazer jersey. The good clearly outweighs the bad.
As Robin Lopez said when asked about some of his team’s January struggles: “I know there’s always room for improvement. But as long as we’re winning, I think we’re going to be OK.”