May 15th, 2014 | by MIKE ACKER News | Posted In: From the Elbow

From the Elbow: Building a Better Tomorrow

It's never too early for the Blazers to start thinking about next season.

     
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from the elbowIMAGE: Amy Martin.

The Blazers needed six games to hand the Houston Rockets the four losses required to be knocked out of the NBA playoffs. The San Antonio Spurs, the Blazers' second round opponent, racked up three wins in three games, and though game four—a Blazer blowout for the ages—breathed some life back into the franchise's first second round series in 14 years, a lopsided loss in Texas Wednesday night means the Western Conference playoffs are moving forward, and the Blazers aren't going to be included.

But all is not lost. As a lot of really smart people have already noted, losing to the Spurs, getting run out of the building night after night after night, is probably one of the best things that can happen to a young team like the Blazers, a team that overachieved this season but has designs on staying at the top of the conference for awhile.

The Spurs are the definition of continuity. They’ve won at least 50 games every season for as many seasons as the Blazers have failed to make the second round. Simply stated, the Spurs play phenomenal basketball, and they’ve been playing phenomenal basketball for quite some time. 

But anybody who watched the Blazers and Spurs square off five times can, and likely will, tell you how great San Antonio is. There’s something else about the Spurs, though, that Blazer fans are undoubtedly aware of. 

Though the Blazers will likely talk about learning from the poise, efficiency, game-planning and defense that made the Spurs an almost impossible opponent, this second round series shined a bright light on one major difference between the Blazers and the defending Western Conference Champions: depth.

Outside of Tony Parker, the Spurs haven’t had one player rise up above the rest. In fact, Manu Ginobilli and Tim Duncan, though playing relatively well, never lit the Blazers up all by themselves, which is impressive considering that all four Blazer losses weren't close at all.

Essentially what that means is that the Spurs have such a deep roster that regardless of how one or two guys play, there are one or two more guys who can step in and contribute. The disparity in bench production will likely be the statistic that stands out above all the others, once the numbers have been crunched on the Blazers' second round exit.

There is a lesson in that stat: If the Blazers want to build on their best season in more than a decade, they’ll have to get a better bench. And they’ll have to do it sooner rather than later.

Which leads to the silver lining, the real positive takeaway from a series that included four blowout losses. The Blazers, running a tight rotation through 82 regular season games and an even tighter rotation through the first round of the playoffs, had a chance to experiment with lineups, whether they wanted to or not, and they've had a chance to get a good look at their non-starter options.

It started in garbage time of Game 1 with three made three-pointers by Will Barton, and it carried over to inspired, if not overly effective, shifts from Barton and fellow high-energy reserve Thomas Robinson, in games 2 and 3. The roster fluctuation, and the Blazers bench, came alive in Game 4, and probably gave Blazer fans, and Blazer brass, something to think about in the weeks and months to come. 

Barton has been a fan favorite in his two-season run with the Blazers, partially because of his loose style of play and sky-high confidence, and partially because Portland fans tend to pick a guy at the end of the bench to fall in love with. A few seasons ago it was current Spur Patty Mills; the last two seasons it has been Will Barton.

Thomas Robinson is a bit of a different story. Selected one spot before Damian Lillard in the 2012 draft, Robinson bounced from the Kings in Sacramento to the Rockets in Houston and then to the Blazers. He’s been in and out of the rotation in 2013-14, but has shown an affinity for coming up big when the Blazers need somebody to block a shot or throw down a monster dunk. 

But neither Barton nor Robinson has been consistent. Barton has been on the outside of the rotation for almost the entire season. His minutes in Game 1 came when the outcome was decided. His minutes in Game 2 were meant to be a shot of energy in the Blazers’ stagnant offense. His Game 3 and four minutes, 29 minutes in Game 4, were to replace the minutes Mo Williams surrendered when he went down with a groin injury. And some have said that, for as high as Robinson, was drafted, he should be better. There's a chance, though, that Barton and Robinson could be the building blocks of the Blazers' reserve squad for 2014-15.

Right now, the Blazers have a lot of dead weight on the bench. Meyers Leonard and Victor Claver are both players with tremendous potential who won’t get the minutes with the Blazers that they need to mature into NBA contributors. The same can be said for Allen Crabbe, although he hasn’t received enough court time to make a case for his potential.

The wild cards on Portland’s bench are Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and C.J. McCollum (assuming of course that a healthy Joel Freeland gets a crack at his minutes once next seasons starts). The book on Mo is well documented, and he’s put himself in a unique position by opting out of the second year of his two-year deal with the Blazers. There’s a good chance the Blazers will try to bring Williams back for a second season, but it’s probably just as likely that Mo will take an offer from some other team should one be made.

Wright is an inexpensive veteran. He’s played well at times, and at other times he hasn’t gotten off the bench. The Blazers can use Wright’s skill-set, he’s a shooter with length who can stretch the floor and defend, but he’s not getting any younger.

McCollum is a tough read. C.J. has shown he’s got the tools to be effective, but he’s also shown a lot of the issues that keep raw rookies stuck to the end of the bench. Like Meyers Leonard, the simple fact that C.J. McCollum still needs to learn the NBA game might mean he’s not a great fit for the Blazers as they currently exist.

C.J. and Meyers could be traded, not for one-to-one value, but for a second round pick or two that could be packaged as part of deal to get a mid-level veteran languishing on a lottery-bound team that may be looking to shed contracts and add young, and affordable, talent.

Mo, too, can be traded, and the Blazers should pursue that route if they’re not going to re-sign him. Better to get something for Mo, something other than a solidly mediocre season on the league’s least productive bench, than nothing.

The Blazers' summer vacation starts now thanks to four dominating wins by the San Antonio Spurs. It's sad to see 2013-14 come to an end for the Blazers, and it will be hard to watch what remains of the playoffs knowing that, for the first time in a long time, the Blazers had almost as good a shot as anybody of reaching at least the Conference Finals. 

But most important, the Blazers played well all season (give or take a week or two) and restored the faith of a devoted but notably fickle fan base.

And if losing to a team that goes 11 players deep highlights the very obvious fact that the Blazers will only get better when they add better players to their bench. And if a bunch of blowouts mean that Will Barton and Thomas Robinson got the minutes they needed to blossom into the cornerstones of the Blazers’ second unit of the future, then it’s hard to see this second round series as anything other than a win for Portland. 


Follow Mike Acker on Twitter: @mikeacker
 
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