Not much good has come out of the Blazers’ gut-wrenching first-round loss to the Denver Nuggets earlier this year. It led to an offseason filled with head-coaching controversy, ceaseless Damian Lillard trade rumors, and a fanbase seemingly split down the middle about where to go from here.
But one bright spot out of this chaotic summer has been a complete revamping of a bench unit that desperately needed it. While it was easy to blame the series loss on some big mistakes by the starters, (most notably in the now-infamous game five), the numbers show that the onus lies mostly on the bench. Portland’s starting five ranked as the 5th best starting lineup in last year’s playoffs by +/-, continuing their strong form from the regular season. Meanwhile, the bench languished on the opposite end of the spectrum, getting outscored by nearly eighteen points per 48 minutes on average during the Nuggets series.
Many new faces are joining the Blazers bench for the 2021-22 season, and they have a chance to make up the best group of backups the team has had in years. Let’s break down what makes this bench squad better as a group than its predecessors and how each of the new pieces will fit in Portland.
The Blazers’ defensive struggles off the bench last season can in large part be traced back to two players, and if you watched any amount of Blazers basketball recently, you don’t need me to say which two.
Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter are both effective NBA players under the right circumstances. They can provide solid value to teams who have the personnel to cover up their shared weakness, a lack of defensive prowess. But pairing two players who ranked in the bottom twenty in Defensive Box Plus-Minus was always going to be a fools’ errand.
Kanter ranked as one of the worst big man defenders in the league last season. Among the 41 qualified forwards or centers who defended more than half of their shots within six feet of the basket last season, he ranked second to last in field goal percentage allowed. Melo wasn’t much better. While he was a poor-but-not-awful defender versus other forwards, things fell off the rails when tasked with switching onto guards, who lit him up to the tune of 43.1% shooting from behind the arc.
The final nail in the coffin was the pair’s lack of versatility. Neither player has the lateral quickness or athleticism needed to guard multiple positions, which often left the Blazers out to dry on switches.
Luckily, versatility seemed to be one of the first things on Neil Olshey’s mind when constructing this bench unit.
It all starts with the centerpiece of Portland’s new acquisitions, Larry Nance Jr. One of the most underrated role players in the league over the past several years, whose talents have gone unsung on an underwhelming Cavs team, Nance prides himself on his ability to play at and guard a multitude of positions.
“I feel like I can guard the three, four and five positions, I can play the three, four, five on offense. And defensively, you can really put me where ever you like and I’ll be just fine,” said Nance in an interview with Casey Holdahl earlier this summer. “I think the fans of the Blazers are going to see that there was a lot that was overlooked these past few years in Cleveland.”
The numbers certainly back up his statements.
Since 2017-2018, Nance has been one of the few players in the league to guard each of the position groups (guards, forwards and centers) on at least 20% of his defensive possessions. He’s one of the NBA’s best hustle guys, ranking in the top five per game among forwards in deflections and defensive loose balls recovered. He’s averaged more steals per 36 minutes over the past five seasons than all but nine other players, which will provide a huge boost to a Blazers bench that was easily the worst at producing turnovers last year.
Tony Snell is another one of those versatile defenders that helps teams win games. His long 6’6″ frame is ideal in the modern NBA for guarding multiple positions. Even though he doesn’t have quite as much size or defensive acumen as Nance, Snell can still hold his own guarding any position 2-4. Serving as sort of a replacement figure for the departing Derrick Jones Jr, he can take the same assignments defensively while providing an offensive perimeter presence that Jones couldn’t.
Even Cody Zeller, while slow and lumbering in appearance, is one of the better perimeter-defending big men in the league. Opponents shot only 32.5% from three against him last year, although on a limited sample size.
Not only are these new additions defensive upgrades over Melo and Kanter, but they also open up a whole host of lineup possibilities. Nance can easily fit in as a small-ball center next to Robert Covington, allowing for a smaller lineup that doesn’t have to sacrifice defensively and would match up well versus teams like the Clippers who often run with five perimeter scoring threats on the floor. Against larger teams like the Lakers, Nance could slot in at power forward next to Nurkic, moving Covington to small forward, and even Tony Snell at shooting guard if necessary. This large lineup would be perfect for banging down low with AD and LeBron and also being able to swallow up Russell Westbrook on drive attempts. These examples go to show that the Blazer’s new-and-improved bench allows for a whole host of strategies that wouldn’t have been possible with last year’s roster.
Badly-Needed Secondary Playmaking
Since 2015-16, the Blazers have consistently been one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to playmaking off the bench. They finished in the bottom five in assists per 48 minutes four of the past five seasons, including a last-place finish in 2020-21.
There were a couple of reasons for these lackluster numbers. The iso-ball style of Carmelo Anthony in the post wasn’t exactly conducive to racking up assists. Neither were the frequent Gary Trent Jr. pull-ups from deep before his trade away from the team last March.
But the most significant problem, and the one that will carry over from last season, is Anfernee Simons being shoved into a role he doesn’t look ready for as a primary ball-handler and facilitator. Simons is great as an off-the-ball talent, he ranked as one of the very best in the league last year on catch-and-shoot threes, and his best attributes are often hidden trying to carry a playmaking burden that he just isn’t built for. Among all players who played the majority of their minutes at point guard last season, he ranked ahead of only one player, Mychal Mulder, in assists per 36 minutes.
If the organization truly believes in Simons as a point guard, they needed to bring in passing help to take some of the playmaking load off of his shoulders. And that’s exactly what they did by bringing in two of the most talented big man passers in the league. We’ve already talked about Nance and Zeller, but what wasn’t mentioned is that both are supremely underrated passers. Both of them rank in the top 25 in assists per 36 minutes among big men over the last three seasons. Joining them on that list is Jusuf Nurkic, making the Blazers the only team in the league to have three high-level passers out of the post.
Judging on Head Coach Chauncey Billups’ public statements about getting Nurkic more involved in the offensive game through his passing, I would expect he’d look to do the same off the bench with both Nance and Zeller. The two of them could work wonders with their post passing, freeing up Anfernee Simons and Tony Snell to flourish in more spot-up situations and also giving more opportunities for Nassir Little and Greg Brown III to use their athleticism on cuts.
They Can Still Shoot the Lights Out
Long-range shooting has always been a strong point of the Blazers’ offense, and fans should expect more of the same next season. The bench ranked 4th last year in three-point percentage, hitting over 38% of their shots from downtown. It looked like losing Carmelo Anthony (40.9 3P%) could have severe ramifications on the bench’s floor spacing, but the front office has brought in some more than adequate replacements.
Tony Snell and Ben McLemore headline the new scoring threats from the perimeter. In 2020-21, Snell famously became the first player to ever have a 50/50/100 season. I wouldn’t expect him to keep up his mind-boggling 56.9 3P%, but it’s almost guaranteed that he’ll be one of the league’s most effective long-range shooters yet again next season. Since 2016-17, Snell ranks 8th among all active players in three-point percentage (min 500 attempts) at nearly 42%. He doesn’t shoot a lot, but Snell serves as a reliable safety valve who always seems to find a way to get open looks a few times a game.
McLemore is more of a question mark in terms of what role he’ll serve for the Blazers bench, and much of that will have to do with how consistent his shot is falling. When his shot is on, he can contribute valuable minutes on contending teams. His 2019-20 season is the best-case scenario for what to expect from McLemore. He shot over 40% from three over a full season for the only time in his career and even managed to start 23 times for a Rockets team that was on pace to win 50 games. But if his shooting is anything below exceptional, McLemore just isn’t worth having on the court because of his poor defense. He has the potential to help this bench unit, but it’s more of a wait-and-see thing at this point.
And of course, Nance Jr., as part of his do-it-all playstyle, can shoot a bit as well. He’s been an above-average three-point shooter the last two years, and while he’s not quite on the same shooting level as Melo, he can still help space the floor effectively and keep defenders honest, opening up more space inside.
Outside of Cody Zeller, just about everyone off the bench at least has to be respected as an outside shooter. I’d expect for the Blazers bench to once again be one of the best in the league in that regard and could potentially even see them shooting over 40% from deep as a team.
More Depth Than Ever
It’s always nice to have options available if guys go down injured, and this season the front office is really coming prepared. The Blazers are entering training camp with a nice group of solid veterans and high-upside young guys to choose from to fill out their roster with.
For the last guard spot, it looks like it’ll be coming down to Quinn Cook or Dennis Smith Jr., both of whom are more than deserving of being on an NBA roster. I do like Cook for his consistent shooting (career 40% three-point shooter), but Smith Jr. would be my pick to make the final cut. He’s a former top pick who’s fallen on hard times but seemed to be turning the corner towards the end of last season. During his 20 game stint with the Detroit Pistons, Smith made improvements in a couple of key areas that seem to have gone a bit under the radar.
First was his shooting. While he was still inconsistent, Smith at least showed the ability to get hot at times. He even shot over 40% from three during March. The second was his ability as a passer and game manager. In Detroit, Smith drastically cut down on his turnovers compared to previous years. He averaged over a turnover less per 36 minutes compared to his previous best and at the same time tied his career-high in assists per 36 minutes. His assist to turnover ratio wasn’t quite at an elite level but ranked better than guards like Rajon Rondo, Kyle Lowry and even Damian Lillard himself. Getting the chance to learn from Lillard, I believe Smith has a chance to find himself a permanent home as Portland’s backup point guard, or at the very least be a dependable end of the bench option.
The last forward spot once again comes down to two players, Marquese Chriss and Patrick Patterson. Either one would be a good choice here. Patterson would give the Blazer’s yet another floor stretcher who has plenty of playoff experience. But he is also a middling defender, isn’t a strong inside scorer, and at 32, won’t be getting any better. For those reasons, I prefer the Blazers take a chance on the player with the higher ceiling.
Marquese Chriss, just like Dennis Smith Jr., is a former top ten pick who’s looking for another chance. Chriss flamed out in Phoenix before seemingly having a career renaissance in Golden State two seasons ago. He proved himself as a solid interior defender, dynamic finisher in the pick-and-roll, and even showed some glimpses of playmaking out of the post. Sadly Chriss never got the chance to finish what he started in the Bay Area. An untimely broken leg kept him out for most of last season, and with James Wiseman as the Warrior’s apparent big man of the future, Chriss was deemed surplus to requirements. I thought it was a great pickup by the Blazers to bring him in for training camp. If he can get back to his old ways, Chriss has the potential to be a major part of the Blazers roster long-term who can play in either frontcourt spot.
But whether it’s Chriss and Smith Jr., Cook and Patterson, or any combination of the four, the end of the Blazers bench will be filled with legitimate NBA players who are more than capable of stepping up when needed.
Like the title says, this group of guys truly have the potential to make up the best bench Portland has had in a long while. The front office managed to keep the strength of last year’s backups while making the group altogether more versatile defensively, well-balanced offensively and deeper overall. Now it’s just up to Coach Billups and the rest of his staff to maximize the potential of this exciting squad.
Statistics from NBA.com, Basketball Reference, and Stathead Basketball