Stats are for losers, but for the last two seasons, the lack of stats coming from their bench prevented the Portland Trail Blazers from being winners what it mattered.
The Blazers look like shoo-ins for the NBA playoffs, but thanks to a revitalized bench, they could do more than just make the postseason field. Steve Blake and Chris Kaman have filled a void that separated the Blazers from the Western Conference’s elite even as LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard emerged as All-Stars the last two seasons.
The bench no longer holds back a Portland team that currently is tied for the second-most wins in the league.
“They’ve really stabilized it,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said before Sunday’s game against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. “I call them my two pillars, because you can really count on them every night. Steve really understands the game. He’s been in it here a long time. He makes other players better. He’s a good defender. When Nic (Batum) was out, we finished two games with him. He played the whole fourth quarter.
“Chris brings consistent scoring, rebounding, shot-blocking and, again, a guy who’s been in the league for a long time and knows what’s expected of him. I think they both have embraced their roles and it’s made a difference for us.”
Stotts insisted in years past that his reserves provided positives beyond scoring, even as Portland’s bench ranked dead last in points the last two seasons. This season, they rank 24th, at 28.4 points per game. It’s far from ideal balance, but it’s better than the net-minus unit the bench has been recently.
Kaman, fifth on the team in scoring at 10.9 points per game, has a chance to become Portland’s first primarily bench player to average double figures since Jamal Crawford in 2011-2012. Blake is a proven shooter, playmaker and pesky defender who can play on or off the ball in the backcourt.
The West remains brutal, with San Antonio, Golden State and Memphis the early season favorites. But with renewed contributions for their bench, the Blazers could be a dark horse.
Other loose balls from around the NBA:
— Good call by Jeffery Taylor and the National Basketball Players Association not to push the issue and appeal Taylor’s 24-game suspension for a domestic violence incident in September. Regardless of how Taylor or the players union feels about commissioner Adam Silver’s unilateral punishment, this was not an opportune time to try to argue domestic violence in the sports sphere. Fans simply don’t want to hear it. Silver’s exhaustive investigation also made it difficult for the NBPA to argue that the NBA’s punishment was arbitrary, as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s punishments of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson were criticized as being.
— Poor Brandon Knight just can’t stop ending up on the wrong end of highlights. Two seasons ago, he was baptized by Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan. Then, on Wednesday, he made a key steal in a close game against the Brooklyn Nets and, well, this happened:
On the bright side, Knight is averaging 18.8 points per game for a surprising Milwaukee Bucks squad that owns the sixth-best record in the East. It’s too bad lowlights like these live forever on YouTube.
— It’s tough to diagnose what is wrong with the Clippers, who are 8-5 but clearly sit a notch below the likes of the Spurs, Grizzlies, Warriors and Bulls, all of whom have beaten the Clips this season. Part of the reason L.A.’s problems are hard to diagnose: They’re just plain unwatchable.
Seriously, if you can stand seeing Blake Griffin get into some sort of spat with every opposing power forward, Jordan hopping around with no apparent direction and whoever coach Doc Rivers sticks at small forward stumble over himself for 48 minutes every game, you’re either a stronger person than I am or you’re a serious sports masochist.
Thumbnail photo via Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports Images