One of the early season storylines during the Trail Blazers’ 3-1 start has been the emergence of a deep and effective bench.
Led by Evan Turner, Ed Davis and Pat Connaughton, the Blazers’ bench has the top offensive rating in the NBA (115.8), the third best net rating, and the third best plus/minus behind Toronto and the LA Clippers.
Never was the bench more on display than during Tuesday’s home opener against New Orleans, when the starters struggled and needed big games from Davis, Turner and rookie Caleb Swanigan to pull out a 103-93 victory.
“Our bench has been huge,’’ starter Maurice Harkless said. “Especially on a night like tonight, when nobody really had it going. Ed, Caleb, and Evan kept us in the game the whole time, whether they were scoring, rebounding, defending. Especially Ed. But this is going to have to be a collective effort. We need everybody.’’
Turner has been the catalyst and could be establishing himself as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate as the league’s top reserve. Through four games Turner is averaging 13.3 points, 4.3 assists and 3.8 rebounds while shooting 46.2 percent from the field and amassing a solid ratio of 17 assists to six turnovers … all while playing solid defense.
“It’s starting with ET; he’s leading the show and playing well,’’ Davis said.
The same, of course, could be said of Davis, who was probably the Most Valuable Player of Tuesday’s win over the Pelicans with his 12 points and 10 rebounds in 21 minutes.
It has been a resurgent return from shoulder surgery for Davis, whose 9.3 rebounds is second behind Miami’s Kelly Olynyk among bench players, and his play is backing up a vow he made to Lillard last spring.
Lillard on Tuesday recalled shaking Davis’ hand after the Blazers were swept by Golden State in the playoffs last spring. Davis, in street clothes and still recovering from March shoulder surgery, assured Lillard the team would be better fortified next season.
“He shook my hand and said ‘You are going to see a different me next year,’’’ Lillard recalled. “It was already in his mind. We already saw in his mind what he was going to do to impact the team this year.’’
Lillard said Davis throughout the summer was a mainstay in the weight room workouts, during which he made sure everyone could see the work he was putting in.
“We started calling him Shirt Off Ed,’’ Lillard said. “He’s in there doing push ups, pull ups and working out hard ... I just saw the commitment, I saw that he was trying to take action.’’
Throw in some solid shooting from Connaughton, who is 9-of-18 on three-pointers, and an effective outing Tuesday by Swanigan (five points, eight rebounds, three assists) and the bench is starting to rival what Lillard thought was the best reserve unit in his six seasons – the 2014-2015 group of Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, Joel Freeland, CJ McCollum and Thomas Robinson.
“There are so many guys we have been able to count on – not just tonight,’’ Lillard said. “Each game we’ve played, from preseason up to now, guys have come in and we’ve been able to have faith that the game is going to be fine. When you are actually doing that in games over a period of time, you see you are a deeper team.’’
And the bench figures to get deeper.
Power forward Noah Vonleh is nearing his return, and could be back as early as next week, further enhancing – or complicating – coach Terry Stotts’ options.
“People other than the coach say it’s a good problem,’’ Stotts said of his depth. “There will be tough decisions to make.’’
But a week into the season, the bench and the depth have been a blessing for the Blazers. In the opener, Connaughton was a spark early and finished with 24 points. In Indiana, Turner exposed Victor Oladipo on the block while scoring 17 and helping create separation. And against Milwaukee, Turner again was effective, dishing out a team-high seven assists.
But never did the bench come through more than Tuesday, and never was it more needed. With Lillard struggling through a 3-for-16 night and McCollum not catching fire until late, scoring 16 of his 23 in the fourth quarter, the Blazers leaned heavily on a 43-30 advantage in bench scoring.
“One of the positives after four games is we’ve had different guys have a game,’’ Stotts said. “If you go through each game, we’ve had different guys -- whether it’s a starter or bench player -- come in and contribute, and I think that’s a sign of a good team.’’
Today's Blazers' links:
NBC Sports Northwest's Dwight Jaynes writes that juggling a talented roster can be tough.
The Blazers' Casey Holdahl writes about Shirt Off Ed.
KATU has the story of Meyers Leonard offering well-wishes to a hit-and-run victim.
The New Orleans Advocate notes the Blazers' broadcast crew offended some in the Bayou.