Secretly, I think Portland Trail Blazers fans are a bit nervous. The team made some upgrades near the trade deadline — at least on paper —that has added to a roster that desperately needed some depth in lieu of landing a third star via trade. But whether these new players can be integrated quickly, and how that might affect the overall effectiveness of a team that finally seemed to find its identity is up in the air.
Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood are rotation players for an NBA team looking to make a playoff push, but their arrival signals the end of heavy playing time for some of Portland’s bench contributors. Zach Collins, Meyers Leonard, and Jake Layman will all see their minutes either cut, metered out, or released in sporadic bursts from here until the end of the season.
That's nothing to discount, either.
A main bench rotation consisting of Evan Turner, Seth Curry, Layman, Collins, and Leonard has sustained this Trail Blazers team throughout the season. At times, the bench unit has helped float the starters when opposing defenses have clamped down on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Individually, these guys all have their merits. Leonard is shooting 47 percent from 3-point range and is a quality PER guy; Collins isn’t in quite the slump that some might think; Layman is a much better all-around player.
Part of this team's appeal for free agents like Kanter was the play of its bench unit and its locker room unity. The story of the latter has obviously spread across the NBA, but it has also come as a on-court benefit for Portland. Despite fits and starts from Curry and Layman, the Blazers have largely played above their expected ceiling outside of their stars.
That leaves Terry Stotts in a tricky spot from here on out. Does he go with the new additions, who are likely talent upgrades during key minutes for Portland? Or does he try to keep some continuity with his old lineups, hoping that can keep the Blazers in the chase for home court advantage in the West?
For the time being, it appears that Stotts is going with a mix of the two strategies. Hood has looked a little better than expected, and Kanter is doing what he does best. But Stotts hasn’t completely abandoned his top contributors, at least not yet. Layman has continued to get minutes, even with Moe Harkless coming on strong as Turner sits out for rest.
But what happens when the regular season comes to an end on Apr. 10?
One thing we do know about Stotts is his propensity to sway toward his veterans, and Hood and Kanter fit that role. Like most NBA coaches, Stotts also prefers a shorter rotation, particularly when it comes to the playoffs. But I’m not sure gluing some of the most important regular season players to the bench is the right move come spring.
Even if Harkless can sustain his recent play, Layman seems like the obvious candidate to earn minutes in a meaningful way come playoff time. He’s earned his role, both as a shooter and as a cutter who makes the offense more dynamic and harder to predict for teams who have extensively scouted Portland, which will be the case in the postseason.
An eight-man playoff rotation has been the sweet spot for Stotts, but that will be hard to maintain with Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic, Turner, Hood, and Kanter all ready to play. Layman would be the ninth man come playoff time, and I have a hard time thinking Stotts will arbitrarily leave him out just to stick to some mantra about veterans and playoff planning.
The Blazers need to find a way to win after last year’s sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans. That’s going to be hard to do, especially with the resurgence of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the rebalancing of the Houston Rockets, both of whom could be first round matchups for Portland. Stotts and his staff will need to use anything at their disposal to advance to the second round, and that means playing matchups as needed rather than a set rotation.
We’ll get a better idea of who is going to play, and who Stotts can rely on, over the next several weeks. Portland is still jockeying for their final spot in the playoff standings, but the minute distribution of the Blazers rotation is going to be the thing to watch as we try to project their playoff success moving forward.