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Trail Blazers' blazing-hot start due in big part to their bench

Kaman, Blake prove key on both ends while starters take a blow

POSTED: Nov 26, 2014 12:40 PM ET

By John Schuhmann

BY John Schuhmann

NBA.com

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Chris Kaman (left) and Steve Blake have helped the Portland reserves keep their All-Star starters fresh.

— Last season, the Portland Trail Blazers ranked last in bench points, a stat that can be overused and isn't necessarily critical. Teams won 68 percent of their games when their bench outscored their opponent's bench last season, but the Blazers, Heat, Rockets, Thunder and Warriors all won 50-plus games while winning the bench-point battle 20 or fewer times.

You can have a great bench that doesn't score a lot. The 2010-11 Chicago Bulls ranked 21st in bench scoring, but still outscored their opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions with MVP Derrick Rose off the floor. With Omer Asik and Taj Gibson on the frontline, the Bulls' second unit shut down its opponents and built on its team's leads.

That Bulls team often used a full second unit, with C.J. Watson, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer on the floor with Asik and Gibson. Other teams stagger their stars' minutes so that at least one of them is on the floor at all times. When the Heat had Dwyane Wade or LeBron James on the floor with three or four reserves, the bench guys didn't necessarily need to score a lot of points.

The Blazers have one of the best starting lineups in the league. Damian Lillard is a dynamic point guard. LaMarcus Aldridge is a big you can run the offense through. Wesley Matthews is more than a shooter on offense. Nicolas Batum does a lot of everything, including defending the opponent's best perimeter player. And Robin Lopez is the defensive anchor.

The Blazers' bench last season wasn't nearly as bad as the points-per-game ranking might indicate. When at least one of the Blazers' starters sat down, they were still solid offensively, outscoring their opponents by 1.2 points per 100 possessions.

Still, it wasn't great. When more than one starter was sitting, the Blazers were outscored by that same 1.2 points per 100 possessions. So there was room for improvement coming into this season.

The Blazers lost Mo Williams, who played more minutes off their bench than anyone last season, and signed Chris Kaman and Steve Blake via their mid-level and bi-annual exceptions. They've improved markedly through the first month of the season.

Blazers' efficiency with fewer than four starters on the floor
Season Minutes OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
2013-14 1,750 104.4 105.5 -1.2 -24
2014-15 340 106.9 94.2 +12.7 +82
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Through 14 games, the Blazers have outscored their opponents by 12.7 points per 100 possessions with three or fewer starters on the floor. Blake and Kaman have fit in well, helping a bench that otherwise relies on inexperienced and unproven players build on leads.

"Those guys, having been starters, it gives a lot of stability to the bench," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said Monday, before his team extended its winning streak to eight games with a victory over the Sixers. "It makes it easier for any of the other players coming off the bench to play with them."

The Blazers' second unit likes to run its offense through Kaman, who has given them 10.9 points per game on 54 percent shooting. But as a whole, the Blazers' bench isn't scoring a lot more than it did last season. They're up from 24.7 bench points per game to 28.4 per game (24th in the league).

It's the other end of the floor where Portland has seen the most improvement from the bench. "It starts with defense," Blake said, "We're a pretty good defensive second unit."

Kaman is able to anchor the second-unit defense as well as he does the offense. He doesn't exactly have a rep as a good defender, but his defensive numbers are hard to ignore.

Last season, the Lakers' defense was much better when he was on the floor than it was when he was on the bench. And he forced opponents to shoot just 43.6 at the rim. That mark ranked third among 65 players who defended at least five shots per game at the rim in at least 35 games.

This season, his rim protection numbers are similarly strong. And the Blazers have benefited.

"I just think it's a concentration thing for me," Kaman said. "I think some years, I haven't taken the initiative to put myself in the position to be more of a defensive-minded player. I've been trying to do more scoring. But I knew, coming here, I was going to have to do a little bit of both. So I've just been trying to focus on doing my job defensively. And when [Aldridge] goes out, try to be a little more aggressive offensively to score."

The Blazers' defensive scheme helps. Portland's centers hang back in the paint on pick-and-rolls, trying to protect the paint and force mid-range shots.

"We like to be a little more conservative," Kaman said. "I think it makes it easier on the bigs. You don't have to take yourself away from the hoop. You can protect the paint a little bit better and keep them from getting offensive rebounds, because you can stay even with your guy. And you can also block shots a little better."

With Kaman's help, the Blazers rank third among the most-improved defenses, allowing 5.3 fewer points per 100 possessions than they did last season, when they ranked 16th. Combining a top-10 defense with what was already a top-five offense would make them a true title contender.

There's still a long way to go, but an improved bench will also benefit the whole team in the long run. Stotts will still go back to his five starters at the end of games, but he's been able to decrease the minutes of each of them.

"That's good for the future, for the playoffs," Batum said. "The best example is the Spurs."

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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