The Portland Trail Blazers May Have More Balance Than Any Other NBA Team

The Blazers had a rare thing last year - excellent play across all five starting positions. But is that balance better than a dominating superstar?

In an article last week, I wrote about Kevin Love's most recent season with the Minnesota Timberwolves and how average to bad his teammates have been. In researching for it, I found an interesting statistic – the entire Portland Trail Blazer starting five all posted more win shares than the second best Timberwolves player.

The Trail Blazers starting five was incredibly balanced last year. The lowest win share total among their starters was LaMarcus Aldridge, who gathered 7.5 win shares in 69 games. The rest of the starting five were all above that – Nicolas Batum had 7.9, Wesley Matthews had 8.2, Robin Lopez had 9.5, and Damian Lillard had 9.6 win shares. That’s balance.

And it’s a good balance. The Milwaukee Bucks had a similar balance, with their top four players being within one win share of each other. However, their win share leader was also John Henson, who only compiled 3.3 on the year. The Blazers, on the other hand, were all at 7.5 or more. There were 10 total teams last season that didn’t have a single player at that mark; the Blazers had all of their starters.

TeamNumber of Players ≥ 7.5 Win Shares
Trail Blazers5

The problem for the Blazers is that out of the 37 players who hit that mark, all five of their players were in the mid to lower half of that group. Balance is good and it leads to the playoffs, but history shows that a team usually needs a superstar – someone in that 15 win share or more range that LeBron James and Kevin Durant consistently pass.

But then came the Spurs to crash all of those championship ideas last year. In that list I mentioned above of players that hit the 7.5 win share mark, the Spurs only had one such player last season – Kawhi Leonard, with 7.7. That was it.

Now that the Spurs have provided us with a new lens with which to view potential championship roads, the Blazers suddenly become much more interesting. Maybe you don’t need a 15-plus win share do-it-all superstar; maybe balance can win a title.

There are a couple differences between the Spurs and the Blazers, however, and they are ones that the Blazers should intensely study.

The Blazers were merely league-average defensively last season. They allowed 107.4 points per 100 possessions, per, which was tied for 16th with the Orlando Magic. While the Spurs may have provided a blueprint to winning a title without a statistical superstar, they didn’t change history in regards to team defense.

History says that it becomes extraordinarily hard to win a title without a top-ten defense in the league. If that is the case, then the Blazers have some work to do.

The good news is that they have solid defenders already on their roster. Matthews and Batum are both above-average wing defenders and Robin Lopez is a serviceable defender (as well as very underrated offensively). Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford turned the league’s worst defense in 2012 to the league’s sixth-best defense in 2013 with an almost identical roster. Teams can improve with time, coaching, and scheme.

Bench Play
While the Blazers have five solid guys in their starting positions, their production drops off at a frightening rate when those guys come out of the game. Their sixth man off the bench, Mo Williams, only had 2.2 win shares on the year. That dip from 7.5 to 2.2 is very significant.

The Spurs were not like that at all. While all of the win share totals were low – and a lot of that had to do with no player averaging more than 30 minutes – their lows weren’t as low as most teams. The Spurs had 11 players that all had higher win share totals than Mo William’s mark of 2.2. Eleven guys! That’s a football team!

This will be a huge part of the Blazers taking a step up into the next tier of Western Conference teams, if they are to do so. There are still some intriguing young pieces on the roster in C.J. McCollum, Thomas Robinson, and Will Barton. Meyers Leonard doesn’t look as promising, but he’s still only 22 years old.

There will have to be help from the bench. Perhaps in the Eastern Conference a team could get away with having below average guys at their six through ten spots. But in the Western Conference, that won’t fly. Not when other teams have guys like Isaiah Thomas, Manu Ginobili, Draymond Green, and Jamal Crawford coming off the bench. The Blazers young guys will need to develop into solid rotation pieces, or else Portland will be stuck in the purgatory that is the fourth through ninth spot in the West.

So, is having a balanced team a good thing? The Spurs showed us last year it is – if it’s the right type of balance. The Trail Blazers have the potential ingredients on their roster and coaching staff to make that a reality; it will be interesting to see if they can put it all together.