When Jerryd Bayless jumped onto the scene with the Portland Trail Blazers and made a name for himself during the 2009-2010 season, the team had an explosive asset. Taking advantage of injuries that decimated the guard position, the former first-round pick of the Indiana Pacers scored 29 points in 29 minutes in a December 17th win over the Phoenix Suns and then, six nights later, trumped that career-high with 31 points in victory over the San Antonio Spurs. It was his coming out party. And he continued to produce. For the rest of the season, and into the playoffs, his spark adequately offset the team’s otherwise methodical style.
The plug was pulled prematurely on Bayless, however, as he now enters his first full season with the Toronto Raptors, his third team, at the young age of 23. Portland didn’t give him enough time to grow, and as a result, they hoped someone else would provide a similar boost off the bench. They thought Rudy Fernandez could be that guy. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. Brandon Roy was hobbled and is now retired, leaving a hole. Now Wesley Matthews is in line to start again this season, further diminishing the dependability and potency of the second unit.
Then Jamal Crawford came along, recently signing a two-year deal worth $10 million. He is what the Blazers have always lacked. He is inconsistent, but he is far more proven than Bayless was. He has more moves. He is more controlled. He is more skilled. He is more versatile. He is vastly more experienced. The Blazers haven’t had someone who can score 30 points seemingly effortlessly if given the opportunity. And now they have that asset in the second unit, as the sixth man extraordinaire.
“I feel like I can bring something a little different to the team,” Crawford said Friday at his introductory press conference. “Me, personally, I want to be another creator, a play-maker; not just make plays for myself but for others as well.”
In spite of the disappointing playoff exits, Portland has been tremendously successful over the past few seasons. Their downfall, though, has been their lacking consistent options off the bench. As a result, closing quarters has regularly been a problem — most notably the third quarter. The bench’s inability to start the fourth quarter strong has always been troublesome. They haven’t had the lethal punch to either keep the team within striking distance or to maintain a lead and momentum. That should change with Crawford in the fold.
Head coach Nate McMillan has often relied heavily on his second unit, and he has said he may have to give players not expected to log many minutes more playing time due to the tight-knit schedule of the lockout-shortened season. Crawford should benefit from that. He can be the player he was with Atlanta if need be; come off the bench for 30 minutes to score 14-18 points per game, perhaps more.
The starting lineup is currently projected to consist of Raymond Felton, Matthews, Gerald Wallace, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Marcus Camby, but when playing three, four, or even five games per week, these players are going to need their rest. Crawford, and the likes of Nicolas Batum, Chris Johnson, Craig Smith, Elliot Williams, and Nolan Smith, among others, can create what Portland hasn’t had in recent years — a well-balanced scoring force off the bench.
“I like the depth that we have off the bench now,” head coach Nate McMillan said during the press conference. “…This season more than any other season depth is very important. With the number of games that we play … everybody needs to be ready to play.”
The bench certainly wouldn’t be as pleasing or well-equipped if not for Crawford. He changes the entire landscape for the better. The 31-year-old 11-year veteran has averaged 15 points per game for his career in just 32 minutes. He didn’t start a single game during his two seasons with Atlanta but managed to score average 18 points in 31 minutes in 2009-2010 — winning the Sixth Man of the Year Award in the process — and 14 in 30 last season. Expect him to put up similar numbers in Portland.
He is going to be frustrating at times; after all, he is only a 41 percent shooter from the field for his career. He will take plenty of shots, and some will be ill-advised. He may shoot too much. And he isn’t a great defender. Despite his negatives, however, his positives have the great chance to outweigh them. He is an explosive player who has the speed to create for himself inside, and he has the quick release and incredible range to launch over anyone from anywhere.
“I just want to add to what is already here,” Crawford said. “Some more depth on the bench, and that’s good for our starters, to get rest and to have confidence that when they come out of the game that we can maintain the lead or build on it. You know, make things easier for everybody.”
Through the years, Portland’s bench has tried to accomplish this. The safe bet is that the Jamal Crawford-led group actually will.