Why Was Blazers F Thomas Robinson Benched?

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

A quick look at the numbers behind Portland Trail Blazers forward Thomas Robinson's benching in favor of Meyers Leonard.

Portland Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts elected to insert center Meyers Leonard into his rotation on Saturday, removing forward Thomas Robinson.

A rundown of thoughts from both Stotts and Leonard can be found here.

The gist: Stotts said that he was looking for Leonard to stretch the floor in the second unit, and that the decision, which was made in advance of Saturday's game against the New Orleans Pelicans, is expected to continue indefinitely. Leonard added that the coaches seem to like the idea of pairing Joel Freeland with Leonard for spacing purposes.

Erik Gundersen of The Columbian notes that Robinson's advanced numbers aren't great.

Lineups with the Joel Freeland-Thomas Robinson tandem have been scoring at a rate that would come in as the 23rd ranked offense in the league according to NBA.com at 99.1 points per 100 possessions.

...

Defensively, those second units with Freeland and Robinson haven't been very good either, surrendering points at a rate that would be worst in the league.

The Blazers have been better than their opponents when Freeland is on the court, but the same cannot be said for Robinson as the Blazers have been outscored by 10.4 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court according to NBA.com.

Let's dig in a little bit, as a number of people emailed to ask about Robinson's role in all of this.

The major takeaway from Saturday, I thought, was the framing of the decision in a five-man context, as opposed to an individual decision. The fact that Stotts' rotations have been rigidly structured this year helps foster a situation in which the lineup data generated is very valuable. I ran down some of the starting unit's impressive stats on Saturday, especially in crunch time, and they've built up a pretty large track record now that we're more than a third of the way through the season.

Portland has played its starting unit nearly seven times as many minutes as its next most-used lineup (which just so happens to include four starters and Mo Williams, the self-described "sixth starter").

Below, find a table with Portland's top 15 most-used lineups (every lineup with at least 15 minutes logged together this season). They've been color-coded: green lineups have a positive net rating (generating more points per possession than they are giving up) while red lineups have a negative net rating (giving up more points per possession than they are generating).

Lineups that include Robinson have been bolded for emphasis.

Click the image below to enlarge.

Robinson-lineup_medium

The lineup data clearly shows what you would expect: Portland's starting unit is carrying most of the water and many of its bench lineups struggle.

Of note, the top five most-used lineups that include Robinson are all deep in the red, and his only green lineup is a garbage-time crew. In other words, Portland has been badly outscored when Robinson has been on the court in the top five most-common configurations that have been used so far. That's a red flag.

Looking at Portland's on/off court splits, Robinson stands out as having the very worst plus-minus and individual net rating among Blazers who have played at least 50 minutes this season. By a lot.

Click the image below to enlarge.

Robinson-on-off_medium

As Gundersen noted above, Portland's offense drops off a cliff with Robinson (102.1) compared to without him (113) and Portland's defense leaks at a greater rate with him (112.5) than without him (102.3). That those numbers stand out so far from the other reserves that are getting a similar amount of playing time (Joel Freeland and Dorell Wright) is another big red flag. Last season, Portland's putrid bench almost universally struggled when it came to these on-court/off-court measures; this year, Robinson has been getting lapped by everyone.

A big deal was made in the offseason about Portland finally being the "right fit" for Robinson, but the early returns strongly question that narrative. I think most would agree that Robinson has delivered almost exactly what was expected from him following Las Vegas Summer League (highlight dunks, highlight blocks, hustle on the glass, occasionally erratic offensive play, mediocre defense) and the statistical impact of that play -- within the context of the lineups he's being used in and by comparison to his fellow Blazers -- has been overwhelmingly negative.

It's worth noting here that Robinson's net rating with the Sacramento Kings last year was minus-9 (third-worst among their rotation players). During his stint with the Houston Rockets, he posted a minus-0.7 net rating (third-worst among Rockets with at least 200 minutes logged). So far, the third time hasn't been the charm for Robinson, and it's looking an awful lot like the first two times.

Regardless of what Stotts wants to see from Leonard, or how Leonard and Robinson might compare individually, the numbers strongly suggest that Robinson has been the Blazers' weakest rotation link, by a lot, this season. His statistical impact has been bad enough, in a 300+ minute sample, to warrant the, "Let's just give his minutes to anybody else and see what happens" treatment.

In limited playing time, Leonard has also made Portland's offense and defense worse when he's on the court compared to when he's off the court, but the impact hasn't been as substantial. That could change as his playing time increases, and it's definitely worth monitoring. Welcome to the other half of the "Why not try something different?" equation.

Stotts' explanation for the move -- to perk up the second-unit offense with Leonard's floor-spacing -- could certainly come true. Left unsaid is that the bar set during Robinson's on-court presence has been a very low one when compared to the standard set by Portland's No. 1 ranked offense.

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter

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