When the NBA released its regular-season schedule back on Aug. 13, revealing that the Blazers would be opening the year as the main event of ESPN's first Wednesday night doubleheader, hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder, intrigue was immediately high. The expectation was that the Blazers, widely considered the league's most exciting success story last season, would be taking on the league MVP, Kevin Durant, in the much-anticipated opener. It doesn't get much better.
At least that was the expectation until Oct. 12, when word got out that Durant had a fracture in his foot and would be missing in action for several weeks. Forget about the Portland gang versus the MVP - instead, the narrative would be one of "How can OKC hold down the fort?" We'll be watching on Wednesday to find out whether the Thunder can piece together a reasonable facsimile of themselves on each end of the floor, a functional unit that can tread water until Durant returns, probably sometime a bit after Thanksgiving. The conversation has dramatically shifted.
That's no fun for anyone, really. It means a significantly better chance of the Blazers opening the season with a W, but it also makes for a less interesting game for the players themselves, the fans and the writers like me. Having no KD around is a drag, plain and simple.
It also gets you thinking a little bit about the Blazers and the delicate balance the team has struck over the last year. By design, Portland is extremely reliant on its starting five - can you imagine what would happen if this team were to be struck with a Durant-like injury? It's not a pretty mental picture, to say the least.
A lot of teams have some top-heaviness to the depth chart, without much firepower beyond the starting five, but Blazers are in a league of their own where that's concerned. This is largely a function of the way the roster was built - the Blazers are spending $16 million a year on LaMarcus Aldridge, $11.8 million on Nicolas Batum, $7.2 million on Wesley Matthews and $6.1 million on Robin Lopez. All in all that's over $41 million, or two-thirds of the team's cap figure on four players. The rest of the roster is made up of lower-mid-level guys, all serviceable but none great, making for a pretty tame bench - plus Damian Lillard, who's quite possibly the best bargain in the entire NBA as he's still on his $3.3 million rookie deal. Point being, the Blazers only have five guys they can really truly count on, and they make it work. The five-man unit starts games, they finish them and collectively they propelled Portland to 54 wins last season.
But just how reliant are the Blazers on their five leading men? For comparison's sake, here's how Portland's group stacks up against the rest of the league's most prolific five-man units:
Five guys, 500 minutes or more (2013-14 regular season):
|Team||Lineup||Minutes||Net points per 100 possessions|
|Indiana||Hill / Stephenson / George / West / Hibbert||1,467||9.3|
|Portland||Lillard / Matthews / Batum / Aldridge / Lopez||1,372||7.9|
|Minnesota||Rubio / Martin / Brewer / Love / Pekovic||1,051||11.7|
|Dallas||Calderon / Ellis / Marion / Nowitzki / Dalembert||844||0.4|
|Golden State||Curry / Thompson / Iguodala / Lee / Bogut||817||16.0|
|Toronto||Lowry / DeRozan / Ross / Johnson / Valanciunas||716||3.2|
|Washington||Wall / Beal / Ariza / Booker / Gortat||690||1.8|
|Chicago||Hinrich / Butler / Dunleavy / Boozer / Noah||680||5.0|
|Houston||Beverley / Harden / Parsons / Jones / Howard
|Philadelphia||Carter-Williams / Turner / Anderson / Young / Hawes
|Utah||Burke / Hayward / Williams / Jefferson / Favors
|Memphis||Conley / Lee / Prince / Randolph / Gasol
|Oklahoma City||Jackson / Sefolosha / Durant / Ibaka / Perkins
|Charlotte||Walker / Henderson / Kidd-Gilchrist / McRoberts / Jefferson
|Phoenix||Dragic / Green / Tucker / Frye / Plumlee||525||0.8|
You'll notice that the majority of these lineups have already been dismantled since last season. Injuries (Paul George), trades (Kevin Love) and free agent moves (Channing Frye, Carlos Boozer, Shawn Marion, Thabo Sefolosha, Evan Turner, etc, etc, etc) are all commonplace in this league. It's rare that you see the same five-man group stick it out together for multiple years. When you do, like with this year's Blazers, you'd better appreciate it.
So let's appreciate these Blazers! Let's talk about about how they function together - what are their strengths and what are their weaknesses? Compared to the other most frequently used five-man groups in the league, the Blazers' starters are:
- Prolific 3-point shooters. Per 100 possessions, the Blazers' starters shoot 6.2 threes more than their opponents; they also make 2.6 more. That's largely a credit to Lillard and Matthews, who are marksmen from long range; it's also a testament to Batum's perimeter defense that opposing teams don't make more.
- Productive at the line. Portland's five get to the charity stripe 7.1 times more than their opponents per 100 possessions; they make 7.7 shots more. That's a huge advantage.
- Killing it on the glass. They get 5.0 percent more offensive rebounds than their opponents and 5.0 percent more defensive boards. Another major edge.
- In typical Blazer fashion, not good with turnovers. They just don't steal the ball much, at all, so they average 1.7 giveaways more than their opponents per 100 plays.
- Overall, a huge net plus. Outscoring your opponents by 7.9 points is a mighty good way to lead your team to victories.
There's no doubt that all in all, the oligarchy of Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Aldridge and Lopez is the backbone of the team, the reason it shocked the world and landed in the second round of the West playoffs against the champs last year. But what if these five guys can't survive another season together? What if injury strikes them like it did OKC?
How would the Blazers react without Lopez? Who would defend the post? Without Aldridge, who would give the offense its scary inside-outside complexity, not to mention make up his 11 rebounds a night? How would the perimeter game be altered for the worse without Batum, Matthews or Lillard? Lose just one guy from this unit, and everything changes.
Injuries happen in today's NBA, and teams are well-versed in making their adjustments and saying all the right things in the meantime. The Thunder, for example, maintain a public stance that these next few weeks will be about development. Here's Durant:
"It's going to give guys opportunities to play, build confidence, build their chemistry as a team. So I'm looking at the positive side of it. It's a win-win, basically, because I'm learning a lot while I'm out about the game, and my teammates are getting a lot of opportunities because it's a lot of minutes out there to play and help contribute to the team."
That's what you say, and you hope against all hope that you're actually right. But with the Blazers, there isn't much to say about opportunity. The team's leading five is set; there's not going to be a Wally Pipp moment if one of the starters goes down for a few weeks this season. No one's budging from their clear roles. For Portland, the priority is to keep everyone healthy and allow them to continue gelling all year long.
The Blazers, more so than perhaps anyone in today's NBA, are a team that wins with continuity. They're trying to build a winning infrastructure, and given their roster construction, that means allowing their best five guys to keep playing together and getting better.
They were lucky that it worked last year. Aldridge had a couple of minor winter setbacks, but the other four guys in the lineup started all 82 games. It's a good thing for them, too, because they need that consistent presence from their starters to be competitive. Was it just luck that that worked out in 2013-14, or was it something the Blazers did right? And if the latter, can they replicate it this year?
We'll be dying to find out. Building that winning infrastructure is a huge first step, but it's what you do with it that really matters. It's time to find out whether 2014-15 can be another step forward for one of the NBA's best five-man groups.