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Portland Trail Blazers: Best Lineups, Crabbe vs. McCollum, Trades

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The Blazer's Edge Mailbag tackles a potpourri sachet full of questions, including trading for Gary Neal, who gets playing time when CJ McCollum returns, and the perils of high school coaching.

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

What the heck??? I go away for one day for a family illness and the Blazers commit 20 turnovers and lose to the Minnesota Timberwolves? That's it. Nobody in my family is ever getting sick again outside of July and August.

To make us all feel better, here's a few Mailbag questions.

Hi Dave,

With the talk recently of [Victor] Claver, it made me wonder what will happen, when CJ returns from his injury? It seems with Crabbe's recent play that he is part of the rotation now, and won't be returning to the inactive list. With Blake and Kaman comfortably in the rotation, and CJ, Freeland, and Crabbe all earning playing time, who will be placed on the inactive list, next to Claver for the remainder of the season?

Choosing between Wright, Barton, Robinson, and Leonard, I would rotate between Barton and Robinson, depending on match-ups in any given game. I know some people would want Wright to have that permanent spot next to Claver, but Wright is a veteran, and this bench needs more veterans than it does young guns trying to find their way.

Thanks for the consideration,

Blazerfan72

Most obvious point: it's a sign of progress for the Blazers roster that we can now ask these kinds of questions.

Second most obvious point: though the question can be asked legitimately, we're not at the threshold of finding a stable answer yet.

The choice you highlight is the an intriguing and immediate example. CJ McCollum was the heir apparent at shooting guard until he went down. Then Allen Crabbe got CJ's minutes and has since shown increasing confidence and familiarity with the system...perhaps doing more than CJ did. What happens when McCollum gets back? Both he and Crabbe will get a shot, but who gets the first and best one?

Fortunately, having no clear claimants to rotation spots means no need to make a permanent decision. What's a professional gambler's favorite horse? The one who's going to win him the next race. Coach Stotts can take the same approach. Whether McCollum takes Crabbe's minutes when he returns or Crabbe stays in his spot, that's only the answer for a single week. If the favored player doesn't produce, the understudy gets cycled in. Rinse, lather, and repeat until someone has emerged as the obvious choice.

You're going to see this with the Joel Freeland-Thomas Robinson-Meyers Leonard triangle as well. Freeland is at the apex right now because he's had some phenomenal efforts the last three weeks. He's slipped the last couple games, though. If that slump continues, look for Leonard or T-Rob to slide in.

What goes for the top of the bench rotation goes for the bottom as well. Except for maybe Victor Claver, don't bank on any player in street clothes remaining that way. The distance between the 8th and 15th men on this team isn't great. Everybody you see in a suit now will wear a jersey at some point in the season. That's not egalitarianism as much as players not being able to produce consistently. Even if Crabbe goes all the way down to the inactive list when McCollum returns, he probably won't be there long.

In short, don't take the rotation order personally and don't write it in stone.

Greetings Dave! Which combinations of players are most effective on the court together? I'm assuming the starters are the best, but which combination(s) of subs and starters perform the best now that we have a 20 game (or so) record to consider?

Cheers, Jerry

To the surprise of absolutely zero people, 82games.com lists the best five-man unit for the Blazers so far this season as Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Robin Lopez. It's not even close. Their  plus-minus reads +52. The next highest group (Batum, Aldridge, McCollum, Steve Blake, and Chris Kaman) runs a +14.

Of the 8 most-used lineups, the best effective field goal percentage belongs to Blake-Lillard-Batum-Aldridge-Lopez. The worst effective field goal percentage comes from Blake-Matthews-Crabbe-Aldridge-Kaman.

Of the top 8 lineups the best defensive group (by effective field goal percentage) is Lillard-Matthews-Crabbe-Lopez-Meyers Leonard. The worst is Blake-Lillard-Batum-Aldridge-Kaman.

The best winning percentage of the top 8 belongs to the starters.

Keep in mind that the sample size of most of these lineups is tiny. You probably won't see a three-guard lineup with Meyers Leonard end up being Portland's best defensive unit all season. But the 10 minutes Meyers put in this year? Those were a good 10 minutes.

(OK, he's played 55. You get the point.)

The safest way to look at this right now is that the starters are really dang good. Once you start mixing and matching things work well, but it's not the same as the starting five. Few lineups deviate from that story.

Dave-

Two part question: Do you think the Blazers will/should make a trade during the season to bolster their bench scoring? It would seem they have a number if very tradable assets/contracts such as Robinson, Leonard, Wright, Claver and even Crabbe and McCollum. Perhaps there is a team willing to give up a vet to take a chance on some potential?

Part 2: I've heard Charlotte is thinking of having a fire sale and I think Gary Neal would look good in a Blazer jersey. His salary is only in the Low $3M range and could be traded straight for TRob. Charlotte could use a guy like TRob to go along with Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker, right? Both salaries expire at the end of the year.

Rudy

It's a good question. Right now they don't appear to need a trade. But you still look at those 8th-15th positions we talked about and wish for a little more distinction. If the Blazers could trade two players in that range for a solid 7th-8th guy in the rotation they should probably do that. The playoffs require extra ammo, extra options, and reliability. The playoffs don't favor potential. Portland can easily target 2 players they think have the most upside then play around with trade proposals for everyone else. The bottom half of the roster is a Rorschach test. Other GM's will value players differently than Neil Olshey does, leaving wiggle room for trades.

Gary Neal is a nice player. He's a veteran by age at 30 years old but this is only his 5th season in the league. He's had no stability over the last 2 seasons. If the Blazers acquired him, they'd be his 4th team in that span. Portland could offer him a comfy home and a clear role but could he offer them enough in return...staying within that role and doing it well?

One of the issues with Neal is that he's a jump shooter who doesn't necessarily excel at jump shots. Wesley Matthews takes about 70% of his shots from 16 feet and out on the court. Between 16 feet and the three-point arc Matthews shoots 59.3%, beyond the arc 38.4%. By comparison Neal takes nearly 60% of his shots from 16 feet and beyond but shoots 38.6% from long mid-range, 36.6% from beyond the arc.

The Blazers would favor the three-point attempts over the 16-20 footers, but that 36.6% clip from the arc still isn't something you'd trade for. And considering Neal takes 30% of his shots from the forbidden long-middle range, he'd have to adjust his offense to fit in.

The other issue is, Neal's a shooting guard. We just said the Blazers could retain a couple of deep bench players to develop. What are the odds that neither of those players is a shooting guard? Neal would displace McCollum, Crabbe, and Will Barton. That's not a problem as long as the player you're bringing in is really good. Neal is good sometimes, but on average he's pretty...average.

That said, average with spikes of good may end up an improvement on Portland's current bench. I wouldn't scream if the Blazers picked up Neal. They'd just need to be sure they didn't have plans for any of the young wings this season.

Dave,

Do you coach youth or interscholastic basketball anywhere? It seems like you'd have alot to teach young folks. I'm a middle school coach and its great.

T.J.

Thanks! I appreciate the confidence. At times I've considered that I might make a good assistant coach at the junior high or high school level, maybe a full coach someday. Also I'd probably be a darn good ref if I got contacts.

Despite the occasional urge, I've stayed out of it for a few reasons.

Time is the most practical consideration. To be good at it you'd have to devote yourself to it. Blazer's Edge takes up the lion's share of my spare devotion right now. I don't think I could add another major item to my "to do" list. If I did, I have 3-4 things I'd probably be better at than coaching or reffing, at least at first.

I used to love high school sports, but I've shied away from them in recent years because they've become too intense, too all-encompassing. My small-town experience may color my view a little, but I see way too much emphasis put on sports nowadays as compared to art, music, science, and the like. It was always that way socially. Athletes tended to be popular among their classmates. But now it seems like entire towns live or die by the performance of a sports team and the kids who populate it. Plus I see parents stalking sidelines, yelling, living vicariously through their kids. There's a hidden assumption that succeeding at sports is better than succeeding at anything else because the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is huge: scholarships or multi-million-dollar contracts. I get it, but I don't like the ripples that flow from that assumption, how sports bends and consumes entire lives.

I figure the varsity athletes get plenty of attention (and accompanying pressure) as it is. I tend to hang out with the folks who have dropped out of sports or never were interested. Somebody needs to play with, celebrate, and "coach" those kids too. For now, I do that.

I also perceive two traits in the scholastic sports world that would sink my boat before it ever left dry dock.

1. If you don't win, you don't stay. I believe this is wholly appropriate on a professional level and somewhat appropriate in major college sports (which have become near-professional entities and default training grounds for the pros). But at a high school level I'd be more likely to coach people than coach for wins. Naturally I'd want to win; that goal keeps the team united. But if the 12th kid on the team worked hard, I'd think he deserved playing time even if it cost the team a victory. I'm not sure that would wash.

I'm also far more about process than results. I figure if you're doing the right things, good will come eventually. Sometimes you need more patience to find it, but it'll arrive. The win-first emphasis leans on results over process. If you're winning you must be doing something right. If you're losing you must be doing something wrong. I've seen so many counter-examples to that in life that I can't buy into it.  But that's the world a coach lives in.

2. I hate to go back to the parents, but it seems with some of them you just can't win, even if you're winning games. You never play their kid enough. You're not running the right plays. Their kid is in the wrong role. The rules should bend for them because they're the one special kid in the whole lot. As a result it's nearly impossible to keep a good reputation with everyone in the short term. You earn that reputation by sticking around for the long haul, enduring the slings and slights and showing your worth despite all of it.

The problem is, I'm a pastor in my day job. That profession depends on reputation as well. People's opinions of ministers and churches turn on a dime for a variety of reasons: carpet color, a joke during a sermon, or you forgot to pump their hand three times when you shook instead of just two.

Especially in a small town like I'm in, the resonance of the basketball/coach complaints would echo well past the court and right into the sanctuary. You'd have people choosing sides not just about kids, playing time, and coaching style, but about my fitness as a human being and minister. Even if I could handle the basketball divisions, having people walk out of my church because I didn't play their kid enough (or having people accuse me of favoritism because a kid went to my church) would be too complex of a web to untangle.

3. If you think all of that is bad, try being a ref. How could someone possibly trust anything I say about God or life when I called an obvious block as a charge?

I'm exaggerating slightly here. I don't think that these factors describe the totality of coaching or reffing. There are plenty of rewards, plenty of good situations, plenty of great parents and kids. But these factors are prominent enough in the coaching life to keep me well off the sidelines, at least for now.

Feel free to talk about your coaching/sports experience along with the usual Blazers stuff in the comments.

Thanks for all the wonderful questions! We have even more in the hopper for next time so don't despair if your question hasn't been answered yet. If you have a burning question in mind, you can send it to blazersub@gmail.com or if you're feeling brave, leave a voice mail for the Blazer's Edge Podcast at 234-738-3394.

Please help underprivileged youth, children, and chaperons see Portland's March 30th game against the Phoenix Suns by contributing tickets to Blazer's Edge Night. The cost of a ticket is low and the joy it brings into the life of a child who otherwise wouldn't get to see a game is immeasurable. We're looking to send over 1000 kids this year. You can find all the details here. Please help with a ticket or two (or 10!) if you can.

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard@Blazersedge