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Can the Trail Blazers Settle on a Lineup Already?

Portland shifted their rotation plenty last year and seem to be doing it again during pre-season. What’s up with that?

NBA: Preseason-Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question comes from the swampy southeast of the country. One of our readers in Florida wants to know what Terry Stotts is doing with his pre-season lineups, why he can’t seem to make up his mind. As we delve into the matter, remember if you have a Portland Trail Blazers question, send it to blazersub@gmail.com.

Dave,

Although the Blazers have a 3-0 record in preseason, only the win against the Jazz looked somewhat cohesive. Yes, I know, rag-tag, mistake-loaded play is natural in exhibition, especially when using the end-of-the-bench players, but I don't see the Blazers functioning "like a tremendous machine" (from Secretariat lore) until Stotts stops the mix-n-match approach. If he doesn't field the likely rotation right away, it'll cost him in valuable early wins in November (during which the team bombed last year). I say, "Go for it, Coach! Take an educated best-guess NOW and use the rotation players as you expect to use them on Oct. 25th."

What say you, Dave?

Taylor in FL

Portland’s record is not quite as unblemished as it was when you wrote this question, but it still has merit. Jason Quick of CSNNW suggests that the Blazers have settled on a starting lineup--the usual suspects at guard and big positions, Moe Harkless at small forward—an eventuality which our own Eric Griffith predicted a couple weeks ago. But trotting out a starting five on opening night doesn’t answer the longer-term rotation questions the Blazers face.

Portland’s lineup—even the starting lineup—isn’t in its final form yet. It’s not likely to be at any point this season. The “elder statesmen” on the roster—Ed Davis and Al-Farouq Aminu—boast 6 years of NBA experience apiece. Each has registered around 10,000 minutes of playing time, a total which Damian Lillard has exceeded in 4 seasons already. This isn’t exactly the San Antonio Spurs. It’s a credit to Coach Stotts that a team with that little experience—lest we forget, a team which underwent a massive remake a season ago—can be mentioned in the same breath with the words “tremendous machine”. If that goal seems within reach, it’s not because the parts themselves are reliable, but because Stotts has them working well together in multiple combinations.

Any lineup Stotts chose at this point would be speculative. The Blazers field exactly two “anytime, anywhere, for every team” players: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Davis and Evan Turner would find a welcome on most squads but their functionality would be determined by the players around them as much as their own talent. Pretty much everybody else on the roster falls under the category of “educated guess” when you measure them against the roles they’ll be asked to play this year. Even if they prove suitable, we don’t know how they’ll gel with the players alongside them. A pre-season “death lineup” (a term I detest, by the way) could turn into a mild case of the sniffles during the harsh months of winter. Because of this, Coach Stotts will probably spend the whole year shuffling players in and out of the rotation.

Keep in mind also that Portland’s talent level flattens into several plateaued groupings behind the starting guards. We cannot say that Harkless should start over Turner for all times in all situations. We cannot say whether Meyers Leonard or Festus Ezeli will prove more valuable in the long run. Absent that surety, changes are all but guaranteed. Somebody will beat out somebody else this week but few players will win that battle for the entire season.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that even if Coach Stotts agreed with you that the pre-season exists for getting regular lineups time together and even if a strong pre-season heralded an equally strong regular-season start, he doesn’t have the option to assemble a be-all, end-all rotation at this point. He has to play the cards he’s been dealt. The strengths and weaknesses of the players involved will force him to bluff, value bet, and engage in all kinds of chicanery to make the final rounds of the tournament. He can’t just slap his cards down on the table and say, “I win!” Both he and his team will need to earn it the hard way.

Thanks, Taylor! Everybody keep those Mailbag questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com!

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