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Could the Trail Blazers Switch to a Three-Guard Lineup?

Portland's starting lineup has gone nowhere against the Clippers in the playoffs. Would a simple switch pay dividends?

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With two games in the books, the Portland Trail Blazers are staring at the business end of an 0-2 deficit in their first round playoff series versus the Los Angeles Clippers. This is the concern of today's Blazer's Edge Mailbag question.

Dave,

The Blazers need more shooting! Why isn't [Coach Terry] Stotts putting Henderson or even Crabbe into the starting lineup? ACs been godawful but I'd take him over Aminu shooting threes. Time for a change?

Spike

Let's start by defining the problem.

--Portland lost by 20 points in each of the first two games.

--Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum did not reach their season averages in either contest. In the first two games Lillard averaged 19 points off of 33% shooting, 21% from the arc. His season averages read 25ppg, 42%, and 37.5%. McCollum is averaging 12.5 points on 32% from the field, 25% beyond the arc in the series so far. His season averages: 20 ppg, 45%, and 42%.

--This isn't coincidence. L.A.'s defense is doing a fantastic job pinning down and rushing at Portland's starting guards. Portland grants permission for this via their inability to hit three-pointers. Factoring out Lillard and McCollum, the Blazers are shooting 9-30, 30% from the arc in this series. They're not spreading the floor and making defenders honor them.

--The Clippers have shown no concern--to the point of disdain, even--with any Blazers scoring outside of the starting backcourt. They appear content to endure any amount of points from Mason Plumlee, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Maurice Harkless as long as they can keep those guards bottled up.

Facing this reality, adding more firepower to the starting lineup could make sense for Portland. The move smacks of desperation slightly. If the Blazers aren't desperate now, they should be soon.

.

The Blazers' starting rotation has been malleable all season long. Maurice Harkless ended up as the favored power forward heading into the playoffs. He brings energy and speed but not three-point shooting. (Season average from the arc: 28%, Career 30%.) With Meyers Leonard injured and Noah Vonleh shooting worse than Harkless from distance, Portland is fresh out of stretch-forward options. If they're going to shuffle the lineup again and they plan to retain any pretense at marksmanship, they'll have to go with a guard.

Gerald Henderson shot 35% from the arc this season. Allen Crabbe did even better at 39%. If the Blazers were to slide Aminu to power forward, they'd bring more production and shooting to the starting lineup, forcing the Clippers to defend more honestly. That's the theory, anyway.

A look at 82games.com's Best Five-Man Unit stats for the Blazers brings sobriety to the party.

Portland ran four units featuring Lillard  and McCollum without Leonard. Aminu and Plumlee were constants in all of them. Vonleh, Harkless, Henderson, and Crabbe rotated through the remaining position. Here were the resulting rankings among those four lineups:

5ManRankingsGuards

Though Henderson and Crabbe are theoretically better offensive players than Harkless, Moe has meshed better with the other four starters and his lineups have produced more of what the Blazers are looking for. The effective field goal percentage numbers--which factor in three-point success--are particularly startling. The Harkless lineup posts a .490 eFG rate versus .430 for Henderson and .420 for Crabbe. Some of that may be due to the Blazers using three-guard lineups situationally, but the drop-off is still severe.

The three-guard lineups haven't produced more points or better offensive efficiency than the starting lineup brings. According to these numbers the Blazers are already running the most potent offensive lineup they can field.

Defense would be a major factor in a three-guard lineup switch. The Blazers could hide a small defender on Luc Mbah-a-Moute, but Aminu would be taken off of Chris Paul and tasked with keeping Blake Griffin out of the lane. Aminu is roughly the same size as Harkless and seems as able, but once again the 5-Man-Unit numbers have something to say:

FiveManPlayoffsDefense

Crabbe's unit compares fairly favorably to Harkless' in almost every category. (Their actual numbers weren't that far apart.) The Blazers don't gain anything with Crabbe, though, and they've switched a good defender away from Paul in favor of a poorer one. Throwing in Henderson sends defense and rebounding downward and doesn't solve the Paul problem.

If the Blazers were determined to make a change and the Unit numbers are indicative, Crabbe would be a better option to replace Harkless than Henderson. The obvious issue: Crabbe is shooting 25% from the field in this series and hasn't hit a three-pointer yet. His numbers are worse than Aminu's or Harkless'. Meanwhile Henderson is shooting 50% from the field and 67% from the arc. The guy who helped the lineup more during the season isn't performing at all. The guy who didn't mesh is hot. But neither one may be as good for the team as the guy the coach is already putting out there.

The obvious conclusion: This isn't an easy fix. It's a mess. We know the status quo isn't working. Converting to a three-guard lineup hasn't improved the team so far. Adding "Not Working" to "More Not Working" doesn't equal "Suddenly Working".

Usually when you can't go with what you've got and you can't see a defined way forward, you're screwed. Neither the Blazers nor their fans dare accept that reality until the fourth loss transpires, but it may remain reality nonetheless. They might do just as well hoping their three-pointers start to fall as making a lunge at a lineup that hasn't produced better for them. Either way, "hoping" will remain the word of the hour.

Send your Mailbag questions to blazersub@gmail.com if you have them! We'll be happy to answer when we can.

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

Read about my now-available first book here and order it here.

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