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Exploring the Trail Blazers’ Rotation Dynamics

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Portland’s depth offers a unique set of trade-offs for coach Terry Stotts and his staff. Willy ready takes a look at his potential playing rotations for the 2016-17 season.

Golden State Warriors v Portland Trail Blazers - Game Three Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

The Trail Blazers’ roster is exceptionally deep but many of their players have distinct strengths and weaknesses. There are guys who play great defense but can’t shoot, great shooters who struggle to create and great all-around offensive players who need extra help on the defensive end. This abundance of flawed players means Portland has more rotation decisions than most other teams. Not only will coach Terry Stotts have many quality players to choose from but they have to be staggered in such a way to compensate for each other’s weaknesses.

These roster dynamics come out clearly if we put ourselves in Stotts’ shoes and attempt to pencil out a rotation. First and foremost, a team should play its best players at the most important times of the game. For Portland, that means guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are going to start and finish games. That’s just a given.

Let’s start there and take a look at Damian Lillards’ playing time last year. Here is Lillard’s rotation from the last game of the season against Denver (courtesy of NBARotations.info).

The red shows when Lillard played and the black is when he was resting. In this particular game, he sat the entire fourth quarter. That’s unusual so this game doesn’t give us an accurate picture of his typical rotation. To understand that, we have to look at Lillard’s rotation over the entire season, which is described in the following chart.

The chart varies from red to black based on what percentage of games he played at that time. Lillard typically played the first quarter and then the second half of the second quarter. This patterned was slightly altered in the second half. The fuzzy red/black at the end of the third means he occasionally sat down right before the end of the quarter. The fourth quarter is a little fuzzy throughout because games like the one against Denver on April 13.

Now, compare Lillard’s chart to CJ McCollum’s.

As expected, McCollum started games, finished games, and consistently played when Lillard was resting. Stotts would find a short rest for McCollum at different times during the fourth quarter and occasionally bring him back in for the end of the second and third quarters.

This isn’t the only way to stagger their minutes but there are many advantages to doing it this way. Lillard is Portland’s best player and he played a team-high 36 minutes a game last year. In order to help him handle so many minutes, Stotts rested him adjacent to the quarter breaks. This extends his breaks and ensures he’s got the legs for Dame Time.

McCollum fits in around Dame. Stotts could take him out and bring him back in a little earlier in the first and the third but Lillard’s minutes dictate when CJ plays. This is important when we fit Evan Turner into the rotation but we’ll get to that later. For now, let’s map out Lillard’s and McCollum’s minutes.

I’ve broken each quarter into six two-minute sections and listed each position. If a player’s name is listed, it means they would play at that position during that specific two minute segment. In the below example, McCollum would play the first six minutes of the first quarter at the shooting guard position and then come out. Red text indicates new additions to the rotation and black text indicates players that were inserted previously.

This would give Lillard 36 minutes of playing time per game and McCollum 34, right in line with their season averages last year.

Two Playmakers On the Floor At All Times

Portland’s offense dipped whenever McCollum or Lillard sat down and GM Neil Olshey signed Evan Turner to help remedy that problem. Olshey praised Turner’s playmaking ability and intimated that Shabazz Napier wouldn’t get much playing time because Lillard, McCollum, and Turner would all be sharing point guard responsibilities. If we pencil in Turner for all the minutes when either Lillard or McCollum is resting, that gives him 26 minutes right off the bat.

This creates a dilemma if Stotts wants to start Turner. If Turner starts both halves in addition to his listed minutes that would push him up to at least 34 minutes. If he finishes the game as well then he’s bumping up to around 40. Something has to give.

It’s possible to make it work if you change McCollum’s rotation, taking him out and bringing him back a bit earlier in the first and third quarters. But there’s a cost to that. McCollum would play more rotations that are shorter in length potentially affecting his rhythm. Turner would be playing well over 30 minutes limiting what’s left over for Moe Harkless and Allen Crabbe. Turner’s lack of shooting also makes it difficult to play Harkless at the same time unless you bring in Meyers Leonard to compensate. Those combinations become harder to manage if he’s playing the majority of the game.

For all those reasons, I expect Turner to come off the bench and I’ll leave his minutes as is. He might still finish games, bumping his minutes total above 30, but he’s not good enough to warrant all the other rotation gymnastics required to get him in the starting lineup.

Al-farouq Aminu at Power Forward

Stotts told ESPN’s Zach Lowe earlier this summer that Al-farouq Aminu will start at the power forward spot and play significant minutes there. Last year, he started and finished each half, the standard rotation for a starter.

Assuming his role expands, Aminu will continue to start and finish games. With that, we can pencil him in for the first half of the first and third quarters and the second half of the second and fourth.

But that’s only 24 minutes. He averaged 28 per game last year and, given his new role, his minutes will likely increase next season. Stotts could add a few minutes to each of his rotations or play him an entire quarter like Lillard. Assuming Aminu himself doesn’t have a preference, it’s tough to pick one way or another at this point.

For now, let’s add a few minutes to each of rotations and bring his total to up to 32 minutes per game.

The Ed Davis and Meyers Leonard Combo

Last week, I argued that Meyers Leonard was a defensive disaster at power forward and that he should be played exclusively at center. He also performed better alongside Ed Davis than with any other frontcourt player. Portland should certainly try playing Aminu and Harkless next to Leonard but there’s little evidence that will work. Leonard only played 131 minutes with Aminu or Harkless at power forward and those lineups posted a negative net rating on the whole (according to NBAwowy.com).

Assuming Leonard will miss the majority of training camp (if not its entirety), Stotts should be careful making the Leonard-Aminu/Harkless frontcourt a staple of his rotation. The Western Conference promises to be a bloodbath again this year and Portland can’t afford to experiment extensively on the fly. Stotts should of course find situations and matchups to try new lineups but those moments should be chosen carefully to minimize risk. It doesn’t make sense to trot out an unproven combination of players night-in and night-out. In terms of his core rotation, Stotts should play Leonard alongside Davis until some of those low-risk experiments yield positive results.

If we assume Davis and Leonard play together then their rotation schedules fit around Aminu.

That gives each of them 16 minutes per game. Either could play their way into more minutes but that’s a reasonable number to start the season. You could theoretically move Aminu to small forward and play him with Davis and Leonard but let’s look at the center rotation before we start that discussion.

The Starting Center Debate

This one is a toss-up. Mason Plumlee and Festus Ezeli are extremely different players who do some things exceptionally well and struggle in other areas. You could make a case for either but Plumlee’s tenure gives him the inside track on the starting job. Throw in Ezeli’s recent procedure and I expect Plumlee to have a similar role to last year. His rotation looked similar to Aminu’s.

Plumlee started almost every game but his fourth quarter is especially fuzzy. Stotts sometimes chose to end games with a different center but almost always played him to end the first half. Let’s pencil him in for those consistent minutes and leave the end of the game open for Stotts’ discretion.

Now we have our first real problem. There’s these awkward two-minute stretches between Plumlee and Leonard. Ezeli can’t play two minutes at a time. We could cut Plumlee’s minutes and play Ezeli for four minutes but it’s tough for players to find a rhythm that quickly. I can’t think of a single team that divides a quarter evenly amongst three players who play the same position. Alternatively, we could extend Plumlee’s minutes in the first and play Ezeli instead of Plumlee in the second and fourth quarters. But that would mean Plumlee could never close games even if he’s the better matchup.

The lesser of all the evils is to move Leonard’s minutes into the second and fourth quarters. This allows Stotts to split the first and third quarters evenly between Plumlee and Ezeli. They each get a longer, six-minute rotation to find their rhythm and both are rested for the end of the game. That way, Stotts has the option to close the game with either of them depending on the matchup.

This rotation gives Plumlee 18 minutes per game and the other two centers 12 minutes apiece. Plumlee or Ezeli would then get the last six minutes occasionally depending on the matchup. It’s rare to divide playing time this evenly but there are some benefits. Each guy is deserving of playing time and this gets them all on the court. Plus, this rotation preserves Stotts’ ability to play the best player during crunch time. On the other hand, limited minutes could make it harder for any of them find a rhythm and play up to their potential. And that’s before accounting for the occasional super small lineups with Davis at center.

If they struggle to get in rhythm then Stotts will be forced to bench one of them, freeing up minutes for the other two. Leonard would be the most likely candidate to see his minutes cut but it’s difficult to keep enough shooting on the floor without him in the rotation.

At Least Three Shooters In Every Lineup

The last rotation players who need minutes are Moe Harkless and Allen Crabbe. Each brings very different things to the table and can even play different positions. This is a good place to start since we have eight minutes at power forward that still need to be filled. You could play Harkless or Davis there but either way there’s a problem: not enough shooting. Those lineups at the end of the first and third quarters would have a frontcourt of Turner, Harkless/Davis, and Ezeli. None of those guys can shoot at all, meaning there would only be two shooters on the floor. That’s not enough spacing and those lineups would struggle to score. This is where it gets hard to incorporate two wings who can’t shoot in a successful rotation.

We could move Leonard’s minutes but then we just create the same problem elsewhere. We could expand Leonard’s minutes but now you’re cutting Plumlee or Ezeli out of the rotation entirely. It seems like Portland is stuck between a rock and a hard place until we remember that Aminu’s minutes are mostly arbitrary at this point. There wasn’t a good reason to put them where we did so perhaps there’s a better way to distribute them.

If we make Aminu’s minutes mirror McCollum’s, it solves our shooting problems. McCollum starts the first and the third quarters and then plays the entire second and fourth (with a short two-minute break mixed in). Aminu could play the entire first and third (with a short rest) and the end of the second and fourth.

Here’s what that looks like with blue text indicating minutes that were removed.

This solves the spacing issues and Aminu’s minutes stay at 32 minutes per game. I don’t see any major problems but this illustrates how important Aminu’s shooting is to the team. If last year was an anomaly rather than a sustainable improvement Portland will struggle to put enough shooting on the floor.

If we want three shooters on the floor at all times then Crabbe has to be included in a number of lineups.

That’s 30 minutes per game right off the bat and Turner’s influence becomes apparent. It’s tough to start Turner because he has to play when Lillard and McCollum don’t. And since Turner can’t shoot he needs Crabbe alongside him to space the floor. That makes it difficult to start Crabbe as well.

This chart also illustrates why Stotts will struggle to bench Leonard completely. With Turner and Harkless as non-shooters along the perimeter, Portland often needs one of its frontcourt players to help space the floor. Out of all Stotts’ frontcourt options, only Aminu and Leonard can shoot and Aminu can’t play the entire game. It’s not a coincidence that Leonard and Aminu ended up with staggered minutes. If you bench Leonard in favor of the other centers those lineups will struggle to space the floor.

Harkless gets everything that’s left (16 minutes per game) and ends up starting almost by default. Stotts still gets to vary which small forward finishes the game depending on the matchup and our rotation is complete.

Note that Turner and Harkless never play together. That pair would need Leonard to space the floor for them which means you’d have to increase his minutes or bench Davis to get that combination on the floor. Vonleh is also relegated to injury-protection. That’s tough given his potential but the frontcourt is just so crowded. Stotts would have to bench someone or cut Aminu’s minutes which seems foolish given that his position change is expected to drive the team’s improvement.

These trade-offs illustrate how difficult Stotts job will be next year. Not only will he have to decide between numerous players but he’ll have to put them in very specific combinations to be successful. Portland's roster gives him few obvious decisions and many imperfect ones.

In all likelihood, the actual rotation will look much different than the one above. There are just too many potential combinations and unknown variables to make good predictions at this point. Players could come to camp with new skills. Players could get injured. Stotts could cut one of the centers from the rotation or decide starting Turner is worth the rest of the adjustments it would require.

The real value in doing an exercise like this is not in the prediction but in understanding the trade-offs and the implications behind each decision. Who starts at small forward is not just a question of which player is better but how that decision sets up the rest of the rotation. Stotts has to think three moves ahead at all times so a particular player is rested and available when he needs a specific skillset. When we evaluate a decision or think a player should be getting more minutes these are the things we need to think about. Otherwise, we’re not recognizing the challenges that Portland’s roster presents or the complexity that it requires.