“If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.” A generalization, sure, but the statement rings with enough truth to warn listeners of their own routines and sometimes even awaken desperation. All season, the Portland Trail Blazers have been in a rut. Attempts to climb out have yielded little success thus far, but head coach Terry Stotts’ biggest adjustment yet may have his team gaining traction.
On January 20, Stotts inserted Evan Turner and Noah Vonleh into the Trail Blazers’ starting lineup, replacing Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu. The changeup was unexpected, but not unwarranted. The Trail Blazers had just lost three straight games to the Orlando Magic, Washington Wizards, and Charlotte Hornets—the last two of which were humiliating blowouts.
“Our bench was inconsistent.” Stotts told Blazer’s Edge. “(The change) was more about trying to improve the rotation of our bench players than helping the starters rotation.”
The experimental shift would prove fruitless on the night of its inception, ever so narrowly, as Robert Covington lifted Philadelphia over Portland on a game winning 3-point shot. Each outing since, however, has ended in a Trail Blazers victory. The team is now on its first 3-game winning streak since December 5, with triumphs over the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and Memphis Grizzlies.
To say the team has turned a corner would be premature, but the defensive boost Aminu provides the second unit is encouraging; especially alongside the startling success of the current starters, as highlighted by Mike Richman of The Oregonian:
Perhaps more surprisingly the Blazers' new starting group has been extremely effective since the change. The Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum-Mason Plumlee-Vonleh-Turner lineup has outscored opponents by 20.8 points per 100 possessions over the last four games. That group has an offensive rating of 106.7 and an eye-popping 85.9 defensive rating.
What’s more, the team has been able to find success without Harkless in their last two games, as he recovers from a calf strain. He is anticipated to rejoin Aminu in the bench rotation upon return, further amplifying the defensive impact of the rearrangement—something Stotts is looking forward to.
“I’m anxious to see it with Moe and Farouq coming off the bench because they do play well together.” Stotts said. “It’s going to be interesting because there is going to be a minutes crunch for those guys. It’s harder to play the same amount of minutes coming off the bench as you do as a starter, but I think you’ll see that, particularly coming off the bench, they’ll give that second unit at the end of the first-beginning of the second a little bit of an identity.”
Harkless is listed as probable for Sunday’s matchup with the Golden State Warriors.
Stotts maintained that the current lineup would be utilized against Golden State, and stated that if it continued to perform well in the future, he would be unlikely to change it again.
Vonleh, a beneficiary of the adjustment in terms of responsibility, was surprised by the sudden change, but eager to contribute in the starting unit:
“(Stotts) just came in one day after shoot-around and said ‘We decided we’re just going to see how things go with Noah and Evan in the lineup.’ When I heard that, I was just like ‘Oh, alright. Just got to go with it and be ready to go.’ Everybody knows how this game and business is; you always got to be ready when your name’s called.”
There are no illusions here. Vonleh understands that the scorers are the scorers and the playmakers are the playmakers; his role is to rebound, defend, and be extra vocal to help teammates get through screens. Nonetheless, a promotion to the starting lineup means his wherewithal will be tested by the league’s best, including All-Star Draymond Green on Sunday.
“I’ll probably watch some (film) tonight and tomorrow before the game.” Vonleh confessed. “We’ve played them so many times, we played them in the playoffs, so I know most of the things he likes to do, but I’m definitely going to watch some tonight. They play the Clippers tonight, so I’ll watch that game for sure.”
Time will tell if the new look will last. With Harkless and Ed Davis (wrist) to reincorporate, Stotts may keep rotations mercurial until everyone is settled, but it seems that the starting five of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Turner, Vonleh, and Mason Plumlee will get as much burn as it can handle. If all goes well, the Trail Blazers may have found a balance that mitigates their defensive consistency problems without sacrificing offensive firepower.
Of course, the sample size is in its infancy for the moment. Watch to see how effective this lineup is against the Warriors on Sunday. Amid plenty of defensive switches, Turner is likely to guard Stephen Curry for the bulk of the evening, leaving Aminu and hopefully Harkless to keep the Warriors’ second unit from running away with the game at times.
Out of the frying pan, eh?