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Terry Stotts Stuck in Rotation Hell as the Trail Blazers Languish

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Observers wonder if Portland’s woes are related to coaching decisions. We explore.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

As the Portland Trail Blazers have struggled through a five-game losing streak, no topic has been hotter than the rotation decisions of Head Coach Terry Stotts. We broach that topic in today’s edition of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Hi Dave. This is Peter. Long time Blazers fan. I watch almost every game and help coach a high school team. Here's my question:

Why are Pat C, Jake Layman and Meyers Leonard getting minutes over Shabazz Napier, Caleb Swanigan, and Ed Davis? Caleb was one of the most promising rookies in the league and played great early in the season. He fights for rebounds every possession, sets tough screens, and has a great jump shot, making him useful on both sides of the court. Jake Layman plays more like a wet towel and I am surprised that Stotts gives him any minutes. Also, though I am proud of Pat C's improvement this season, Shabazz is a better ball handler and shooter, and plays great defense for his size. His 3pt. percentage is the best on the team and he gets a lot of steals! Speaking of wet towels, why is Meyers Leonard even in the NBA? I get that he's huge and can sometimes shoot but he is the clumsiest, most clueless player in the association. It's frustrating and embarrassing to see him out there most of the time. On the other hand, Ed Davis hustles for every rebound, plays tough, smart defense under the basket, and had improved his ability to finish put-backs. The Blazers were playing Caleb, Davis, and Napier more early in the season and recently their minutes have almost disappeared. Their confidence seems compromised along with the lessened minutes. What is Scott's thinking? I usually like his style but recently I've been very confused and frustrated with his rotations.

Ps- Turner is great with mid-range shooting and hustle plays but why does he shoot 3s? Seriously.

Thanks for reading and writing.

Peter

Each case is slightly different.

Shabazz Napier vs. Pat Connaughton is pretty clear. Connaughton has played small forward as a starter, though about 62% of his total minutes have come at shooting guard according to Basketball-Reference. He’s able to switch between those two positions defensively, he does not require the ball in order to be successful, and 57% of his shots come from three-point range. Add in another 27% coming within 3 feet of the hoop and you have a whopping 84% of his shot portfolio residing in ultra-high-quality territory.

Napier is basically a point guard, though the Blazers sometimes use him in a three-guard lineup. At 6’1, he’s not able to switch defensively. Unless he’s the straight back-up point, he’s playing in a gimmick lineup which opponents will exploit eventually. Portland gets away with it—even prospers from it—against opposing second units but if they started Napier alongside CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, somebody would get clobbered.

Napier is more comfortable with the ball in his hands, though he’s done remarkably well as a catch-and-shoot player. His three-point percentage stands at an amazing 49%, but that’s not likely to last a whole season, especially if he gets more reps against prepared defenses. (Connaughton is shooting 40% himself and he attempts more triples per possession than Napier does.) Only 34% of Napier’s attempts come from distance, and his “three-or-layup percentage” stands at 57%...far short of Connaughton’s. Napier takes more shots between 16 feet and the three-point arc than anybody on the team. That’s fine in his current role, but the Blazers don’t need more of that.

Add in Connaughton’s athleticism and you can see why he fits in better than Shabazz despite the true and positive qualities you list in Napier’s favor.

Meyers Leonard edging out Ed Davis is a new development, occasioned in part by Jusuf Nurkic getting injured. The two aren’t even close in total minutes played this season. Davis stands at 438, Leonard at a sparse 129...actually tied with Swanigan.

Clearly Davis has been the superior and more helpful player to the Blazers this year. But he’s cemented into a reserve role. Portland boasts a hodge-podge of offense approaches in the second unit. They expect the bench to keep them afloat, not to win the game outright. Davis is free to patrol near the bucket and snag the offensive rebounds that those hodge-podger shooters are going to produce with their misses. Putting him in the starting lineup would leave another defender free to roam against Lillard and McCollum. With potential frontcourt teammates including Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Noah Vonleh—non-scorers all—Davis would tip the starting unit’s offensive imbalance into offensive disaster. Plus he’s not really a natural center. He’s going to be over-matched against larger opponents and slow-footed against floor-stretching fives. He’s much better suited to defend and rebound against reserve bigs.

Leonard is...Leonard. The Blazers inherit his liabilities each time he takes the floor. But in limited duty he’s shot 60% from the field, 54% from the arc this season...better from distance than Napier, even. He can bring defenders out of the lane and provide an outlet for McCollum and Lillard as a starter, contributing positively to the offensive hodge-podge as a reserve. The buzz around Portland’s offense lately has been wholly negative. Offensive rebounds aside (and the Blazers don’t convert those into actual points anyway) Leonard provides more diversity and scoring potential than does Davis.

Swanigan and Layman both end up in the category of “Neither, thanks.” Swanigan’s body is incredible, blowing Layman out of the water. Jake has had more experience, though only modestly so. Realistically the Blazers tried Swanigan and it didn’t quite work out. Now they’re trying Layman and it’s not quite working out. Swanigan is shooting 35% from the field, 20% from the arc. Layman’s numbers are 32% and 18%. Don’t even bother looking at their Ineffective Field Goal Percentage. Swanigan probably has more defensive potential, Layman more natural shooting range, but neither one is demonstrating much. Swanigan’s rebounding is the one bankable skill between them, but the Blazers have rebounding covered from numerous positions and players without him.

Note that in all of this, I don’t fundamentally disagree with your points. I do question whether the rotation decisions make as big of an impact as you’re suggesting. The Blazers are experimenting because what they tried formerly didn’t really work. That the new attempt also isn’t working doesn’t justify returning to the old non-solutions. When a team struggles, it’s tempting to assume that whomever is not playing must be better than whomever is. That’s not always the case.

Note also two common threads running through all these stories:

1. Almost every decision is synergy-related. Davis is better than Leonard overall but cannot be played next to Aminu and Harkless. Napier is more dynamic than Connaughton but Lillard and McCollum trump him. The Blazers desperately need certain assets and dare not endure particular weaknesses. Portland might claim to have multi-faceted individual players, but collectively they’re painted into a corner as far as pairings and matchups. This roster isn’t as flexible as assumed. Rotation decisions are narrowed accordingly.

2. If a win costs a dollar and you approach the counter with two quarters, a dime, three nickels, and three pennies, you can’t afford it. You can hand the cashier the quarters first, the pennies first, or switch around the order any way you please; it still only adds up to 78 cents.

Some will claim, rightfully, that rotation order can increase or decrease the value of coins. That’s true to an extent, but that’s not happening with the Blazers right now...not even a little bit. It’s unlikely they’ll find a Magic Rotation that will change their output significantly. Even if they did and managed an increase, 89 cents isn’t enough to buy a win either.

As the Blazers watch rookies across the NBA—anywhere from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Los Angeles Lakers to the Utah Jazz—out-perform their young players significantly...as they watch this happen for the third year straight now...it’s probably time to admit that they lack talent among the supporting cast. Their increasingly-mythical potential isn’t sufficing to fill the gap. When the opponent gives them a discount, they can pay cash for victories. But they’re building up zero credit and they’re nowhere near able to pay retail, let alone shopping in the high-rent district that NBA elite status requires.

Oh...and Evan Turner is 10th on the team in three-pointers attempted per minute, also 10th in three-point attempts as a percent of his total. The threes he shoots, he has to. Defenses are sinking in against his point guard. If he doesn’t take the shot, Portland’s offense will wilt as opponents pack the lane. Obviously they’re wilting already, but if he drives or passes into heavy traffic because he doesn’t trust his jumper, they might as well pack it in.

Thanks for your question, coach! Anyone who wants to send in a topic can do so at blazersub@gmail.com or @davedeckard on Twitter!

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