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Trail Blazers Struggling To Find Lineups That Work

The Blazers have been solid so far this season, but are doing most of their damage when their starters are on the court together. What’s wrong with the rest of Portland’s lineups?

Portland Trail Blazers v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Almost halfway through the 2017-18 NBA season, the Portland Trail Blazers sit at 19-18. This puts them 7th in the Western Conference, a mere game and a half ahead of the 9th-seeded Los Angeles Clippers. It seems like the Blazers should be doing a little bit better than they are. They have two of the best scoring guards in the NBA, a coach in Terry Stotts whom many people regard as well above average, and a cadre of veteran role players. Their bench boasts young prospects who were highly regarded coming into the NBA, and most of them have shown growth recently. Despite all of these potential advantages, the Blazers suffer from a basic issue. After their starting lineups are out of the game, they struggle to find units that make a positive impact on the court.

Per basketball reference, Portland’s top three lineups in minutes played—the ones with the obvious candidates like Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum—are all positive (though two of them just barely so). The trouble is that after that, seven of their next nine are negative.

Here’s a breakdown of Portland’s lineups and players, with an eye towards finding correlation between specific players and negative units. Are just a couple of players are dragging them down?

Appearances in Three Top Lineups:

Damian Lillard- 3

CJ McCollum – 3

Jusuf Nurkic – 3

Al Farouq Aminu—2

Moe Harkless – 2

Evan Turner – 1

Noah Vonleh – 1

These are pretty clearly the Blazers’ best lineups, not just by net rating, but by looking at the players on them. Surrounding the trio of Dame, CJ, and Nurkic with solid role players is a sure way for the Blazers to remain a competitive team. The issues arise when that trio splits up to get rest on the bench.

Appearances in the Other Two Positive Lineups:

Ed Davis—2

Pat Connaughton – 2

CJ McCollum – 1

Shabazz Napier—1

Evan Turner – 1

Moe Harkless – 1

Zach Collins – 1

Caleb Swanigan – 1

Now this is interesting. The two other positive lineups that have gotten real minutes for the Blazers this year don’t feature Dame, Nurkic, or Aminu, and only one has CJ. Instead, the two common denominators are Ed Davis and Pat Connaughton, with the rest being a scattering of role players. This is a hopeful sign that perhaps the Blazers’ bench players can form workable units—they just need the right combination. One crucial duo has already been found: Ed Davis brings defense and rebounding, Pat Connaughton shooting. They appear to be musts for a good Blazers’ bench.

Appearances in Negative Lineups:

Damian Lillard – 4

CJ McCollum – 7

Jusuf Nurkic – 4

Pat Connaughton – 2

Noah Vonleh – 1

Al Farouq Aminu – 2

Evan Turner – 5

Shabazz Napier – 2

Ed Davis – 2

Moe Harkless – 3

Meyers Leonard – 1

Caleb Swanigan – 1

Zach Collins – 1

This list is both promising and disheartening at the same time. The bad part is that the Blazers don’t seem to be doing much better even with their “studs” supporting bench players. CJ McCollum sits in every single one of Portland’s negative lineups. Lillard and and Nurkic appear in more of them than anyone but Evan Turner. Even terrific players apparently aren’t enough to bolster Portland’s reserves on their own. The good news is that key bench players like Davis and Connaughton appeared just as frequently in the positive bench units as they did the negative ones.

It’s curious why McCollum in particular has been a prominent feature in negative lineups this season. It’s possible that by sticking him alone with bench players, he gets into a mentality of “I have to do everything”. The Blazers’ bench certainly doesn’t have a lot of play-making, but they should have enough scoring punch to allow Portland’s stars to cede a little bit of their tight grasp on the offense. This could also facilitate their rest periods.

The Blazers clearly have talent on their roster, players capable of working individually. So far this season their star players work far better together than separately, and staggering doesn’t seem to be helping. Terry Stotts needs to keep plugging away as best he can, but there’s a possibility that another piece is needed to complete the puzzle, providing lineups that work without Dame, CJ, or Nurkic playing at the same time.

Blazer’s Edge welcomes Robert Flom as part of our lineup of “outsiders”...analysts beyond the Portland area casting a keen, and mostly dispassionate, eye on the Trail Blazers. Tune in each Thursday during the season for more technical, outside perspectives!

You can read more of Robert’s work at his home site, ClipsNation.