The Portland Trail Blazers are 3-8 in their last 11 games, falling from first in the West to seventh in the process. Not only that, but they’re only two games ahead of the 14th-ranked San Antonio Spurs, which shows how tightly the West is packed at the moment. Portland’s slip wasn’t unexpected – nobody thought they’d reign at the top of the West all season – but such a sudden freefall has certainly been somewhat of a surprise. The Blazers haven’t been plagued by injuries (only one key player, Moe Harkless, has missed more than a couple games), so what’s been the issue?
Rather than taking a wide look at the Blazers as a team, let’s look at some of their most commonly played lineups and see how they’ve done.
Per NBA.com, the Blazers have played eight lineups in 10 or more games. The bad news is that five of those lineups have posted negative net ratings. The good news is that the two most-played lineups are positive, with one of them boasting a quite strong +3.2 rating. Another plus is that three of the negative lineups aren’t too bad, boasting ratings at -0.5, -0.5, and -0.9.
Atrocious shooting sticks out as an interesting trend for Portland. The lineup of Damian Lillard - CJ McCollum - Nik Stauskas - Al-Farouq Aminu - Jusuf Nurkic, which should be one of the most potent for the Blazers offensively, is shooting 40.5% from the field and 22.6% from three. Another lineup, with Lillard, McCollum, Evan Turner, Aminu, and Meyers Leonard, which should also be a strong shooting unit, is at 39% from the field and 23.5% from three. That is some really, really bad shooting. Those numbers should normalize over time. If that happens, they might move from negatives to positives.
Advanced numbers don’t paint a prettier picture for Portland’s offense. After their top two lineups, the next six (all the remaining significant ones) have pitiful offensive ratings of 100.0 or less. The silver lining: five of them feature the potent duo of Lillard and McCollum. It seems unlikely that they will stay this poor offensively forever. Even if the NBA has adapted to the Blazers’ star guards, they are still extremely talented and play well together on offense.
A real positive is that these lineups have mostly been fine or better defensively. Four of the Blazers’ top eight (in games played) have defensive ratings of 103.8 or better, which would rank in the top three of NBA teams this season. Three more of them are below 110.3, which is right where the Blazers’ defense is as a whole this season. Portland’s defense, currently ranked 21st on the season at 110.2, will also likely improve as the season goes along. Too many of their more played lineups are at least solid on defense to rank that low forever.
So far, I’ve been looking at lineups in terms of game played, not minutes. That’s because lineups with more minutes but fewer games played might be a bit flukier in terms of having one fantastic stretch against a certain opponent that biases the results. Basically, I believe that a lineup that has only played 42 minutes but has seen action in 16 games can probably be extrapolated more than one that has played 50 in 5. However, looking at lineups based on minutes played provides another positive, as the Blazers’ top four lineups all possess positive net ratings.
Lineup data this early in the season is still a bit wonky. Only two of Portland’s lineups have played over 100 minutes (with a third at 98). Even 100 minutes isn’t a ton for something like lineup data, where even a four- or five-minute stretch can have a huge impact in one direction or another. Still, the Blazers’ most-played lineups seems to promise positive regression in the weeks ahead. They are mostly stout defensively, suffering from an onset of poor shooting.
Portland’s biggest-minute lineups remain positives; they’re losing games on the margins. It’s always better to have a strong core group and need tweaking around them than the reverse, and the Blazers fall firmly into the former category. The Blazers might not be a Western Conference contender, but they’re not as bad as they’ve looked over the past few weeks either. They should reverse course sooner rather than later.