It’s probably a safe assumption that the Portland Trail Blazers will come out Opening Night against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers with the same starting lineup they WANTED to have going into last season (remember, CJ McCollum was suspended for Opening Night last year). That lineup features McCollum, Damian Lillard, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic.
While it may seem like that lineup played the primary role last season it was actually the second most used unit and only appeared in 30 total games. The good news is, in that short time that group was able to post a +74, sporting a 57 percent true shooting percentage (11th best among qualifiers) and a Net Rating of 7.7 (8th best among qualifiers).
Basically, that primary group was pretty decent when it was healthy and engaged. It wasn’t perfect (we can pretend the New Orleans series didn’t happen, it’s allowed) but it showed that it could hang with some of the best in the league pretty regularly in the aggregate. The “in the moment” points stick out because they are so stark, but over the course of the season the good of the unit prevailed over the bad. Ultimately that’s a good thing- but it also shows just how fragile things are.
For a simple explanation, take a look at the most used lineup where Harkless is swapped for Evan Turner. Now, the +/- is essentially the same (+76) but that’s over the course of 12 more games and nearly 100 more minutes. Portland’s shooting, pace, and offensive rating all drop down while their defense picks up a tick.
That minor swap fundamentally changes the way Portland plays. There’s one less floor spacer on a team desperate for space and it shows in their offensive output. In today’s league, if you want to be truly successful you need to have a superior offense with at least a passable defense, or a decent offense and a generational level defense. The Blazers don’t fall on either end of that scale outside of their main lineup, and even then it’s on the periphery.
Here’s where it gets a bit tricky. The Blazer’s true 2nd unit, featuring McCollum and a bench core, including recently departed Ed Davis, either show up well (Collins, Napier, Connaughton, McCollum, Davis) with sterling shooting percentages and staggeringly good net ratings (+23.2!) or the other side of the coin where Turner and Napier are swapped and the bottom falls out.
So what does that 2nd unit look like now with Napier and Davis gone? How well does Seth Curry adapt to his role? If you’re projecting off Curry’s usage and contribution from the 2016-17 season, things look pretty good. Like, actually really good if you’re just thinking about how he should fit in. Napier and Curry both landed at a 19.5 percent usage rate. Curry landed a bit higher on the scale when it comes to assist percentage, which probably bodes well for this group. He also was a slightly more efficient.
It’s pretty easy to see Curry sliding into Napier’s role quickly. It’s a role that he’s held in the past and with the proper support, it should be a simple plug and play. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.
Will Coach Stotts opt to bring Collins off the bench as the first big- and if so, is it at center or at the four? He will probably spend some time at both, depending on the matchup but there won’t be the safety net of Ed Davis waiting in the wings. The next man up among the bigs is either Meyers Leonard or Caleb Swanigan. That’s quite different than last year. In my mind, it’s easy to picture Leonard getting the roughly 10-12 minutes a night at the center spot- spacing the floor offensively and staying close to the rim defensively- allowing Collins to roam on both ends. That’s what makes sense right now at least.
The wildcards here are obviously Swanigan and Jake Layman. Does Coach Stotts have the patience to roll with Leonard again or will he throw Collins to the wolves at the center spot and opt to stretch the floor with Layman?
On the other side of the lineup, did Wade Baldwin do enough to warrant minutes in the immediate rotation? Does that mean Portland could try to go without staggering Lillard and McCollum’s minutes and have a “true” bench for a short period each night? Probably not, but the personnel are there, at least in the backcourt, to make that happen.
The biggest questions for me are who steps in as the primary back up center and/or big and who’s the wildcard off the bench that emerges? Does Gary Trent Jr. wow enough in camp to get some momentum and sneak some early minutes in?
Thing is, right now there’s a lot to be decided. Strange, considering the bulk of the leading contributors return from last year. But beyond those guys it really is a toss up- and Stotts has shown in the past that when given options, he’ll try them all until something sticks.
Going into the season, my number one storyline is watching how these rotations develop. Outside of health, it feels like how these lineups do or don’t come together will ultimately decide whether or not Portland is a real playoff contender.
As it sits now, how do you think the lineups play out? Who’s out of the 9-man rotation? Let us know down below.