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Blazers’ Rotations: Pairings & Minutes Projections for the 2019-20 Season

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What lineups will Trail Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts utilize when his squad hits the court in the NBA’s 2019-20 regular season.

2019 Las Vegas Summer League - Portland Trail Blazers v Utah Jazz Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

With the signing of big man Pau Gasol now official, the Portland Trail Blazers have a roster with the necessary 14 players required by the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, and with that, it’s time to take a look at what Portland may do with their rotation.

Clearly there’s been a lot of turnover in the roster. As we talked about last week, Portland lost nearly 50 percent of their total minutes played this offseason so it’s safe to say that things are going to look different on multiple levels.

For example, last year Portland opted to go a bit more hockey-style with some of their substitution patterns: swapping in a whole new lineup at times, where in the past it was at most two or three guys at a time. For the first time in the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum era, the backcourt was not staggered, with Portland instead opting to have two clear units/roles as to ease the playmaking burdens on both guards as well as allowing each to work off of each other more often.

What will Portland opt to do this season? Is it back to the staggered minutes? Will there be a clear bench unit? That’s just the beginning framework of the lineups, and as you go position by position, there are a lot of questions about who plays, when and where, for the first time in a long time.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what the depth chart will likely look like on opening night and how those rotations may play out.

PG: Damian Lillard | Anfernee Simons

SG: CJ McCollum | Kent Bazemore | Gary Trent Jr.

SF: Rodney Hood | Mario Hezonja | Nassir Little

PF: Zach Collins | Anthony Tolliver | Skal Labissiere

C: Hassan Whiteside | Pau Gasol | Jusuf Nurkic*

Outside of the centers, there’s a lot of positional versatility and flexibility here. At times this season we’ll likely see Lillard, McCollum, Simons, Bazemore and Hezonja all play both as primary/secondary initiators and creators as well as off-ball. How Portland utilizes minutes at the four is going to be really interesting. If Portland wants to spread playmaking duties around with the 2nd unit, Hezonja at the four, Bazemore at the three, and Gasol at the five certainly makes things easier on Simons. However, Portland could opt for a bit more floor spacing and have Tolliver at the four while Bazemore and Hezonja slide down. It appears likely there will be a lot of fluidity between who is at one-through-four with the second unit.

Obviously Lillard/McCollum getting the the nod at 1-2 isn’t surprising, nor should the fact that they’ll almost assuredly be looking at 34-plus minutes per game each. What might be a surprise here for some is that Hood gets the nod at the three. Hood took less money than was available and a player option deal in Portland for a lot of reasons, some of which are outlined here by Jason Quick of The Athletic:

“What can make me happy? Where can I fit?” Hood remembers debating with his wife. “It was about long term. Where can I find a home in this league? Where can I be the best player I can be? Where is my family going to fit? All of that played into it, and it always came back to Portland. Every single time.”

In that same article Quick highlights the departure of Maurice Harkless as an indicator that the starting job is up for Hood to take:

“Olshey acquired Hassan Whiteside in a trade with Miami, a transaction that included Maurice Harkless, the Blazers’ starting small forward for the past three seasons, likely opening the door for Hood to become the starter.”

There’s also precedent to look at here: when it’s come to attracting players to come to Portland as a free agent or to stay in Portland, it’s often come with additional compensation. At times it’s been monetary (the Portland premium!); other times it’s been certain guarantees such as minutes per night or a guaranteed role. When you look at Hood’s situation: taking less money, having a flex year in the contract, the departure of Harkless—it’s not a stretch of the imagination to believe that Hood was probably told something along the lines of “the starting job is yours.”

The frontcourt is likely a bit more exploratory. Portland has invested in Zach Collins and the starting position is his to lose at this point. The same can be said of the addition of Hassan Whiteside. Outside of Lillard and McCollum, they are clearly the players with their minutes closest to “chiseled in stone*” as possible (fouls not withstanding).

There are 240 minutes a night in an NBA game, with roughly 70 of them are guaranteed to Lillard/McCollum, so how will they be distributed? Here’s a couple different scenarios that could play out.

If Portland opts to go with something similar to last season—where wholesale changes were commonplace—we could end up with something along these lines. There are certain assumptions that go with something along these lines.

  1. That Portland will have a 10-man regular season rotation.
  2. Gasol and Tolliver will both be counted on for regular production and minutes.
  3. Anfernee Simons will go from not playing to roughly 20 minutes a night.
  4. Bazemore and Hezonja will be very flexible in what positions they play.

The last one is honestly something that’s the most probable when it comes to all of these lineups. Throw Hood into that group and those three guys will likely end up just as “wings” who play one-through-four on a possession by possession basis. It’s not exactly positionless basketball but more of a “flex-role” than anything else.

Before going forward, there’s the third assumption there: that Simons will play around 20 minutes a night. For reference, if you look at rookies from the 2017-18 class that played as little as Simons did (less than 8 MPG), then in their sophomore campaign (2018-19) played 18 minutes or more per game, there are only 3 players who meet that criteria: Ante Zizic of the Cleveland Cavaliers (6.7-18.3 MPG), D.J. Wilson of the Milwaukee Bucks (3.2-18.4 MPG), and Thomas Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers and Washington Wizards (4.8-20.8 MPG). All of these players were at least a year older than Simons is now (20) in their second years.

With that in mind, if you’re not as bullish on Simons taking on quite that level of responsibility, there’s the idea that you could ease Simons in.

The idea here is that the burden isn’t too big for Simons to handle and that if he shows he’s willing and able, you could give him some more minutes as he becomes more comfortable.

Another change at play here: Portland would likely look to stagger Lillard and McCollum. It would give Simons a chance to play with one of them at all times, which accomplishes a couple things. First of all, it give both Lillard and McCollum a likely “plus shooter” from behind the three-point line. Second, the burden of initiating the offense doesn’t fall on Simons at all times as there is always a primary and secondary playmaker on the floor with him. This likely pushes Lillard and McCollum’s minutes up a bit, but it’s something I wouldn’t be surprised to see to start the season.

The last look here is a staggered rotation between Lillard and McCollum, but the rotation has been cut down from a 10-man to a 9-man. In reality, Portland will likely go between a 9-10 man rotation depending on some combination of: opponent, rest, availability, etc.

The implication here is that Simons is more ready than we all anticipate, Gasol is looked at for consistent back-up center minutes, and any contribution from the guys outside this 9-man will be a plus.

The one consistent thought I had doing most of these lineups was pretty simple. Portland will be reliant on Lillard and McCollum even more than usual to start the season. On top of that, Whiteside and Collins will be operating on thin ice if they get into foul trouble. For those hoping to see either big man get to 30 minutes a night, keep this in mind: Whiteside has only averaged over 30 a night once in his career (16-17, 32.5 MPG). Meanwhile, Collins has played over 27 minutes IN A GAME only 3 times in his career (all in 17-18). So while it might be nice to hope for that, the expectation that that will be a reality is probably too much at this point.

No matter which way Portland goes to start the season, things are extremely volatile and subject to change. Coach Stotts will likely spend the first month of the season tinkering as he has in the past with lineups, but this time it’ll be cranked up a few notches to see what sticks. In the end there are a couple things that I expect to happen when it comes to the minutes doled out:

1.) Lillard and McCollum will get around 70 minutes combined a night.

2.) Neither Whiteside nor Collins will play more than 30 minutes a night.

3.) The trio of Hood, Bazemore and Hezonja will play between 75-80 minutes a night

4.) Simons will play between 14-22 minutes per game.

5.) There will be roughly 25-28 minutes a night to distribute between Gasol, Tolliver and possibly Labissiere.

6.) Any action for Trent Jr. or Little will come in either garbage time or injury replacement. In Trent Jr.’s position, if he shows he can knock down shots from deep in limited action he could be inserted for short bursts situationally.

For the first time in a long time, there are a lot of questions about who plays and where and honestly, the preseason can’t get here soon enough to examine what Stotts rolls out.

How do you think the lineups and rotations play out? Let us know in the comments below!