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Interchangeable Forward Pairings Present Blazers with Options

The offseason provided Portland with unexpected depth at the wing. Who will get the mintues and in what combination?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

One year after signing Carmelo Anthony to fill an empty power forward column in the depth chart, the Portland Trail Blazers now have a plethora of capable wings. But there are a lot of unknowns with this new group.

Outside of the minimal minutes Rodney Hood, Zach Collins and Anthony shared the last year and a half, Portland’s wings don’t have experience together. Additionally, Robert Covington is coming from a unique situation in Houston, and Derrick Jones Jr. has never averaged more than 24 minutes per game.

To identify the rotation that best complements the core of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, Terry Stotts should start experimenting with different forward combinations immediately. Here’s a look at which wing pairings do and don’t make sense on paper:

Derrick Jones Jr. & Robert Covington

The two newcomers provide an intimidating defensive combination. Jones Jr. has the length and athleticism to defend scorers in isolation, and Covington thrives as an off-ball helper. With Nurkic manning the paint, they could successfully support a backcourt of Lillard and McCollum defensively, much like Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu did.

Similar to Aminu and Harkless, neither new wing is a reliable three-point shooter. Jones Jr. averaged an abysmal 28% from deep last year on two attempts per game. Covington, who shot impressively in the playoffs, only converted 33.5% of his triples during the regular season. His best mark across an entire year is 37.8% - Aminu’s is 36.9%.

While this combination is elite defensively, it doesn’t provide the floor spacing required for Lillard and Nurkic to run the go-to spread pick and roll. The team might benefit more from having one of these two on the floor at all times.

Robert Covington and Rodney Hood

A Robert-Rodney frontcourt is the most balanced of any wing combination for Portland.

Defensively, Covington would play more of an on-ball role as the four alongside Hood. That’s not ideal given his strengths as a helper, but he’s still a plus-defender in those scenarios. Hood, who might be hindered on the defensive end after his Achilles tear last December, should still be a reliable defender as well.

Offensively, Hood established himself as a top-tier spot up shooter last year; he made 55.2% of his corner threes and 61.5% of his wide-open threes (no defender within six feet). Planting him in one corner and Covington in another provides enough floor spacing for the Lillard-Nurkic pick and roll. If Covington’s defender does sag off, he’s a proficient cutter and Nurkic has the vision to make that pass.

Robert Covington and Carmelo Anthony

If this forward combination takes the floor, Nurkic and Gary Trent Jr. need to play as well for defensive mitigation. Anthony isn’t a positive defender and asking Covington to cover for him, the backcourt and/or Kanter isn’t plausible. But adding two more dependable defenders in Nurkic and Trent Jr. lessens the burden on Covington and allows Anthony, plus one of the two starting guards, to stay on the court.

Like with the previous wing duo, Covington and Anthony provide enough floor spacing for the standard Blazers offense to succeed. If Anthony slides down to the midrange for a post up, though, defenses won’t hesitate to leave Covington and force Anthony into either a bad shot or a bad pass.

Derrick Jones Jr. and Carmelo Anthony

Even more so than Covington, defenses will abandon Jones Jr. on the perimeter to double Anthony in the post. However, his ability to cut and finish at the rim might make that a poor defensive decision occasionally. Anthony doesn’t have good vision with his back to the basket, but last season illustrated that he finds teammates cutting more effectively than he makes a skip pass.

Away from the ball, this forward combo capitalizes on Nurkic’s passing. Melo established himself as a strong corner shooter, and Jones Jr. is an elite cutter and finisher. Having two very different options to choose from when defenses try to stop the pick and roll will lead to efficient looks for both players.

Jones Jr. pairs better with Anthony on the defensive end than Covington. He’s more of a one-on-one defender and will match up with the opponent’s best wing scorer, allowing Anthony to defend the less potent wing and hide defensively.

Rodney Hood and Carmelo Anthony

These two played 193 minutes together in 2019-20 before Hood’s injury. In that time, the team was plus-27 and shot 45.4% from three. Individually, they both converted better than 55% from the corners and 43% of wide-open triples last season, elite numbers that provide floor spacing for Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic to thrive. Hood and Anthony are moderately reliable shot creators off the dribble as well.

Defensively, this combination struggles. Neither can defend bigger forwards at any level – last year, there wasn’t another option, but this year, one of Covington or Jones Jr. could help alleviate the pressure. For that reason, it’s difficult to support any wing combination that doesn’t include one of Jones Jr. or Covington.

Rodney Hood and Derrick Jones. Jr.

Like with Anthony and Jones Jr., this duo will be a field day for Nurkic on the short roll. Hood shot incredibly from the corner last year, and Jones Jr. ranked in the 82nd percentile on cuts. Hood is Portland’s best three-point shooter at the wing position, which makes him a logical pairing with Jones Jr., Portland’s worst three-point shooter at the wing position.

These two arguably pair better on the defensive end than Hood and Covington do because Jones Jr. flourishes as an on-ball defender and can guard bigger wings with his length and athleticism. That lightens Hood’s role and allows him to defend smaller wings, whom he’s more successful against.

After looking at the various wing combinations, here are my takeaways:

  • Hood and Covington or Covington and Jones Jr. should be starters, depending on how they mesh and who the opponent is.
  • One of Covington or Jones Jr. needs to join Anthony on the floor.
  • Wing duos that include Jones Jr. will benefit from Nurkic at center due to his passing abilities.

I decided not to include Collins or Giles in this exercise because the former is out until January and the latter likely won’t play minutes at the four. Additionally, I’m not sure either is ready for a sizable spot in the rotation amidst a roster as deep as Portland’s.